January 26th, 2017
Keeping the Source Open
Now that citizens of the United States live in what some cynics (or would that be realists?) describe as a kleptocracy, it’s useful to reflect on just who owns just what. A lovely and lucid piece by Rachel Cernansky at Ensia details what is called the Open Source Seed Initiative, and it’s well worth reading if you’re interested in, say, food.
The short version is that large seed companies (think Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and so on) have taken to filling the spare hours of their armies of lawyers by having them file patents for specific “traits” of various food crops. What comprises a trait? Well, not terribly much, actually. The color or a shape of a leaf will do, and then the portion of the plant genetics attached to that trait becomes intellectual property.
It’s a parallel to the way the same biotech companies used GMOs; the modified plants were protected intellectual property, which meant that farmers had to effectively “rent” the seeds year by year, while at the same time getting locked into the use of specific herbicides which were also made by the same companies. This was sold to the farmers as a way to boost “productivity,” but the GMO factories were so busy tinkering with the building blocks of life that they lost sight of how life works out in the field when it’s living.
In a word, life adapts, and when the seeds you’re planting come with instructions to repeatedly douse them in powerful toxins derived from Agent Orange, it’s adapt or die for the local weeds. No prizes for guessing which path the weeds chose. The result is that farmers got a new term of art — “superweed” — and were forced, particularly in the cotton fields of the south, to simply abandon thousands upon thousands of acres because the full arsenal of chemical, mechanical and even manual weed control has been completely defeated by the only superior plant to emerge from Monsanto’s efforts, pigweed.
So, back to patenting “traits.” Before big biotech became big biotech, they were plant breeding operations, using that laughably outdated mechanism — sex — to shuffle genetics. They’re still in that game, but the GMO wars had left them thoroughly lawyered up and as we all know, idle lawyers are the devil’s plaything. The net effect of this that big biotech is creating an ever-expanding pool of protected genetics and since it’s difficult to grow only the parts of a plant that aren’t protected, it means that entire sections of crop genome are walled off to anyone but the patent holder.
Greedy? D’accord. But the thing that gets me is how this ranks as a truly jaw-dropping act of hubris. The reason is that our food crops did not just arrive on earth along with the diamonds and oil and fish as something god thoughtfully left for us in the candy dish. No, our lettuce, apples, rice and every last other thing is the result of a generation upon generation of people having that moment when they think, “hmm… I like this one better.”
The foods we grow to eat are the result of selection, but not entirely natural selection. The farmer almost cannot help noticing that this particular plant produced more, that one had a nicer taste, another repelled pests. If there’s more than a single instance of a plant in the garden, then one of them is going to be, ever so slightly, more desirable in the eye of the planter and so — in the way that’s it been ever since humans began planting their own food — one will be chosen over another when it comes time to save seeds for planting next season. This is the process that makes species flower into “varieties,” the same thing but with different attributes.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring version of this took place starting 9,000 years ago in the southerly reaches of Mexico, where indigenous farmers noticed a kind of grass which produced — one to a plant — a seed cob about an inch long. By the time they were done selecting the good ones, they’d transformed teosintes into what Americans would call “corn” and the rest of the world “maize.”
It’s the same story, albeit less dramatic, for every crop grown for food and fiber; centuries of generations of growers, one following the other, each doing their small and essential part to create the astonishing diversity of food that we can now grow. This, the largest commons the world has known aside from the sea and the sky, is what is now being stolen when an agribusiness firm patents a “trait.” The logic behind it is no different than patenting the notion of pants because you dyed them a different color.
In ordinary times, the issue would just be one of fairness, greed and which ring of hell will win the lottery for the perpetrator’s soul. But these are not ordinary times. The breathtaking genetic diversity of foodstuffs that we once had is largely gone. The industrialization and consolidation of food in the twentieth century means that that diversity has been radically winnowed, because only a relative few varieties fit the requirements of mass production, long distance shipping and standardization. Our food got cheaper and more abundant, and also less nutritious and, what’s key, with fewer genetic resources.
The rapidly spinning climate of the twenty-first century will need maximum genetic diversity because many of the varieties that we are most dependent upon are also the most rigid and unadaptible. The key to finding their successors will come not from the lab, but from the same process that has brought us this far, the dance between human sensibility and nature’s relentless shuffling of the genetic cards.
The founders and breeders of the Open Source Seed Initiative know this, and so they are fighting back with a kind of agricultural judo, creating their own varieties and permanently placing that genetic diversity in the hands of everyone, back into the commons from which it came.
To those of us (like myself) whose gifts in the garden are limited to appreciation, this can still seem rather abstract and more than a little arcane. But OSSI’s list of seeds provides a window into the process and what it means to be a plant breeder outside of those working inside the airless confines of agribusiness. By all means, take a peek for yourself, but until then, here’s a taste, from David Podoll’s description of his Dakota Bumble Bean:
The bumblebee did it! Transferring pollen, perpetrating a cross with Jacob’s Cattle bean, a bumblebee gifted us with a happy anomaly! After a few years of planting, observing and enjoying this gift, we decided we should share it with you and give credit where credit is due!
OSSI has literally hundreds of varieties, and if you skip through a few of them, you’ll find that each has a story, where the eye of the breeder meets the ever-changing nature of nature. There are glimpses of a process that is alternately rueful and funny, frustrating and satisfying and a dozen other things which make me understand that, though I’ll never be a plant breeder, I know what this is like. It’s just like life among the humans, and in that, there’s a little fable for us to parse.