Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence

You know what I envy most about the Right? They’re holistic.

I know that sounds crazy. Conservatives are individualists, liberals are the ones who understand that everything is connected. And yet … liberals get involved in labor issues (if they belong to a union), education (if they have children), race and gender (if they’re black or female), and so on. Otherwise, life is short and energy is finite. We can’t all be into everything.

But conservatives happily take on a wide range of issues, because they’ve got an ideology that pulls it all together.

This week there was a news story about rootworms in corn fields in Iowa. Probably you’re not an Iowan, a corn-farmer, or a rootworm, so your eyes are glazing over. But bear with me. Everything is connected.

Bt and Monsanto. The rootworms are newsworthy because they’re not supposed to be there. The fields were planted with a corn seed that Monsanto genetically modified to kill rootworms. It contains a gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring insect-killing bacteria. Apparently the Iowa fields have evolved a rootworm resistant to Bt, or at least to this particular expression of Bt.

That’s bad — and not just for Monsanto.

This possibility was considered when the Monsanto corn was approved by the EPA in 2003. The remedy was for farmers to plant 20% of their fields with non-Bt corn. Basically, you want to prevent insects with low-level resistance from mating with each other and producing high-level resistance. The 20% “refuge” area keeps non-resistant rootworms in the evolutionary picture, so that the species as a whole doesn’t become resistant.

Now it looks like 20% wasn’t enough. That’s what independent scientists told the EPA in 2003. They wanted 50% non-Bt corn, but Monsanto lobbied the EPA down to 20%. Now it looks like their lobbying screwed up their own product.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 1. Smart government regulations aren’t job-killing or money-wasting. Corporations are short-sighted. In the long run everybody — even industry — does better if government doesn’t let industry do whatever it wants.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who buy its seed. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have saved some of their crop to plant the following year. Since the dawn of the seed industry that has been a problem, because seed companies always want to sell farmers new seed.

So the 20th-century seed industry developed high-yielding hybrids that were either sterile or would regress in subsequent generations. You could save your seed, but if you wanted the 100-bushel-an-acre corn, you had to buy new.

When it couldn’t figure out how to make that tactic work for genetically modified seeds, Monsanto changed its retailing model to be more like Microsoft’s. Like Windows 7 DVDs, Monsanto’s seeds are just media. What farmers are really buying is a one-year license to use the patented genetic information in the seed. Farmers who replant the descendants of their purchased seeds risk being bankrupted by Monsanto’s patent-infringement lawsuits.

A lot of law had to be changed or re-interpreted to make this scheme work. For one thing, the whole idea that naturally occurring genes can be patented is not obvious, and may even be a little bizarre. Property law could just as easily have settled out the way that seemed like common sense to one unintentional patent-infringer: “I assumed that after I paid the tech fee [the seeds] were mine.”

Everything-is-connected Lesson 2. Conservatives talk about property rights as if they had been sacrosanct since God evicted his tenants from Eden. But in the real world property is whatever corporations want it to be. If centuries-old notions of property get in the way of corporate profits, the rules will be changed.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 3. The term judicial activism is hardly ever applied to cases that expand corporate rights. But patenting life-forms stems from Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), where it is the liberal dissent of Justice Brennan that invokes judicial restraint: “We must be careful to extend patent protection no further than Congress has provided.” He lost.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who don’t buy its seed. Some farmers who never bought Monsanto seed are growing patented plants because birds drop seeds on their property or pollen blows in from a neighbor’s field. Other farmers who stopped using Monsanto seed nonetheless see “volunteer” seeds from last year’s crop sprout in their fields.

Occasionally such a farmer loses a patent infringement suit. And no one knows how many innocent farmers — less determined than this family profiled by CBS — just pay up when confronted with evidence of patented plants in their fields and the threat of Monsanto’s expensive legal team. (Sixty different organic-farming organizations have preemptively filed suit against Monsanto to avoid being sued later for inadvertent patent infringement.)

Farmers who hope to export to countries that ban genetically modified crops are harmed if the wind blows Monsanto pollen onto their fields. But Monsanto’s licensing agreement puts this responsibility on the farmer who plants its seeds. So you can sue your neighbor, but not Monsanto.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 4. Corporatist political rhetoric often emphasizes freedom and responsibility. But it’s all one-way. The corporation has the freedom and you have the responsibility.

Organic insect control and the genetic commons. Being a naturally occurring bacterium, Bt is one of the few insect-control treatments available to organic farmers. They typically use it sparingly. Their first line of defense against insects is to rotate crops (as all farmers used to do). That way, eggs of corn-eating insects will hatch in a field of soybeans, and vice versa. When organic farmers use Bt, it is applied only to the insect-infested field, and it soon washes away.

Monsanto’s Bt seeds, by contrast, expose the entire field, all season long. And one of the seed’s touted advantages is that you don’t have to rotate. The Iowa fields where resistance developed had been planted in corn for many years in a row.

So, used as directed, Monsanto’s seeds are breeding Bt-resistant rootworms. (It’s not clear yet if the Iowa worms are universally Bt-resistant or just resistant to the particular protein Monsanto engineered its seeds to produce. In any case, they are a step in the direction of Bt-resistant rootworms.)

Once they exist, these rootworms are unlikely to respect property lines. They’ll be a problem for everybody, including the organic farms. So Monsanto has profited by using up a common resource that could have lasted for centuries otherwise.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 5. By their insatiable nature, corporations make all tragedy-of-the-commons problems much, much worse. Antibiotic-resistant disease is a similar story, as the meat industry uses massive quantities of antibiotics without concern for the consequences. Ditto for air quality, water rights, and any other common asset that a corporation can profit from. If there’s a horse in the common stable, a corporation will ride it to death.

How do we connect everything? Urban or suburban liberals may find such farm-based issues uninteresting, but conservatives of all stripes jump into opposition if anyone tries to fix the problem. Why? Because government is evil and industry is good. It’s that simple to them.

If liberals are going to unite efficiently, we need to develop a few reality-based but easy-to-apply lenses of our own, so that we have a common view of many diverse situations.

I propose this one: Corporate rights are driving out human rights.

Even if an issue seems to have nothing to do with you, check whether this lens brings it into focus. Because the battle for dominance between corporations and humans is everybody’s battle, and we need to fight it on all fronts.

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  • Margaret Levine Young  On September 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Best signature line yet!

  • Kim Cooper  On September 11, 2011 at 5:26 am

    I, for one, am finding it annoying that this program counts a Trackback as a comment. My computer is old and slow, and it’s a waste of time to click on comments, expecting to see an intelligent comment and find nothing but a Trackback. Just saying…..


  • By Strategies « The Weekly Sift on September 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

    […] Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence. Liberals like to use the word holistic, but conservatives are the ones whose ideology connects everything. Why a down-on-the-farm issue like Bt-resistant rootworms has larger lessons to teach. […]

  • By Turn the Crank « The Weekly Sift on September 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    […] up to 18,000 views, and One Word Turns the Tea Party Around (8000). But though last week’s Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence (231) and Blowing Smoke About Clouds (165) posted much more modest numbers, both did well when […]

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