GMO Seeds, the Green Revolution, and the Corporate Enclosure of Agriculture

The Straus Dairy near my town has gained a national reputation for innovation.  It was the nation’s first organic dairy West of the Mississippi.  It converts methane gas from bovine emissions into electricity.  Just a few weeks ago, Straus announced that it has been certified as GMO-Free, which means that it uses no crops grown from genetically engineered seeds.

The Point Reyes Light, our local weekly, reported on this development in a way that was straightforward and informative.  But the editor, who moved out here from New York and bought the paper about a year ago, took it upon himself to undercut the Straus family. He wrote a long editorial that contended that GMO crops not only are safe for humans and the habitat; more, they are necessary to feed a hungry world.


The Seed Gestapo and Third World Farmers

In my wife’s dialect of kari-ya, which is spoken on the island of Panay, in the Philippines, there is a word binhi, which refers to the grains of rice that are set aside and used as seeds in the next planting season.  There is a knack to choosing these.  You want plump grains with no blemishes. Every farmer knows how to do it, and usually their families too.

This is not a quaint Third World custom.  Seeds are independence, and survival. “When you have rice under the house,” my wife’s father says, “you do not have worries.”  When you have seeds, then you will have rice, given just a little cooperation from nature.   Those days might be numbered, though. The creep of “intellectual property” – which is the stalking horse for corporate control – into the fields of peasant farmers,  is making their independence a thing of the past, and has put their survival into question.


Free the Seeds

The U.S. military is in Iraq to fight for the freedom of the Iraqi people. That we all know. It is not the only thing they are fighting for. On some days, such as those that followed the bombings in London, the troops are there to fight terrorists, who conveniently have congregated in that country so that the U.S. might rid the world of them more easily. But basically, the U.S. is in Iraq to fight for freedom.

But of what does that freedom consist? What powers and choices will Iraqis enjoy that justify the shedding of so much of their blood? Who will decide what those are? A partial answer starts in an unlikely place — the California State Legislature. It suggests that freedom isn’t what it used to be, unless you are a global corporation bent on laying claim to the world’s remaining commons.


Those Lawyers

Lawyers occupy the top tier in the demonology of the Bush Administration, right next to taxes and Saddam Hussein. Lawyers are responsible for high medical costs, the shortages of flu vaccines, the travails of small businesses and the flight of U.S. jobs abroad. As representatives of “judicial process”, they even share the blame for the nation’s vulnerability to terrorists, according to a new Administration report.

But while the polemical brush is broad, the actual target is more specific. In actuality, the Administration doesn’t have a problem with most lawyers; some of the President’s closest advisers fall into that group. The lawyers he doesn’t like are the ones that represent ordinary people injured in some way by interests that give Republicans a great deal of money, such as medical doctors and major corporations. When the shoe is on the other foot — when those interests are suing ordinary people and using the “judicial process” to extort money from them and harass them to death — then it ‘s a different story.


The Blessings of Freedom

For those who questioned the sincerity of the Bush Administration in its professed desire to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, the administration offers more proof: Order 81. This order, one of a 100 left behind by Paul Bremer, former head of the occupation authority in Iraq, practically requires small farmers in Iraq to buy seeds from multinational corporations such as Monsanto.

Under the former tyranny, farmers were free to save seeds from each crop to plant the next. This has been the traditional practice for farmers throughout the world, from time immemorial. The Iraqi constitution actually prohibited the ownership of life forms — ie the genetic commons — much as US law used to do. Order 81 changes all that. Corporations will get monopoly rights over seeds that they develop. Farmers no longer will be able to save that seed from one year to the next. The way the law is written, moreover, their own indigenous varieties won’t qualify for this protection.