Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Response to Skeptico: Must Pay for GM Seeds?
At Skeptico's blog, he has a post: Must Pay for GM Seeds?
I read this post and despair at the smug confidence of nerds who probably never worked on a farm or studied agricultural economics.
Historically (and presently), farmers have been driven off the land, resulting in consolidation and eventual corporate ownership of farmland. There is a conflict between these pressures and the farmer's own ideas of the way they'd like to live and work. In most cultures, a farm represented sufficient resources and food security to raise a family, with surplus for markets. In the US, this was the basis of the Jeffersonian economic policy (which had the added benefit of omitting landlords.)
Forcing farmers off the land has been done directly (via enclosure acts) and indirectly by taxation and market pressures leading to foreclosure/bankruptcy. Farmers are forced to enter the market system to pay taxes. There, they must compete with other farmers in production of commodities. The prices of commodities are continually pushed downwards by increasing productivity of capital-intensive technology.
Farmers have always disliked this vise of economic pressure, and wished for freedom to simply farm and raise their families. Many years ago, they resented hybrid seed because it increased the pressures: if you didn't buy it, you couldn't survive at the now-lowered price of the commodity and you had to buy it year after year because it didn't come true from seed. That meant you had to finance the seed and its increased fertilizer, which made you more prone to bankruptcy in a bad year. The one good thing about hybrid seed was that there WAS competition, because the technology was developed and dispersed by state and federal research without patents. Indeed, when you look at Plant Patent law, it excludes patents on plants propagated by seed partly to keep seed prices low.
GM seed is generally patented. Most GM seed at this time is a monopoly: there's very little competition. And when you get a monopoly in a chain of production, generally the monopolistic link is able to profit at the expense of most of the other links by being a price maker. This means farmers make less profit, even as they are producing more. In addition, the greater investment for the seed, herbicide, and fertilizer for the crop makes farming even riskier. Corporations owning dispersed and varied farmlands can self-insure, but it is costly and difficult for small farmers. This tends to drive more land out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of agribusiness.
GM seed is only the latest of many technological pressures on farmers, but perhaps the most monopolistic pressure since the railroad shipping and grain elevator monopolies.
Now that I've given you a little background, let's look at Skeptico's statements again.
"Note the wording, farmers must pay for GM seeds year after year, rather than save seeds. Must. Apparently they have no choice. Which is funny, because I didn’t think that farmers were compelled to use GM seeds."
Yes, they are compelled by the stark choice of GM or bankruptcy. Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM. Unless their productivity can keep up, they will go bankrupt.
"But I’m willing to accept I might be missing something here, so please tell me exactly what I am missing – why would farmers continue to pay for GM seeds if doing so reduced their overall profits and/or increases their debt?"
Does that answer your question? Saving seeds would reduce their income because commodity prices drop. And debt (an investment) is not so much a problem as the uncertainty (risk) that a crop may fail and thus bankrupt the farmer. It's a racheting process that has been driving farmers off the land for more than a century in the US, and that is going on worldwide today.
So the farmer's opposition to GM seed comes partly from this latest of a long set of severe, inescapable pressures. They feel like they're in a nightmarish, involuntary game of musical chairs: every round, more farmers are driven out of their independent way of life. The solution would have to be a systemic solution, not just prohibition of GM seed. All the latter would do is buy some time. In Europe and Japan, they've adopted both systematic and anti-GM solutions to protect their farmers.
Destruction of crop genetic diversity is also a side effect of a capitalist system of industrialization of agriculture, and not specific to GM. GM is merely the latest competition with heirlooms, landraces and other reservoirs of genetic diversity.
The major problem that I perceive with GM is safety. Modern commodification of food conceals sources while ensuring widespread exposure. Remember the recent melamine contamination of pet food? That was traced quickly because it killed quickly. Say that some GM food had a thalidomide-like effect, that took close to a year to show? And that it was present in a widespread food such as soy or wheat? Or that it had an even slower to detect hormonal or carcinogenic effect? Do we really want to test GM foods on entire populations first? How costly would it be to expose the entire population to some unforseen harm that, say, caused improper development in children due to hormonal interference? How much testing should GM foods undergo before they are tested on the population at large? This question makes the European and Japanese anti-GM positions look much more reasonable.