This topic has been perculating in my mind ever since Monsanto was heavily criticized as being “evil” for attempting to donate a large amount of seeds to Haiti after their earthquake disaster. Once you get rid of the rhetoric on both sides, one core issue emerged for me. Is it helpful to the people of Haiti that they be provided advanced seed technology, or are they better off in the long term developing their own? That is a very legitimate question, and it’s one I’ve pondered for some time. This morning, I was reading an article by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones magazine asking similar questions about the Gaza strip and I wanted to share the conclusions I’ve come to and factors I consider critical.
1) Trade is a good thing. Since the beginning of human civilization (even back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel) we have traded the excess of what we have for what we need. Fundamentally it is the pillar upon which an economy is built and we simply use money to manage the process. In today’s global economy poor countries trade cheap and abundant labor for some income, and we benefit by low-priced goods and services of all kinds. To me seed is no different than any other technology, it’s a highly specialized business today, and it would be expected that it would be traded at a global level the same way most everything else is.
2) In the article I mentioned there is this quote:
But it’s entirely consistent with the emerging consensus among development experts that low-input, locally adapted appropriate technologies, not expensive high-tech solutions from the likes of Monsanto, are key to feeding ourselves amid population grown and resource depletion.
That quote intrigues me because it sounds so absolute, so definite. And it’s so different from the world I live in. When I read that this morning, I was reminded of the time about 15 years ago we tried some “open-pollinated” seed corn, planned to harvest the whole plant as silage for cattle feed, rather than just the grain. There was a lot of stuff there, it fell over, was generally just a nightmare to harvest, and we never tried the experiment again. Even today, all around my house I see test plots with lots of seed genetics being evaluated. I don’t even know all the various technologies in those seeds, I will know about how they performed and will use that information to make decisions on the seed I purchase for next year’s crop. My family has done that for decades on our farm, we seem to plant a lot of “hi-tech solutions” each year. The disconnect that this is a poor choice in other parts of the world is hard to understand. All farmers I know are always looking to improve their farms in ways that benefits them and their families. I expect that desire crosses cultures.
3) The third thought that crosses my mind in this discussion… What if the big seed companies do reach the point of dominating our industry, controlling what we plant, because there are no other seeds? Hopefully I won’t lose to much credibility with some when I say I have a legitimate concern there. I also have an answer: “Seed Vaults: one example” This is fairly new for me, but I see a LOT of value here. It appears public and private interests are already actively preserving heirloom seeds as well as many others. Those efforts can and should be supported. The reality is that any commercial seed company is in business to generate a return to the owners of the business. That is their purpose, and one I have no problem with. It is the same purpose of my farm. But in our modern world, that means unlike for the last thousands of years, seed does not come from the previous crop. That is a good thing, and has allowed us to grow the most affordable and abundant food supply in the world. But combined with the ever expanding global population, seed vaults and the preservation of seed makes perfect sense. I also think that if I was managing research at a major seed company, I’d want to provide commercial options that incorporate the best conventional genetics as well as biotechnology — that has really been a part of making seed products work on my farm and Monsanto, Pioneer and others have extensive breeding programs to that end.
4) What would the farmers themselves have to say? I understand that they don’t necessarily have blogs and all, but for me, the people on the ground, facing the hard facts — whether it is the devastating hurricane in Haiti or the political turmoil and drought in the Gaza Strip — they are the experts. I’ve had “experts” say things about farms like mine that are absolutely untrue and its in large part why I feel I need to set the record straight here.
Finally, I think it is ridiculous bordering on hypocrisy to not allow third world countries access to the same or similar seed technology we do if they so choose. I would love to see systems compared and the rural population given choices on what they intend to do. I’d like to know that there are efforts in place to help farmers in these poverty-stricken areas access technology that may be invaluable to the farmers there even if I have no need for it. I don’t know that it would matter whether those programs are public or private, I happen to appreciate all efforts that result in advances for my farm. And I support seed vaults, and all research that aims to help us grow in a more sustainable way, from organic to biotech.