Jolly gene giant turns terminator

Expropriation 1

In many ways, the history of civilization is the history of frontiers. And more often than not, the frontiers are sanctuaries. Routes of escape from misery or injustice.
On a wet and windy day recently, I visited the Field to Table warehouse on Eastern Avenue not far from the Don River, and as I watched volunteers packing fresh produce into boxes for delivery to subscribers within the city, it struck me that here, in this desolate section of Toronto’s industrial underside, I was watching another frontier being born.

Food to Table is a project of FoodShare Toronto, a publicly funded organization dedicated to developing better ways of getting food to people.

It sees urban agriculture — growing food in and immediately around cities — as one of those better ways. Add the possibility that perhaps a quarter of the food for the Greater Toronto Area could be grown in and around Toronto, and you get a frontier that one day might help counteract the expropriations by big seed and chemical companies that are limiting the independence of farmers.

Expropriations during times of economic transition are nothing new. The most infamous may be the Highland clearances in Scotland in the period from 1780 to 1855. Tens of thousands of families were brutally thrown off the land to make room for sheep that could supply wool to the new mills of the industrial revolution.

For those dispossessed, the New World became their frontier. They settled, they cleared land, they eventually prevailed.

Today, in another period of economic transition, we’ve seen the expropriation of jobs as multinationals downsized in the belief that this was the route to global competitiveness.

The frontier for the downsized has been self-employment, as often as not by working out of their own homes.

Now we have companies such as Monsanto Inc., the U.S. farm and food giant, engaged in developments that will restrict the ability of organic farmers to operate, and will strip self-sufficiency from conventional farmers. That’s expropriation of yet another kind.

For as long as there has been agriculture, farmers have used seeds from their crops for next year’s plantings. However, that will end if Monsanto has its way. The company is planning to introduce « terminator’’ genes into the seeds it sells farmers. The terminator genes will ensure that when a plant is harvested, all its seeds will be sterile. Farmers will then be forced to go back to Monsanto to buy new seeds for the following year.

As the New York Times reported in its Oct. 25 magazine: « The Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of the last great commons in nature — the genetics of the crop plants that civilization has developed over the past 10,000 years.’’

At the other end of the farming spectrum, organic farmers rely on a variety of naturally occurring bacteria, called Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt), as pesticides of last resort. Bt is harmless to humans.

Monsanto is planning to splice genes from Bt into plants so that they become resistant to the pests that prey on them. Already it has developed a « bug-free’’ potato, named the New Leaf Superior,’’ by splicing in the type of Bt that is fatal to the Colorado beetle.

The problem with this is that the more insects are exposed to a pesticide, the sooner they will develop an immunity to it. Consequently, the more bug-free plants that Monsanto develops, the sooner pests will acquire an immunity to Bt. And without Bt as a pesticide, the organic farming industry will be badly hurt.

This obviously is not a great concern to Monsanto. By the time pests become immune to Bt, Monsanto can reasonably expect to have found something else to splice into plants to make them bug-free. And besides, organic farmers have never played by Monsanto’s rules, so Monsanto can be expected to spare them no sympathy.

For sustainability all this is bad news.


NEXT WEEK: The new frontier.

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