My grandfather, William R. Mullenger, spent his life as a farmer on 500 acres outside of Dennison, Iowa. He was dedicated to the stewardship of his farm and to the work of conserving the natural resources necessary for the preservation of farming as a way of life. I’ve written this column in his honor.
The Easter Season now is upon us, it’s a time to cheer as the forces of life overcome the power of death; and because St. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, compares the transformation of resurrection to the germination and sprouting of a seed that has been planted in the ground, the Easter Season seems an appropriate time to talk about the politics and ethics of seeds.
Seeds. For the last month I’ve been obsessing about seeds. It all comes from being a card-carrying member of the uber foodie international Slow Food movement, which seeks to promote the consumption of food that is locally and sustainably produced and that is joyfully prepared and consumed, preferably in the company of loved ones. Slow Food is working to preserve the diversity of taste and is committed to the well-being of the whole food chain from field to table. This is activism for the hedonistically inclined. It’s all me.
In the most recent edition of Slow, the quarterly journal of Slow Food, there is an article written by the Indian seed activist (it turns out there is such a thing—who knew?) Vandana Shiva, describing the deleterious effects of genetically modified seeds upon traditional farmers in India. The article surprised me.
I expected the article to be an alarmist, neo-Luddite harangue, lauding the virtues of heirloom seeds over and against Franken-food constructions concocted in sterile Midwestern labs. To be honest, I don’t know enough about farming or science to have much of an informed opinion about what I thought I was going to read, but the article wasn’t about the science of farming. It was about the economics of farming, and the greed of multinational corporations.
It turns out that genetically modified seeds are patented in such a way that it is illegal under international law for farmers who use genetically modified seed to set aside seed from one year’s harvest for planting in subsequent years. The seed companies take their patents very seriously. In one particularly troubling case Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian rapeseed (canola) farmer who employed the traditional method of setting aside part of his crop for the following year’s sowing, was sued by the agribusiness giant Monsanto when part of his conventionally seeded crop was pollinated by a neighbor’s genetically modified plants, leaving copyrighted DNA codes in some of Mr. Schmeiser’s harvest the following year. After an appeals process that reached Canada’s highest court and depleted Mr. Schmeiser’s life’s savings, the case ended in a stalemate that exonerated Mr. Schmeiser of wrongdoing, but that affirmed Monsanto’s ownership of plants bearing their patented genetic codes, even when the DNA is borne on the wind.
This is a problem I understand. Ever since humans have been cultivating crops (which is longer than some Evangelicals believe the earth has existed), farmers have set aside seeds for future planting. This practice is basic and necessary for the economic survival of small-scale farming and agrarian societies around the world, but to large multinational seed companies, the practice of saving seeds is viewed as a lost opportunity for revenue, so they’re working to change agrarian practices by finding ways to make farmers purchase fresh seed each year.
In India, according to Vandanda Shiva, the patenting of seeds has prevented farmers from participating in traditional free seed exchanges that have been a cornerstone of agrarian economics on the subcontinent for as long as anyone can remember (which, in India, is a long time). The closure of seed exchanges has caused huge numbers of Indian farmers to sink into unsustainable debt. Faced with inevitable foreclosures on farms that have been in their families since time began, some 100,000 farmers have committed suicide since genetically modified seeds were introduced to India.
This is a tragedy that is repeated all over the developing world, where agrarian and food aid from the United States usually comes in the form of genetically modified seed, and where GMO’s are promoted as being a solution without reference to the sinister economic implications of cultivating the patented seed.
It is time for people of good conscience to ask an important question: is this the kind of world we want? Certainly life is good when business thrives, but is the intellectual property of transnational corporations more worthy of our protection than is the economic wellbeing of small farmers and the agrarian communities they support? Of course not.
As this is both the Easter season and springtime, spiritually and naturally we are in the season that celebrates life. To join in the Eastertide celebration this year, and to honor the work of farmers I’ve decided to give a damn about seeds and the economic injustice being visited upon the people who for millennia have kept city dwellers like me well fed by saving seeds. A commitment to life demands no less.