Monday, June 8, 2009

A couple of thefts

The plants out at our community garden are starting to produce. Last night, I considered the three almost-ripe tomatoes in my patch and decided to let them ripen one more night before I picked them.

This morning they were gone. Somebody stole them from my garden, which is a crime in the State of Texas, punishable by a fine up to $250. Or so I'm told. You don't steal a man's tomatoes. It's just not right.

Tonight, I saw this piece in the New York Times about the new film Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. I've not seen it, but reportedly it's an extended discussion of the factory-farm, processed-food institutions we Americans have come to accept as normal even though they represent a curious capital/government "partnership" that is anything but.

It's a hugely complex issue, to be sure, and a movie trailer can only deliver sound bites at best. But the folks behind Food, Inc. do seem to have touched a nerve with some of their targets. Monsanto, for example, has added this to its Web site. The page represents an extended counter-ad to address the issues the film raises from the Big Ag point of view. Included is a nifty Flash quiz about Monsanto's practices and policies. I aced it. (Hint: all you have to do is choose the answer that makes the company look the best.)

Not having seen the film, I can't judge the merits of either side of the case. And yet this settled me back some: item number four on the Monsanto rebuttal quiz reads:
Every year Monsanto sues or threatens to sue hundreds of farmers for saving their own seed.
The statement is false, according to Monsanto. Monsanto is loath to sue anybody! When you select an answer, the company's Flash quiz offers up a small bit of elaboration:
Monsanto pursues legal action against farmers who improperly save and resell or replant our patented seed only when other efforts to resolve the issue prove unsuccessful. The first time growers purchase Monsanto seed, they sign a stewardship agreement and contract not to save and resell or replant seeds produced from the crops they grow from Monsanto seed.
On the face of it, at issue is their right to protect their intellectual property. Developing cultivars, either through hybridization or genetic engineering, is expensive, and they want to assert their rights as owners of those products. I mean if the guys buying their seeds don't like the set up, they can buy somewhere else, somebody else's seeds. They're selling seeds like Microsoft sells software, in a sense. Replanting seeds from last year's crop is theft of intellectual property, according to this line of reasoning. And that's stealing something worth far more than the three tomatoes I lost last night.

It's the word "stewardship" in their argument that rattled me. Stewardship of the land is part of the mission statement of our community garden. Stewardship connotes caring, working to make things right so you don't undermine what makes food production possible. Alongside "stewardship," words like "sustainable" and "renewable" show up in our stated intentions. I know farmers around here who are devoted stewards of the land in this sense of the word.

Monsanto uses the word in another sense. "Stewardship" in what I quoted above is a hypertext link that leads to this page:

Monsanto is committed to enhancing grower productivity and profitability as well as supporting product stewardship by bringing new seed technologies to market - patented technologies that provide licensed growers the use of new seed for one single commercial crop. This commitment requires shared responsibility between Monsanto and our licensed growers.

Features & Benefits

To take advantage of the benefits of biotech seed and preserve the technology for long-term use, growers must adopt a sound stewardship plan. Such a plan includes:

  • signing a Monsanto Technology Agreement

  • complying with all agronomic and marketing guidelines

  • agreeing to plant traited seed for only a single commercial crop

If you have questions about seed stewardship or become aware of growers using biotech traits in an unauthorized manner, please call [phone number redacted]. Letters to report similar unauthorized action may be sent to:

Monsanto Trait Stewardship
[address redacted]
By introducing the capitalist concept of "product stewardship" and the corporatist concept of "trait stewardship" into the discourse of food policy, Monsanto has attempted another sort of theft, an egregious theft from our language. Our garden's humble admission that we must work within what is possible in our relation to the land, to make it fruitful while admitting that we must conform to the ways of plants and rainfall and soil and blight and bugs, is miles and miles from the protection of a product. Big Ag's request that farmers inform on one another only ices the cake.

Last night somebody stole some tomatoes from me. A bigger theft is underway.

1 comment:

Morse said...

They shoot tomato thieves, don't they.