Free the Seeds


July 12, 2005


Browse in Agriculture

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.

Over the past few years, several counties in California have exercised their freedom of self-determination by banning the growing of genetically-modified crops. These bans are based on numerous grounds, not least the threat to the organic farming that has been flourishing in these counties. Organic farms provide multiple benefits: healthful foods, decent incomes for family-scale farms, clean habitat, and the preservation of a landscape for which the word “beautiful” is inadequate.

It’s the kind of farming and landscape that people here want, so they voted for it, by a healthy margin. In Marin County the margin was 61%. Local elections such as this are closest to the kind of democracy Jefferson envisioned. One suspects Jefferson, with his distrust of concentrated economic power, would have supported the results as well. (Two counties voted against the bans, after campaigns in which agribusiness weighed in heavily.)

Now comes the biotech industry, which is about as Jeffersonian as Governor Schwarzenegger’s fleet of Hummers. As the state legislative session winds down, the industry has been working furiously to attach riders to important bills that would nullify the local GMO bans and the democratic process that produced them. In Sacramento this is called “hijacking” a bill, and the term is apt. “It’s typical of the way the biotech industry has attempted to market their technology by avoiding public debate,” the owner of a natural foods market told the Marin Independent Journal.

One way to avoid public debate is to co-opt it, and that’s what the industry has done with the creation of something called the California Healthy Foods Coalition. It sounds like a coalition of natural foods stores, which is what the founders intended. In reality it’s a front group created by — well, you guess — to “educate” the public on the benefits of biotech. The Coalition has hired a PR firm by the name of River City Communications to help this education process, and here’s what River City’s President, Marko Milkotin, said:

“California’s family farmers serve an important role in providing safe and healthy food to consumers around the world.”

Biotech is really about mom and pop farms, he said, the ones who are being wiped out by the factory farming of which biotech is becoming a central part. Mr. Milkotin, the Independent-Journal failed to note, works for both the California Restaurant Association and the California Farm Bureau Association. In the latter capacity he ran the campaigns that defeated the anti-GMO measures in the two counties in which they lost. The Farm Bureau is the main voice of agribusiness, including not just corporate factory farms but also the chemical and biotech industries that exist in symbiosis with them.

What does this have to do with freedom in Iraq? For that we need to go back to June of last year, when L. Paul Bremer, the “provisional president” of that country, was turning over power to the new “sovereign authority.” The turnover of authority included a curious feature — namely, a list of some 100 orders that would constitute part of the basic law under which the new government would operate. Bremer didn’t say, “Here, you make your own decisions.” He said, by fiat, “Here, you do as we say.”

The list included Order 81, which dealt with genetically modified seeds. It decreed that “[f]armers shall be prohibited from reusing seeds of protected varieties.” In other words the order imbedded the U.S. intellectual property regime into the law of Iraq. Henceforth Iraqi farmers will be barred from saving seeds from one harvest to plant in the next, if those seeds have been patented by a corporation such as Monsanto. Instead they will have to buy the seeds anew, year after year, at considerable expense.

The provision doesn’t actually require Iraqi farmers to buy these seeds. But it lays the groundwork for a kind of property police state that results once these seeds hit the market. In the U.S., Monsanto has brought at least a hundred lawsuits against farmers for violation of its seed patents. In many of these cases the farmer never planted the seeds or even knew they were in his fields. Instead the seeds blew over from another farmer’s fields, or fell off a truck, or something.

In many other cases a seed dealer forged the farmer’s name on a “technology agreement”. These agreements aren’t really “meetings of the mind”, in the law school sense, to begin with. They are like the agreement that you have to click before you can open your new Microsoft software. You have to use the software. What choice do you really have?

But none of this makes any difference. Monsanto can sue the farmers anyway, and does. It has a staff of some 75 people who snoop through farmers’ fields, spy on them, and seek to humiliate them before their neighbors. “Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell,” a North Dakota farmer by the name of Tom Wiley said. (See Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, The Center for Food Safety, 2005)

That’s freedom for you — the kind that Mr. Milkotin, the Farm Bureau flak, says is helping the nation’s family farmers, and the kind that President Bush is exporting to Iraq.

The practice of saving seeds from harvest to plant the next year’s crop is practically as old as agriculture itself. It is a vehicle of local wisdom and cultural tradition. In my wife’s Filipino dialect of Kari-ya, which is spoken in a part of the island of Panay, there is a word for the best seeds that are selected out for planting — binhi. I am sure that equivalents exist in dialects throughout the world, Iraq included. Local dialects are a form of independence, as are the seeds themselves. Independence and yes, freedom. So long as a farmer has seeds from harvest, he or she can plant the next crop. They don’t need corporations, anyone. There will be food to eat; and as my wife’s father says, “If you have rice under the house you do not have worries.”

One would think that the citizens of Iraq are capable of deciding whether they want to continue to enjoy that freedom — a Jeffersonian freedom if ever there was one. There has been much speechifying from politicians in Washington concerning the Iraqis’ precious right to make such decisions, in contrast to the way things were under Saddam. But the U.S. occupation decided that the Iraqi’s couldn’t be trusted.

Just as citizens in California can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. And just as voters in cities across the country can’t be trusted to decide whether they want municipal WiFi networks to establish access commons for the information age. The parallel is not coincidental. The corporate property state is closing in fast. What was that the lady said? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” ?