Sunday, February 24, 2013

mmmm...Monsanto Makes Me Mad

mmmm... that's what we say when a nice plate of food is before us, and more often than not these days, that food has been genetically modified - so that there can be more to go around, they say. And chances are, that food has been genetically modified by Monsanto.

Here's the problem: A case - Bowman v. Monsanto Company -  is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the court must decide whether Farmer Bowman was wrong to have saved and re-used soybean seeds. Seeds that Monsanto had engineered to be resistant to the Round-up herbicide (also made by Monsanto). This is what Farmer Bowman did: he bought the soybean seeds from an aftermarket grain elevator, not from Monsanto. But then he planted the variety, sprayed the crop with the herbicide and saved the ones that were left standing for planting later. Monsanto requires that farmers who buy this seed also sign a contract saying that they can't save any harvested seeds for replanting, buying their next season's seed only from Monsanto. The company is arguing that the farmer infringed their intellectual property ownership rights in sowing, harvesting and replanting seeds that contained their weedkiller resistant formula. The farmer is arguing that in turning it's unsold seeds over to the grain elevator for sale as feed, Monsanto had abandoned its claim to the seeds' properties.

Let's think how agriculture got started in the first place: after the Ice Age, humans in the Middle East began harvesting wild wheat - but did not know how to plant it. That they left to mother nature, which blew the unharvested seeds to new ground for the next season. In time, naturally, there came about a genetic mutation between wild wheat and a goat grass variety that engineered a new, bread wheat plant whose seeds did not scatter in the wind. As Jacob  Bronowski put it "the bread wheats can only multiply with help; man must harvest the ears and scatter the seeds; and the lives of each, man and the plant, depends on the other. It is a true fairy tale of genetics, as if the coming of civilization had been blessed in advance.." Like Farmer Bowman. Thus was agriculture born and with it such giants as Monsanto - a fact that it, and the learned justices might do well to remember. Especially Justice Breyer, who managed to cast aspersions not only on the mental health of the farmer, but in the same breath, on mental illness in general.

When the farmer's lawyer responded to the justices' questions about intellectual property protection with a suggestion that Contract, not Patent Law, should protect the intellectual property, Justice Elena Kagan remarked "all that has to happen is that one seed escapes the web of these contracts, and that seed, because it can self-replicate in the way that it can, essentially makes all the contracts worthless."

And here a term appears that is heard repeatedly in the arguments by Monsanto, (which is favoured by the US Administration): self-replicate. Since when do soybean seed's self replicate entirely on their own? Since when does any seed self-replicate unassisted? They all need the miracle of life, growth and replication provided by Mother Nature. Monsanto may own its patents to weedkiller and anti-weedkiller formulas, but it will never own the miracle of life. The justices, Monsanto's supporters and even the administration seem to fear that a victory for the farmer would be the end of free enterprise as we know it. Fear not good judges - it might be the end of companies like Monsanto fraudulently claiming that they have appropriated the miracle of life. They own the miracle of life as much as Mr. Ponzi owned the miracle of financial growth.

So back off, Monsanto. And please, don't give Mother Nature another reason to punish us earthlings.


Jacob Bronowski, Ascent of Man, BBC, London, 1973, pp. 65-69.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Obama, now you're talking!

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior, and carbon emissions," Obama said at a news conference on 14 November 2012, shortly after he was re-elected (without mentioning climate change in the campaign debates), adding "and as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it." In his victory speech on November 7, he had said "We want our children to live in an America ... that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."  In the State of the union address, he drew attention to his powers of Executive Order, to act if Congress can not.

So I take back what I said about President AWOL. Actually I borrowed it from The Worldwatch Institute

But there is much that can be done even without executive orders. Apparently the United States can achieve emissions reductions using current law, flexing the muscles of the Clean Air Act and the Ozone Protocol. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has published a playbook (yes, with a silver lining) that explains what can, and must be done to bring harmful emissions under control. The main points are:

The greatest projected emissions reduction opportunities by 2020 and beyond come from four federal policy measures. The Administration will need to pursue these opportunities if the United States is to achieve the 17 percent reduction target. Those policies are:
  • standards to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants (48 percent of total emissions gap between business-as-usual (BAU) and 2020 target);
  • requirements to phase out the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) (23 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target);
  • standards to reduce methane emissions from natural gas systems (11 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target);7 and
  • actions to improve energy efficiency in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors (8 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target).
Download the summary from WRI

There is also a fascinating discussion at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on the implications for Canada of Obama's new U.S. climate-change measures. 

This site is a companion site to The progress trap and how to avoid it, which is a companion site to the book Escaping the progress trap