Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Open-Source Eating

Shouldn't food be open source?

A few weeks ago, Andrew Leonard, in his Salon-based blog How the World Works, sensed that "Malthus is in the air," writing that rising food prices are, among other things, encouraging folks to rethink their opposition of genetically-modified foods:
Biotech proponents see genetically modified crops as one more weapon in the arsenal of technological productivity enhancers that will enable humanity to continue slipping out of the tightening noose formed by a burgeoning population rapaciously exhausting finite resources. Biotech opponents variously see genetically modified organisms as a crime against nature, a Pandora's Box of ecological catastrophe waiting to happen, and fundamentally dependent on a petroleum-based infrastructure that itself is not sustainable. The tension at play here -- will science save us, or destroy us? -- is an ever-popular theme at How the World Works. The surge in food (and oil) prices is suggesting that a showdown between the opposing camps is far more imminent than might have been suspected, even just a year ago.
The post, in general, is a good one (as much of Leonard's stuff is), but something about the above paragraph struck a sour note. It's that summary of the issues concerning "biotech opponents." They're not represented as particularly enlightened objections; in fact, they're religious. And this seems to be the standard representation -- if not the standard understanding -- of opponents of genetic modifications of foods.

So if it's not for some fear that fish-gene tomatoes are going to result in catastrophic, planetary retribution, what's the problem with the fact that the Bush administration will only give food aid if the recipients are willing to take GMOs along with it? (Even the article linked here, from the Washington Post, reduces the claims of biotech opponents to fears of allergies and environmental issues) The problem is that GMOs are intellectual private property. Though Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland want you to believe that, after decades of poisoning poor Americans (demonstrably the case for the former), they suddenly give a shit about feeding poor people elsewhere? Does anyone believe them?

Have a look at this month's Vanity Fair story on Monsanto, "Harvest of Fear." It's a good piece, a look at Monsanto's approach to "protecting" its intellectual property -- its phalanx of investigators and lawyers threatening farmers (and some non-farmers) who they suspect of planting their GMO seeds without paying for them. This is food-as-intellectual-property, and it scares the hell out of me. We don't need more of this, in more parts of the world.

Seeds should be open-source. I don't care so much about creating weird slimy monsters who will eat our children's brains. I care about shrinking common knowledge of agriculture, about the aggressive concentration of that knowledge into fewer and fewer hands. I don't think I'm alone in that, so why is it that folks opposed to biotech are always cast in the same mob-with-pitchforks light?


jenhargis said...

Wow. This is a viewpoint I had not considered. I already think that car manufacturers make their engines and other car innards in a strange way so that you will have to take them to a dealer to be serviced, so the idea that they might monopolize food production through all of this is easy for me to take on.

I was already opposed to genetically modified foods, and I am appalled by the story about the Monsanto corporation is extorting people. I have my own problems with ADM, strongarming their way into everyone's kitchens by paying presidential candidates of both parties millions of dollars, thus assuring political support. Also, they insist that soy of all forms is good for you, when it is not. It has to be properly processed and most food manufacturers do not do so. The food industry disguises soy-based fillers with names like "natural flavoring", etc. and they are making millions of people sick.

Scandalous, I tell you.

barba de chiva said...

Few things irritate me like opening a hood and finding an engine obscured by a landscape of smooth plastic, secured by some weird, quasi-proprietary bolts.

But then auto manufacturers will explain that this is in order that we don't muck up the carefully-designed emissions controls under the hood . . .

Anonymous said...

This is a very provocative point. I see an opening for a very interesting discussion about open source grades and standards for genetically modified organisms that can echo the moral economy debate of a fair price for grain outlined in E.P. Thompson. We must discuss this at length.

MT said...

You can't mean "open-source" about the genetic sequences, which by law are published, if they're patented, and anyway are reverse engineer-able. Regarding them you mean "free" in every sense of the word. Maybe you mean you want plant breeders to work openly and in collaboration like the open-source community of coders that gave us Linux and other software? Something like that is going on with rice at institutes around the world as a Borlaug legacy (with the Rockefellers?), I think. I think you're also getting at the issue of copy protection, which has been engineered into some GMO seeds, yet according to the accusations you quote hasn't all together prevented what the patent owners are calling piracy. But before there was genetically engineered copy protection, there was the copy protection inherent in sterile, high-yielding hybrids, whose recipes (which strains to cross how many times with which) were super-duper closely held commercial assets, subject to piles of private R&D and even espionage. Plant and animal patenting is a lot older than DNA technology. Anyway, it is a Nobel prize-worthy issue.

barba de chiva said...

You're right, MT -- the patent information is open and technically reverse-engineering is possible. So maybe the analogy is a kinda weak one. But though the information may (relatively) available, production is pretty well specialized, no? These folks no longer need the kind of copy protection they managed with sterile hybrids. Instead, they're relying on our current commitment to the concept of copyright to threaten farmers. What's worse is, in fact, the very fecundity of their seeds -- that GMO strains are showing up miles from where they're planted only means more settlements for Monsanto.

In the end, I like a lot better the Borlaug model, whatever its other drawbacks -- it situates advances of agricultural knowledge in public universities, where it becomes part of our cultural commons, instead of on a private computer someplace. (It's the same theme I was trying to get to in that post about the rocket parts (http://phronesisaical.blogspot.com/2007/12/reinventing-stainless-steel-liquid.html)).
However natural it feels to most Americans that the market should always drive research -- even when it comes to the most basic things we're eating -- that attitude means that we lose the common knowledge that is coaxed in other ways . . .