Simple question: who owns the seed from which our food and fibre for our clothes grow? The farmers, or the multinationals like Monsanto who supply millions of tonnes of stock to the agricultural areas of the world? It used to be simple. Farmers would not just harvest crops, they'd also harvest the seed from which they could grow next year's crops. A sturdy, self-replicating cycle.
That cycle has changed as agribusiness has flourished. These huge multinationals supply seed with increased yield and tolerance to drought and pests, meaning more crops, and more money for everyone. Right?
Hmmm. As we're seeing in India and other places where subsistance farming has been merrily been shunted aside in favour of this new world view, the transition hasn't been painless. The GM seed that's been supplied by agribusiness is sterile, meaning there's no way for farmers to save seed: they have to buy more next year. They're also more reliant on the chemicals agribusiness supply to help the seed flourish: not just pesticides and weed-killers, but special nutrient blends and fertilisers. All of which costs money. Farmers have to take out loans to afford the stocks of seed and chemicals.
If, god forbid, drought happens and all that money is thrown onto dried-up mud, then farmers end up in debt to their eyeballs and with no way out of the spiral. Well, there's one. The huge spike in farmer suicides in India can, to a certain extent, be explained by this shift in the way modern farming is carried out.
I'm not as down on GM crops as you might think. Imagine a cotton crop that needed less water and fertiliser to grow effectively, or a modified nettle or hemp plant that could take its place. Modified crops could turn a lot of the concerns about agribusiness around. But it will be tricky to grow, and likely dependent on exotic pesticides and nutrients.
In the areas where agribusiness is most heavily pushing their products, in developing nations like India, China and Brazil, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find seed that isn't copyrighted and good for one season only. In the short term, of course, it's good business sense--build a customer base and make sure they keep coming back. But in the medium to long term, it doesn't address issues of climate change or how that impacts the land on which that seed is supposed to grow.
The United Nations has come up with a plan it calls The Green Economy, which aims to break the deadlock between business and the environment. It starts from the point where the land is viewed as "natural capital", a resource that needs careful management rather than flat-out exploitation. It lays out a few simple rules whereby the economy co-exists with the environment, and the best interests of all sectors including agriculture, forestry and fisheries, are provided for without using up the natural capital. It will require a major rethink on current practices, but the status quo is no longer sustainable. We need to figure out whether seed ownership is an agribusiness resource, or a basic human right.
For more, I recommend a look at Leisl Truscott's piece for Textile Exchange, which includes links to the full UN report on the Green Economy.