Gary at Muck and Mystery usually scores points off me because I am too quick to rush into print and haven’t thought things through. And often he’s correct. But his most recent sally is off the mark. I’m not sure whether he is bashing me or the authors of the paper. Probably a bit of both, but I am going to take it on myself to reply.

Over at the other place I had written up an academic paper on a participatory plant breeding effort by cauliflower and cabbage farmers in Brittany. The farmers happen to be organic, and they decided that the seed industry's efforts did not suit them and that they wanted their own varieties, developed to suit their growing conditions and their marketing methods.

He pours scorn on the reasons organic growers want their own seed. I had written:

They want seed breeders to respect both “the natural characteristics of species” and the “integrity of the organism”. The F1 hybrids, which require a form of male sterility developed by fusing two different types of cell, do neither. But conventional seed breeders do not find it worthwhile to develop varieties for organic farmers, a small market that actively seeks diversity and autonomy from the seed companies.

To which Gary replied

There are no “natural characteristics” of domesticated foods. They are, by definition, unnatural. The most that can be said is that the alteration of the “natural characteristics” was done using pre-industrial methods. Similarly, whatever integrity such organisms can be said to have are human constructs and have no objective worth. It’s tradition, which has value to some, but not more.

As it happens, I am completely in agreement with this. Organic growers are a mess of contradictions in all sorts of ways. They like soft soap, which is made in a factory and kills all insects, but they don’t like carbamate insecticide, which is made in a factory and kills only aphids. Soft soap isn’t totally pre-industrial, but it is ancient rather than modern. They’re happy to be a little bit inorganic when it comes to food for livestock. Some manufacturers are happy to produce unhealthy foods from organic ingredients. I could go on, but you get the picture. It is Gary’s next statement that I find hard to take. He says:

Seed companies are always happy to produce any seed that has a significant market. The issue here isn’t “organic”, it is anti-capitalist, as will become apparent later.

What constitutes significant? Seed companies certainly aren’t falling over themselves to breed for the organic market, because at current rates the market remains insignificant, and seed companies are not charities, as Gary so astutely notes. Maybe they are willing to invest in this market in the US, as Gary claims, although I’ve seen no evidence of that. I do know that the regulations are drawn up to favour those who have the most political clout. Whether it is the undermining of the organic rules in the US and elsewhere by large players, or the promotion of a monolithic system of seed registration in Europe, the underlying motivation is capitalism’s usual desire to seek monopoly. That's fine, if the system allows or even encourages competition. But too often, as we’ve seen all too recently, even the most vocal free marketeers are nothing of the sort.

If the costs of registering a seed variety are fixed, and if only registered seeds can be sold, how do you make as much profit as possible?1 By selling the largest possible quantity of the fewest possible number of varieties. And that’s the way the seed industry has gone, even where unregistered varieties can be sold. The difference between the rest of the world and Europe is that elsewhere growers are allowed to take a chance on whatever seed they choose. Gary writes that:

A legitimate argument can be made for diversity and maintenance of heirloom varieties, but the gratuitous bashing of main stream agriculture and the insidious domination of the state bureaucracy are unnecessary to that objective. In the USA similar things are achieved entirely by enthusiasts on their own dime, and are sometimes “mainstreamed” by industrial agribusiness serving a growing market for such. The same could be done in Europe or elsewhere except that they are so regulated that doing so is illegal.

Exactly! We are in complete agreement. So what’s the problem? Why does he consider my drawing attention to this “offensive”?

Regulations are so comprehensive that nothing is ever spontaneous and nothing can exist without state involvement. More’s the pity since it is the truly spontaneous efforts of creative individuals and communities of like minded enthusiasts that are responsible for many of our most interesting and valuable advances. And when those creations prove to be widely valued they are easily mainstreamed, benefiting large numbers of people.

At last, Gary recognizes too that the freedom to innovate, to come up with interesting and valuable advances is as important as the maintenance of heirloom varieties. More important, I’d argue, because we need new varieties to cope with the changing needs of food provision. But far from requiring state involvement, most such activities are carried out under the state’s radar and without state support. That the right arm of the state occasionally does not know what the left arm is doing should not be a surprise.

For activists this is intolerable. The last thing they want is for the things they advocate to come to be.

By that definition, at least I’m not an activist. Phew. I would welcome with open arms a system that opened capitalist seed-breeding to the brisk breezes of competition. Honest I would. Bring it on.

  1. That remains the goal of capitalism, I believe.  

Two ways to respond: webmentions and comments


Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.

“Ordinary” comments

These are not webmentions, but ordinary old-fashioned comments left by using the form below.

Reactions from around the web