Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

As I’ve mentioned, I recently visited Nicaragua as part of a research project on ‘Transitions to agro-ecological food systems’ that I’ve been involved with, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The research involved working with agro-ecological farmers in the UK, Senegal and Nicaragua, and the trip brought together some of the farmers and researchers from each country. In this post, I thought I’d offer a few informal reflections on the research, and the Nicaragua trip.

In each country, the researchers took a kind of ‘citizen’s jury’ approach to the project, getting the farmers to map their experiences of the food system and then to define specific issues that they wanted to research further in order to ease the desired transition to an agro-ecological food system, followed by a workshop with ‘change agents’ – people with some capacity to help realise these changes. At the Nicaragua meeting, we came together and discussed the similarities and differences between the three countries in the focus of our deliberations and the ways forward. Here are some of the issues that came up:

Seeds: maintaining local farmer control of seed production and markets (and fighting the encroachment of transgenic crops) was a major theme both in Nicaragua and Senegal, but wasn’t much discussed in the UK. There certainly are concerns around seeds in the UK – quite similar ones to the concerns in the other two countries – but few farmers or growers here take responsibility any longer for their own seed production. There are those who argue that this is a good thing – plant breeding is a highly specialist business, and farmers benefit from leaving it to the experts and sticking to their own skill set. One problem here is that what suits the ‘business’ of plant breeding doesn’t necessarily suit the business of being a local agroecological farmer. There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads. On that note, I enjoyed meeting actual farmers from relatively low income countries who told me point blank that they wanted to retain control over local seed production and didn’t want GM crops. No doubt there are other shades of opinion in their countries, but I’ve been told more than once by other privileged westerners/northerners that GM crops are an unquestionable boon to the world’s poorer places and that my scepticism about them merely indicates my white, western/northern privilege (or, in the words of one especially apoplectic ecomodernist, that my ideology was akin to stealing wheelchairs from Bangladeshi children), so it’s good to know that my views are shared by others less white and geopolitically privileged than me. In truth, I already knew it – any claim that a particular kind of plant-breeding technology must be inherently pro-poor is obviously bogus. Still, you can’t beat hearing a story straight from the root, rather than one filtered through layers of researcherly foliage.

An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land. I for one am a little envious of other countries who haven’t yet taken that step.

Traditional cuisine: finding ways to encourage people to eat traditional, locally-grown foods rather than processed foods heavy in global commodity crops was a theme in all three countries – though again it emerged least strongly in the UK. Teaching cookery skills and sponsoring local restaurants were avenues that were being explored. In the UK, one project has involved doctors prescribing fresh vegetables for low income patients on poor diets, with local authorities paying small-scale local producers to provide the food – a use of public money with a reportedly good social return on investment.

Markets: ‘the market’ is one of those words that conflates things which ought to be separated. In each of the three countries, albeit in different ways, the farmers wanted to strengthen ‘the market’ in the sense of local venues where buyers and sellers come together physically for the exchange of things they need. In order to do this, we agreed that we needed less of ‘the market’ in the sense of a non-physical, globalised abstraction in which a minority of people launch money in order to receive more of it in return. Though, saying that, there can also be problems with local markets – especially when their control falls into the hands of a few. The best solution is for the majority of people to have access to land, the ultimate source of the values able to come to market… Perhaps I should qualify that statement by way of a quotation from IDS big cheese Ian Scoones, whose interesting if rather turgidly academic book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development: Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies I’m reading at the moment:

“The real world is of course more complex than the usual default policy debate constructed around a set of simple dichotomies – large versus small, external versus local, food production versus cash crops, backward versus modern” (p.59)

Indeed, a case can be made along these lines for allowing markets to be complemented by ‘the market’, but as Scoones himself points out ‘the market’ is supported by a “strong coalition of investors, private sector agribusiness players, national governments and local elites” whose “expert-accredited narrative” (ibid.) has much more influence over economic reality than the food sovereignty agenda we were articulating in Nicaragua. Therefore I’m happy to line up with my fellows in the marketing discussion group at the meeting (pictured) and press for the food sovereignty agenda. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…

Land: access to land for agro-ecological farming was a big issue in the UK, less of a concern in other countries. I’ve probably harped on about it often enough on this blog to keep it brief here. The UK farmers put some emphasis on the role of the planning system in relation to private land purchases, because this is an easy hit for improving the situation without having to introduce any major political or economic changes. Issues around farm tenancies and publicly owned farmland were also highlighted in the UK. In Nicaragua, the government programme that provides women with a plot of land sufficient for personal needs, together with some household livestock, excited some interest…particularly among a few of the women from the other countries who suddenly expressed a hitherto latent enthusiasm for emigrating to Nicaragua. Which brings us to…

Female empowerment: I heard some conflicting views about gender oppression (and thence the need for the aforementioned programme) in Nicaragua. While we were travelling around the country I saw a few placards in communities stating “Aquí respetamos a las mujeres”, which kind of implies that maybe there are folks allí que no respetan a las mujeres. Not that the UK is innocent of gender oppression. Certainly, gender issues loom large in what I’ll tentatively term “sustainable development”. Which reminds me…I need to round off my ‘return of the peasant’ blog cycle with a look at gender soon.

Commodification & self-reliance: another issue in relation to making markets more functional is reducing their levels of commodification – ‘commodities’ in the sense of traded objects entirely torn from their local contexts of production. In Senegal, this manifests in peanut farming, which is environmentally destructive and makes growers dependent on global commodity prices. The common refrain is that such commodity crops are the route to wealth which, through specialisation and the magic of ‘the market’, enables farmers to buy themselves out of the kind of miserable subsistence existence associated with mixed cropping of local food crops, where they can barely scratch a living from the unforgiving earth. Each of the three countries had their own local manifestations of this ideology, and each country’s farmers also had distinctive counter-narratives insisting that it ain’t necessarily so.

Subsidies: I mentioned the attraction to female farmers of moving to Nicaragua, but some of the farmers from the other countries kinda liked the sound of moving to the UK to harvest some of the EU farm subsidies they’d heard about. So we from the UK had to explain the realities of the system: in a few years of stressy bureaucratic wrangling, I managed to wrest no more than a thousand quid or so out of HM’s government, before it decided to stop small-scale farmers from claiming altogether. Meanwhile, and talking of HM, the queen netted a cool half a million a year from the scheme. Oh well, I guess she needs it more than me. But, more important than the inequities between small and large-scale landowners farmers in affluent countries is the way that US and EU subsidies punish farmers in less affluent countries – such as the anti-competitive $1 billion or so going to US peanut farmers, to pick an aforementioned crop. So, to get a little technical, here’s a brief primer on the clean economic logic of free markets: the greatest net benefit results when countries remove protectionist measures and compete on equal terms in liberalised global markets, except when the most powerful countries decide not to.

There are also, of course, the numerous implicit subsidies associated with fossil fuel use and other nasty economic externalities – a general experience common to all three countries, albeit with some differences of detail.

Farmer networks and change agents: there are more small-scale and agroecological farmers in Nicaragua and Senegal than the UK, with richer interactions between them and the organs of government, and more powerful small-farmer organisations such as (talking of peasants, as we were under my last post) Nicaragua’s Programa campesino a campesino. In the UK, I think it would be fair to say that – despite the researchers’ best efforts – we struggled to get any ‘change agents’ to talk to us who had significant power to change the status quo. This seemed to be less true of Nicaragua and Senegal, though that’s not to say that the life of the small-scale agroecological farmer in those countries is all plain sailing. Perhaps one of the reasons it was hard to engage policymakers in the UK is that they’re all so busy trying to work out what the hell is going to happen to UK farming after Brexit. And here it’s fascinating to note that Michael Gove, arch Brextremist and now head honcho at DEFRA, is giving the keynote speech at the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference – unless he accidentally booked himself into the wrong conference. I’ll be reporting back with interest on what he has to say.

At the end of the trip we paid a visit to the 10 acre holding of one of the Nicaraguan participants, where I took this picture of citrus fruits growing under the shade of a coconut palm, hard by the cassava, yams and coffee bushes. Here, where the sun shines and the rain falls copiously, my strictures against perennial staple cropping are no longer operative. Perhaps I’ll see if I can persuade La Brassicata to move there and get herself on the waiting list for a holding, where I can skivvy for her in the tropical warmth. Oh, alas, ‘tis but a dream – so now I must leave you to schlep out into the snow and empty our compost toilet.

But not without first offering my thanks to Elise Wach, Santi Ripoll, Clare Ferguson and Jorge Irán Vásquez Zeledón for their work on the project and the trip, and to everyone else involved in it for making is so interesting.

49 thoughts on “Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

  1. Wonderful as ever sir. No doubt more illustrations and meaty insights were left on the cutting room floor. Editorial necessity I suppose, but I imagine insightful questioning by the audience should wrest more thoughts and good discussion going forward.

    So as the resident plant breeder I feel a responsibility to weigh in on the subject opened so nicely above. Seed saving is a fine enterprise, but stealing someone else’s property – not so much. So long as we’re clear what is being saved and how the future of the agrarian enterprise is secured in the face of pestilence and inclement environmental conditions… then there should be a safe space for peasant seed saving.

    My favorite sentence from above:
    There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads.

    This, at least, opens a portal into a distinct operating issue also alluded to in other aspects of this essay… that small scale local farming is different from large scale commercial farming in more than scale alone. Risk. A seemingly simple four letter word. Like some other four letter words in the English vernacular, it is best avoided in certain company, and used cautiously in other settings.

    I am going to avoid a direct inclusion of GMO technology in this particular comment. The dog I would bring to that fight is far too small to matter. In my professional pursuit we breed soy the old fashioned way and make a big deal of this on the marketing end of things. So I am firmly positioned within the industrial ‘size’ of the issue, but not in the GMO end of it (except to make the point that we are non-GMO).

    So what is all this about making seed saving illegal? I am as confused as anyone. I think the respect for plant breeder’s rights should be maintained (and enforced). You wouldn’t allow someone to enter your holding and take your sheep. But at the same time there should be no restriction on using something in the public domain to scratch your livelihood from the earth. I should nod to the seed production efforts which, within the industrial model at least, are kept within a separate silo – that is, as a breeder I am tasked with developing new and improved varieties and the seed (called breeder seed actually) to get things off the ground. And after the breeder seed is produced I sally forth to new projects and a different professional continues the maintenance, purity, logistics of inventory, quality control, marketing… etc. etc. [NB, there is plenty of risk encountered at all these and a few more levels… not something I deal with or quite honestly wish to delve into].

    At the level of the peasant farmer… seed saving should not be beyond the skill set. So a second favorite insight Chris offers above:
    An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land.

    Where does this leave us? Saving seed from season to season – particularly with a landrace variety (which is not exactly the same as an heirloom variety… but is close enough for this discussion) can actually imitate a form of domestication and further adaptation. But it is slow and remains at risk of falling prey to pathogens. The Irish potato famine serves as an illustration here.
    If our future peasant selves wish to avoid a repeat of that famine (ignoring for a minute the obnoxious political realities of that fiasco) we’d be ahead to have many good breeding efforts in place. So how do we pay for that? The government used to do this in the U.S. There is still some public sector breeding here in the U.S. So the institutional memory still exists. But scale and risk and cost issues still surround the matter.

    Not mentioned thus far is the matter of future domestication efforts for alternative crops. And there is also the matter of ‘orphan’ crops – species domesticated and used to some limited extent, but which have fallen away from commercial significance. Talking about these is very different from rolling up the sleeves and getting on with the risky endeavor to do something about it.

    • The government used to do this in the U.S.

      I think a fair amount of breeding is still done by agriculture departments at universities, but I suspect that the increase in the scale and specialization of farming operations in the US has induced farmers to rely on commercial companies for their seeds.

      I am sure you are far more knowledgeable about all the reasons why rich-country farmers rarely process their own seeds anymore, much less breed them. I suspect that those reasons will make it even more difficult for governments to encourage any form of agrarian peasantry or agroecology.

      • Joe:
        You are right – there are quite a few public sector plant breeding programs still. Worth mentioning here is that the proportion of public breeders to commercial breeders tends to fall in an inverse relationship with the commercial value of the seed of the crop. And while we’re making this point I should emphasize that we are not talking about the commercial value of the crop itself… but of the propagules. So the US apple crop has a relatively high value, but as the apple is a perennial the seedlings are only sold occasionally… much smaller “seed” market and little to no commercial apple breeding occurs here. Annuals like corn and soy are planted on a combined US acreage of approximately 170 million acres. An acre’s worth of hybrid corn seed will go for about $100. An acre’s worth of soybean seed can fetch $35… and this is every year. So the proportion of public corn breeders to commercial corn breeders is a fairly small value. Several years ago I was on a panel of soybean breeders (both public and private) and the commercial folk outnumbered the public folk a little more than 4 to 1. Back in the early 80s when I got into this game the proportion was close to 1 (or slightly in favor of the public side).

        • As a peasant tending a whole range of long-time-orphan crops of the Rosaceae family, I’d very much like to see the institutional memory of decentralised public breeding programs revitalized.

          • I know of at least 4 public apple breeding programs in the US: Washington State, Cornell, Purdue, and Minnesota. As I munch on a Honey Crisp apple with my lunch I am warmed by the notion that this particular member of the Rosaceae might not need revitalizing. But there is a long list of other members – do you have any favorites you’d nominate for increased efforts?

          • Not wanting to give you too much to chew on here, but you’re munching an apple-sized part of the problem with your lunch:


            These university programs are not breeding for the general public (where, granted, their effort currently wouldn’t be apprecitated the way they would be if most families still had family orchards), but are applying band-aids to resources used by a small group of large producers.

            Increased efforts, mmmh. With this particular family, the best thing possible would be some tiny directive advising authorities to plant 10% of public parks to wild Rosaceae from diverse sources – and fund seed collections in the countries of origin.
            Where I live close to a million standard apple trees populated the landscape a hundred years ago; today, the remnants are being rediscovered.
            Millions of fruit trees used to line the streets in parts of the country, and with that amount of genetic variability any breeding program is a mere add-on.

          • These university programs are not breeding for the general public (where, granted, their effort currently wouldn’t be apprecitated the way they would be if most families still had family orchards), but are applying band-aids to resources used by a small group of large producers.

            Michael – your assertion would only be true if indeed these new apple varieties were not available to the public. They are available to the public. That the public might not avail itself of them is a different matter. And it is also true that the public will benefit even without buying trees themselves… as genetic improvements to resist disease increase levels of food security.

            Where your observation does take on some merit is for aspects of breeding objectives that on the surface only seem to benefit the large industrial production system. And the larger players often do have a seat at the table while breeding objectives are put together.
            Mechanical harvestability doesn’t offer much to the backyard gardener (but one may also argue it doesn’t ‘cost’ the gardener either). Consumer preference aspects such as color, fragrance, taste, are very important selection criteria. The large growers you cite will choose to grow varieties they can sell to the public. So while the general public might not be ‘in the room’ in person, our likes and dislikes are represented. And while I’m on this – I have to wonder, have you ever visited with an apple breeder yourself? You would not be turned away because you don’t have a five thousand tree orchard.

            Thanks for the link to the apple genetics article. It too has limitations in its arguing about biodiversity, and I’d be happy to discuss those if you like.

          • The apples are available to the consumer, yes, but as with most modern consumer products, they are not designed/bred with the everyone’s health involved.

            Modern disease resistance breeding with apples is largely a failure, at least in Europe:
            Insert gene, field-test for a few years, call resistant to XYZ, start selling – watch disease organisms crack your resistance genes in year 5.
            Look for better breeding material and realize that in many countries of origin the apple forests have gone while you did nothing to stop it – problems far away….

            Large growers dont’t have the consumer in mind when first selecting the range of what will generally be available.
            Fantastic taste but thin skin? You’ll never hear of it again.
            Unless it’s sent back to a breeder who then crosses it with a reliable workhorse variety and hopes for the best.
            That takes 15+ years.
            And then, after retirement, that breeder realizes that the workhorse he’s used on the 4 flagship varieties his company is now selling – because it was so convenient and well-known – confers a dangerous weakness to all its children…

            And yes, I’d really like to hear about the article’s weak points!

    • I think I once read in an interview with a small-scale seed breeder (sadly I forget in which national / politcal context; though I believe he primarily grew seeds for various salads), that his approach to seed protection was: “You can seed-save it for your own private use, you can even sell the crop you grow from that saved seed. But you can’t sell the seed you saved (or young plants) to other people.”

      That sounded very fair and reasonable to me, since the home gardening area of seed sales is actually quite economically unimportant, even for vegetable seed breeders. [From what I understand, this is the reason there’s so little variety in heirloom seeds sold widely in shops (as opposed to tiny, niche online seed retailers who’re producing small amounts of expensive seed for people interested in growing old or speciality varieties as a hobby), and why none of those gardening seeds are adapted for even semi-organic gardening (i.e. low pesticide and fertilizer use) despite the fact that that’s how most people garden when growing food. The home gardeners basically get the left-overs and low-quality lots from seed fields grown for vegetable farmers, who are looking for rather different qualities in the crop than gardeners do. There’s just not enough money in home gardening seed to justify breeding for that on a scale that would pay the wages of more than a few people, never mind the overhead of a mid-sized company.]

      And while this breeder’s attitude allows professionals to seed-save for the purpose of growing next year’s harvest, no sane farmer would do that (in developed countries – expectations are different in countries long used to open-pollinated land races and with a lot of subsistence farming), at least with wind-pollinated crops that interbreed wildly (grains, salads, beets, the entire brassica family, mustards and other oilseed, etc.), because customers expect a certain uniformity in commercially sold crops and there’s too much risk that e.g. 20% of the second generation wouldn’t grow properly at all under identical circumstances as the original. To try and maintain a genetically stable heirloom variety that has more or less the same qualities over several generations takes a lot of effort and a lot of space. And even with non-wind-pollinated species (e.g. tomatoes) you can’t really do it for more than a few generations or for more than a very few varieties on one piece of land, not without dedicating all your labour efforts to that project. And annual crop species generally propagated by cloning (like potatoes) accumulate viruses that will ruin your harvest after a few years. Plus, if you make your living growing vegetables, you sometimes really do need hybrid vigor. I haven’t yet seen a heirloom broccoli variety that produces anywhere near the head size people are used to from the supermarket, for example. (Even if traditional, small-heading broccoli heirloom varieties are more useful in the garden since you there can harvest them many times, so it doesn’t matter that the first flower bud isn’t much bigger than a fist. What matters in the garden is that they don’t need absolutely extreme amounts of chemical fertilizer to produce anything.)

      By the way, I recommend the book “Gardening When It Counts” by Steve Solomon to any home gardener interested in learning how seed breeding (and the garden seed retail industry in the US) really works. The writer once was a professional seed breeder and also retailer for other small-scale breeders, so he knows what he’s talking about when he explains why seed-saving on a garden scale only makes sense for very few vegetables (mainly legumes and the nightshade family, and certain species of squash/melon), at least if you really want to rely on your harvest, not just do plant growing as a hobby. He also has a remarkably reasonable and well-informed attitude about hybrids (the traditional F1 kind), which is somewhat rare in the organic gardening publishing sector these days.

  2. Nicely done. And I am still waiting for someone to publish a clear and readable text perhaps named The Political Economy of Food that would help me understand why Britain exports lamb while importing lamb from NZ, or why peanuts from New Mexico are cheaper in South Carolina than peanuts from Georgia.

    • Not sure about the lamb half of the question, but as for peanuts this one is easy… Tbilisi is MUCH further from South Carolina than New Mexico. Just sayin 🙂

      Now one may ponder why peanuts from Atlanta are priced as they are in Charleston – but I’m betting on a branding effort.

      • Ya just couldn’t resist. Ha! 😉

        How would a branding effort do this? The peanut seller told me he could not afford to buy at the wholesale prices from the neighboring state… bizarre. It makes my mind twist in on itself. Which may be the intended result. 🙂

        • Wow… the wholesale price. Hmmm. There is still the opportunity for branding to have some role in the equation. Think potatoes… where do they come from? Well, lots of places actually… but Idaho is the answer you’ll get from most Americans (at least those who have paid the slightest attention). And apples – why they come from Washington of course (even though the last one I ate came from Minnesota 😉 ) Peanuts come from Georgia (or Atlanta as the case may be – another wink emoji). Why do these geographies come to mind when discussing these foods? Branding.

          The French do this with Champaign, and the Brits do this with fish n chips (ok, so that is a stretch – but Chris needs something to chime in on here… more stupid emojis go here).

          Beef – its what’s for dinner. And within the beef world you have Angus, a breed and a brand (and one might suppose out on the range the Angus cattle are literally branded… pun intended). Pork – the other white meat… Perdue chicken (as opposed to Tyson). I think the animal folks have been at this longer than the plant folks, but given the Champaign example I could be wrong on this.

    • Okay, I’m from the other side of the pond and usually seasonality and distance do still have a bit of influence on the price here, even on supermarket vergetables / fruit. And insanities like onions from Egypt or even New Zealand I mostly just see in the early summer, when the European autumn onion harvest has run out; or in the more upscale kind of shop, where all vegetables are similarly expensive, no matter the origin. (In contrast, the discounters are generally a suprisingly good source of reasonably priced vegetables and fruit grown in our country or the immediate neighboring countries, as long as you stick to what’s in season, and in case of apples or potatoes, maybe is small, a little blemished, unwashed and sold in bulk sacks. They’ve even started promoting in-state produced eggs and fresh vegetables / fruit, lately, to cash in on people’s “local patriotism”.) And the eggs, milk and raw meat in the discount supermarkets normally are from in-state or at least in-country producers as well, presumably because they don’t ship all that well.

      However, things are quite different with commodity crops that don’t need expensive refrigerated shipping and where the country of origin doesn’t have to be declared to the end customer (not even by a discreet little code stamp that’s primarily just there so health inspectors can trace back dairy products if there was something wrong with them). In those cases, the cheapest is always the supermarket’s own mass-produced bargain brand, like with flour or rice or most canned vegetables. I recently found a pack of dried lentils that actually had some origin information and it turns out they came from Canada – I can only assume they were cheaper than lentils grown in Europe despite the weeks of travel on a container ship, probably due to either the scale of the Canadian production (land is cheaper in North America than in densely settled Europe) or possibly due to unfair farm subsidies / tax exemptions.

      I prefer to buy what I can from local brands (e.g. from companies in my state and the neighboring ones), and for reasons of history, company size, no advertising budget, and low national market penetration (due to snobbery and different tastes in the rest of the nation), these usually are relatively cheap as well, especially compared to well-advertized brands that belong to some huge international corporation. But I have no way of knowing where the tomatoes in my favourite ketchup (canned a few towns over from me – one famous for its apple orchards, but nowhere here really has reliable tomato-growing climate), the nuts in my favourite nougat spread (like the Western “Nutella”, but with a much higher hazel content), or the yellow split peas bagged for retail by an old, local milling company, really were grown.

      As for your peanuts: (Which, by the way, are pretty much the only foodstuff I knowingly buy from the US, because there just aren’t any European peanut butter producers, judging by what’s available in shops.) Could it be that the peanuts are simply easier / cheaper to produce in New Mexico compared to Georgia, due to the local climate (don’t they need warm/dry weather?), local land costs, or availability of underpaid immigrant labour? Or perhaps farming subsidies are different in different US states to promote particular types of agriculture? (Or just because this particular section of large scale farmers and/or commodity crop traders has a better handle on one state legislation, but not another, be it due to personal connections or ‘campaign contributions’…)

      • You offered:
        I recently found a pack of dried lentils that actually had some origin information and it turns out they came from Canada – I can only assume they were cheaper than lentils grown in Europe despite the weeks of travel on a container ship, probably due to either the scale of the Canadian production (land is cheaper in North America than in densely settled Europe) or possibly due to unfair farm subsidies / tax exemptions.

        Land price probably sits atop the list of reasons why this might be the case. And the land price really IS a reflection of the population density. Further, the taxes needed by the very sparsely populated Canadian frontier to serve the modest human population there will be lower… but this is not unfair in the sense that the per capita tax may actually be higher, but the per hectare tax is likely VERY much lower. Subsidies might be at play, I’ve heard that rail transport in Canada is somehow less expensive than on rails just to their south – but I don’t have facts to hand to prove that. If indeed there are subsidies being employed then the market is being distorted to some degree and eventually capitalism will clean this up. Waiting for the market correction matters where shelf life is concerned. If one makes a iron skillet and doesn’t see a favorable price in the market… the skillet can sit. But an apple or potato does not have that luxury (as you rightfully point to in the dichotomy between fresh veges/fruits vs. grains). But even grains encumber a certain shelf life. So subsidizing grains gets a bit tricky. It is done, and it is done in many different ways (so many in fact one might be hard pressed to delineate them all). National security is usually proffered as a rationale for agricultural subsidies and market malfeasance when hands are caught in the cookie jar.

  3. Very interesting. I must take up your question Clem – though only to seek a remedy for my own ignorance on this…

    ‘So what is all this about making seed saving illegal? I am as confused as anyone. I think the respect for plant breeder’s rights should be maintained (and enforced).’

    Presumably there is objection in some quarters to the claim of the plant breeder on the next generation, when it could be argued that the farmer was more directly involved in the production of that seed (along with the productive capacities of the land of course)? There is some mistrust of the idea of DNA ‘copyright’?

    Is it the case though, that hybrid seeds do not produce replicas of themselves in the second generation, or at least not at a 1:1 ratio, so that new seed always has to be bought in anyway? I realise this is a different issue, of course, but it would presumably maintain an income stream for breeders regardless of property rights in the genetic code of the hybrid?

    • Andrew:
      Thanks for the question, and unfortunately I’m going to skip the third paragraph for now – to perhaps return and flesh out some nuance before offering an opinion.
      To the point of hybrid seed – yes, the seed produced from a crop that originates as a hybrid does not “breed true” – or generate a subsequent crop like the first. And in a certain sense this polices itself for the seed producer (and ultimately for the original plant breeder). If you want to grow hybrid X you have to purchase seed from the owner (or her licensee)… or you yourself have to have a seed production license to get the inbred parent germplasm and then produce the hybrid seed so that you may in the next season raise the hybrid crop. No DNA patenting needed so far. But unfortunately some have found ways to game this system and so now patenting is very common – even for hybrid crops such as corn. Soybean and wheat are self pollinated crops and (with very minor exceptions) are not sold commercially as hybrids. A farmer can save seed and grow the same sort of crop in a subsequent season. This, however, defeats a seed producers interest in developing new and better varieties. While not an exact metaphor, suppose you wanted a champion lamb and were willing to “appropriate” a neighbor’s champion ewe for one lambing season. You feed and house the “borrowed” ewe so that you might reasonably consider the subsequent lamb to be yours… and you return the ewe once the lamb is weaned. Should the original ewe owner be satisfied that you have only “borrowed” his ewe? To put a little shine on this metaphor, suppose instead you go onto the market and purchase your own ewe. Some random, nondescript critter of unknown pedigree. You also need to acquire the services of a ram, and depending upon his background you’ll pay more or less for said services. Now you are in the breeding business… AND you are taking all the risk. If your lamb is great… good for you. If its a dud, well, you tried. The difference in value between the champion and the also ran is very great.

      Landrace and heirloom genetics are for the most part in the public domain. Farmers are free to keep their seed of these varieties. I’m not an expert on the European seed laws, but I’ve a sense that ‘trade’ in landrace and heirloom seeds is somewhat curtailed, but not because of patent or industrial ownership, but more for the quality control side of the issue. Landrace genetics tend to be quite diverse and while they will tend toward producing a similar crop in subsequent seasons there is no biological guarantee they’ll do so. So how does one regulate such a market? Its my belief they’ve chosen to avoid regulating it by disallowing it all together. If someone knows better, please hop in. And by all means don’t quote me on this unless you include the caveat that I’m not positive.

      • Thanks for the reply Clem, you’ve clarified many things for me, and I think I take your point on hybrid ownership (although I assume the progeny of your prize ewe is likely to be far smaller in quantity per time taken to create it than the number of duplicate seeds that can be created – again, though, I know nothing of the process of getting ‘the inbred parent germplasm’ and then producing the hybrid seed, and would happily know more, if you could suggest a reference).

        Is it the case then, that we could envision our future peasants usefully saving the seeds of self-pollinating crops (and presumably sharing and swapping to encourage genetic diversity), whilst supporting seed breeders to produce hybrids of crops that respond well to such techniques, which they would then buy in yearly?

        Your point about risk seems to me very much related tour current economic system. To speculate on the future, if that risk could be shared, then the research undertaken by seed breeders could presumably be made available without patent (though perhaps with recognition of ‘authorship’) to those sharing the risk. Some kind of more collectivist/mutual/cooperative system might encourage this. Seed breeders as ‘public’ servants in some sense?

        • We can envision our future peasants doing many different things. Your vision could serve – seed saving, sharing/swapping… and hybrid seed production can be accomplished as well. An aspect of a future peasant world that may get overlooked is the transmission of knowledge both across generations and around the planet in real time. Right now we have a science system housed in public and private venues. In the public sphere we have universities where future generations can study and learn how to ‘keep the lights on’ – and scientists actively engaged in finding new knowledge (and also engaged in dispersing that knowledge through publishing). On the private side there is still some level of intergenerational knowledge sharing (training employees for instance, or customers) and some knowledge dispersal around the planet (patent applications are essentially publications in their own right). Private sector R&D does tend to be more shielded from the general public – but the products of this research are offered in the market for wide distribution so that the general public can benefit from the research.

          It might be worth noting that private sector seed breeding is very much like other private sector research efforts. Think pharma, electronics, chemicals, and so forth. If you could plant say a pill for the treatment of asthma and grow your future supply… how long before the pharma industry would be at your door, subpoena in hand?

          But back to the peasants… plant breeding today is getting pretty sophisticated, but it needn’t. One can still make crosses and develop populations, test them, select superior individuals, increase their seed, and so forth without supercomputers, DNA isolation, foreign gene insertion, gene silencing, and all the other cool toys we have. To breed soybeans I use a tweezers. And if all the world’s tweezers were confiscated by Martians, I could (though would be loathe to) still make crosses. So soy is peasant ready. Actually, all the major commodity crops I’m familiar with would be ‘peasant ready’. We wouldn’t be as fast, as thorough, but we would also NOT be dead in the water.

          As for rewarding our future peasant plant breeder for her amazing efforts on our behalf – she could be spared from compost toilet cleaning duties every other turn.

    • I want to ask, because I see conspirarcy theories about hybrids (i.e. the idea that it’s malicious intent that they don’t produce uniform offspring) and confusion with GMOs all the time among people interested in organic agriculture and talking in English on the internet:

      This is not new technology – the science was developed by the monk Gegor Mendel in the mid-19th century – and the basic principles are hardly difficult to understand, once you get used to a handful of new terminology. I learned what F1 hybrids are in high school, and also what percentage of the next generation would still have the desired qualities at least under very simplified circumstances (i.e. only 1 or 2 qualities are different between the originally hybridized varieties), and that it’s possible to turn a F1 hybrid into a stable strain if you’re very dilligent and sort out everything that shows a recurring of the qualities you don’t want. Mendel’s Laws are basically “genetics for newbies without the first clue about DNA and stuff”, and thus taught in school before getting to the rudiments of more complicated modern evolutionary biology and biochemistry, where I come from. I think it’s in the 9th or 10th grade syllabus, or it was, a couple decades ago. Might have moved to a lower grade since then. (I see no reason why at least a basic version couldn’t be taught to elementary-level students, perhaps as part of the gardening class that some schools still offer for kids too young for the memorization-heavy kind of science. I certainly can’t remember 2nd grade gardening class teaching me anything useful or memorable other than the realization that I really, really hate weeding.)

      Is this just not part of general school education, in North America and the rest of the English-speaking world?

      • I can’t remember whether I was taught about Mendel at school, to be honest. I learned frustratingly little biology at school, a lot more later on. So I’ll have to ask around and get back to you on that. I don’t think I’ve come across the argument that hybrids not breeding true is some kind of human conspiracy. I’ve come across the argument that seed companies sometimes over-promote the benefits of hybrid varieties or even sell seeds as hybrids which aren’t. I couldn’t comment on the veracity of this, but there’s an obvious commercial benefit to seed companies of selling high-performing seeds that the farmer can’t easily perpetuate (and of trying to manipulate the narrative around ‘performance’), which militates against farmer autonomy. But it’s funny how people are – I know gardeners who don’t use hybrid seeds on principle. If the term hadn’t been so hijacked by the political right, I’d be somewhat inclined to call this ‘virtue signalling’.

      • There is no malicious intent in deploying F1 hybrids for crop production because the seed can’t be saved. And for that matter it is a bit difficult to see hybrid vigor as a result of Gregor Mendel’s experiments. It is the case that one can explain why the seed produced on a self pollinated F1 plant is not the same as the seed of the F1 itself based on Mendel’s work. Hybrid vigor (and the ability to take advantage of it) came to be understood much later.

        As for when such matters are taught here in the US… varies quite a bit in my experience. One could make the claim that a great majority of adults here were never taught what I just pointed out in the paragraph above. I do meet plenty of people who have heard of Mendel and do have some basic appreciation of what a gene is and some feel for inheritance. But this is usually all the farther it goes. So when I hear folks rant about seed technology and through their own language betray their too small appreciation of the biology involved I just roll my eyes (or get incensed enough to reply).

  4. Thanks for the report, a most interesting project. I am super curious about this concept of “change agents,” could you give me some examples? Are you looking to make your case to those in economic and political power at strategic points in the structure?
    Also, what would you say are the key differences in direct marketing systems for small farmers in the three countries?
    Just helping Clem with the wresting…

  5. Thanks for the interesting comments. Apologies I’m a bit stretched for time just at the moment, but I’ll try to respond to some of these points within the next couple of days.

  6. I was going to comment that UK farmers probably aren’t concerned about GMO seed getting pushed on them, because growing GMO crops has been banned in the EU anyway. (Which was my impression because I’ve personally never seen any GMO seeds offered for sale, and the seeds I buy for my garden always say “GMO-free” somewhere on the pack, no matter how big or small the company that sells them.) However, some quick fact-checking before posting taught me that this is actually only the case here in the heartland (Germany and France, plus a few smaller countries), but not in the UK, which was the only EU country to withdraw its attempt for a national ban on its own, instead of getting the application refused by EU regulators. Not a good sign for the post-brexit era, that… (Interestingly, Scottland is still trying to institute a ban without the rest of the UK.)

    However, since customer opinion in Europe is still relatively strongly against GMOs in food, the only GMO crop grown in the EU for the last half decade is one particular variety of BT-maize that’s only used for animal feed. (And the only other GMO crop ever grown commercially in the EU was a single variety of high-starch potato used for industrial processes like producing ethanol, whose EU license expired in 2013. Apparently there never was an interest in growing the nastier kind of GMO, like commodity crops with herbicide resistances to allow for even more spraying.) So, even though more GMO crops are allowed to be grown under EU legislation in theory (at least in the countries that don’t have national bans), apparently there still is no pressure on farmers to do so – and certainly not on market gardeners and other such small-scale farmers who don’t raise anonymous commodity crops destined for food processing and international container shipping. So there’s simply no market in the UK for GMO food crop seeds, nor will there be anytime soon – at least without a massive pro-GMO marketing campaign from Monsanto & Co.

    • Thanks for that Vivi. I still find it interesting how much of the GMO debate still focuses on Monsanto. And I don’t want to sound like an apologist for ’em… they deserve a good deal of the grief coming their way. But there is some room to argue for the technology and for industrial ag. – just not by screaming at the top of one’s lungs; or by hiring more and the most expensive lawyers.

      About one year ago now I wrote a blog post about the pending Bayer purchase of Monsanto; link here:

      The deal is still being reviewed, but current winds suggest it will go through now that enough resources have been sold off to suit regulators. So once this should come to completion the name Monsanto will begin to recede from the headlines (and I for one will watch to see just how long a memory we have). And there is also the angle that Bayer – a German company – will then own the former R&D holdings of Monsanto. How will that play in the EU, and perhaps more interesting, will the future technology pipeline be tweaked or turned on its head once a different management philosophy takes the reins??

      • Heh, sorry, I just used “Monsanto & Co.” as a internationally recognizable stand-in for generally ruthless, huge corporations that have the power and money to possibly sway public opinion.

        I don’t actually personally have all that much of a problem with GMO technology as such – I’ve studied biology, and while I concentrated more on microbiology (for example genetically modified cyanobacteria that produce ethanol from seawater, sunlight and CO2, much cheaper than by fermenting corn or cellulose (and without using arable land), and which can even be turned into jet fuel at the end of their lives) specifically to get around the whole GMO ethics debate (people don’t care if the organisms are to small to see), I still had to attend lectures in plant genetics. I know how genetic modification works, that a lot of the fears of the misinformed public are nonsense (as well as that GM bacteria / yeast are long in use and direly necessary to produce stuff like antibiotics and insulin), and that the modern techniques are actually safer than the randomly induced mutation (by putting radioactive cobalt in the test fields, if I remember correctly) that was done in the early 20th century to produce the “non-GMO” commodity crops now used worldwide. I wouldn’t have any problem eating Golden Rice, for example. (And I’m still sad that the non-corporate inventor of that well-meaning crop was punished for his decision not to patent the stuff by a scare campaign against it from environmentalists.)

        And I do understand the need for patents in research-heavy industries. I’m the daughter of a doctor and a second-generation pharmacist; I have some insight into how the pharma business works, which, as you say above, has a lot in common with advanced crop science. (“Not enough money in cures sold only once” is one of the main reasons why pharma companies don’t invest nearly enough in finding new antibiotics, for example – dire social need in the face of the rise of multi-drug-resistent pathogens be damned. Or why they really get pissed when the patents for old staple drugs run out and “generica” companies can start to sell them for what the ingredients actually cost, not what the original inventor needs to invest in more R&D.)

        I just object to the business practices of the large multinational corporations – decisions not made by the scientists, I’m sure, but rather by lawyers, CEOs just looking for their annual bonus, and greedy shareholders. And while I understand why someone would invent something like Roundup-ready corn (after all, killing the weeds with a herbicide can mean you don’t have to plow, which is bad for the soil and climate), I still don’t think it was a good idea, since the herbicides usually are very bad for the environment and the farm labourers, which the herbicide producers (like Monsanto) generally try their best to sweep under the carpet – much like tobacco companies a few decades ago, or fossil-fuel companies funding climate change denial campaigns. (Same with the suppression of evidence that a particular class of pesticides is killing bees and other pollinators worldwide,) And because being forced to buy fertilizers and herbicides / pesticides that a particular crop variety has been designed to need for a decent harvest, just because the seed/fertilizer/pesticide producer has driven all other seed producers out of the market, has driven a lot of farmers in developing nations into ruin.

        I have the feeling that the whole issue could be much improved if there were laws preventing seed breeder companies from also developing agri-chemicals. Or if there was a maximum size for how much of the seed market a single company could swallow. Like, I’ve read a few years ago that Monsanto has bought a lot of smaller seed brands, and thus controls their R&D, even if they are still selling their seeds under their old name to hide from the customers that the seed market is turning more and more into a monopoly. But I suppose a mid-sized company wouldn’t be able to afford the kind of high-level biotech research that might be necessary to deal with climate change challenges (e.g. extreme drought/heat/salt resistence). Perhaps it could be handled like the cyanobacteria project I was involved with as a student: A lot of the research was done in a university lab by PhD. students and post-docs, who were largely funded by the small start-up company that was looking to profit from the research. (Everyone had to sign non-disclosure agreements.) But the lab equipment and the overseeing professor was paid by the university, as it was a socially beneficial project. (German universities don’t have tuition fees, so that means they’re mostly financed by taxes and endowments) Of course, that wouldn’t completely remove the problem. That small company looked ready to start producing biofuels in their first commercial-scale operation (in California), last I looked a few years ago – but then it was bought out by the large petroleum company that had given them some starting investments, the original hippie-like CEO “amiably resigned”, the R&D department was “restructured”, and now their current website says they’re specializing in algae-growing services and products like algae-based food protein or soil amendments. No word anymore about their revolutionary biofuel production process…

        I haven’t paid much attention to the agri-business, but from what I understand, Bayer isn’t any better than Monsanto in terms of corporate ethics. Nationality doesn’t matter in this (Bayer is an internationally operating corporation anyway; and mostly a pharma and chemical company by origin) – what matters is that it is legally obligated to produce profits for its shareholders. The shareholding corporation as an institution has been called “inherently sociopathic” for a reason.
        I’ve had a quick look at the German Wikipedia site for the company, and let’s just say Bayer has had lots of scandals concerning human rights (especially what they tolerate in their suppliers); pollution (the US devision is still on rank 3 of the “Toxic 100 Index”); climate denial financing; price fixing; dangerous medication side-effects; Orwellian-style labour mistreatment; forceful marketing methods that are illegal under German pharmaceutical law; being involved in the Paradise Papers list of tax evaders; etc. – and that’s all just in the last 2 decades, not even considering that they were one of the large German companies that profited from the forced labour of thousands of POWs and Eastern-European civilians.

        • Vivi:
          This is an interesting suggestion:
          what matters is that it is legally obligated to produce profits for its shareholders.

          Does this mean then that the corporate directors and managers can somehow be held to a legal remedy if they fail to produce profits for their shareholders?? Wow – now there’s a stock I need to get shares of.

  7. Thanks again for the comments everyone. I’m a bit behind the game so I’ll just restrict myself to a few brief responses.

    Seeds – Vivi has nicely laid out the reasons why most growers/farmers like me in the richer countries don’t involve themselves too much in seed saving and/or plant breeding, and also the main reasons for my scepticism about GM crops, ie. corporate control and the seed/agri-chemical nexus, which I think has the potential to do much mischief in poor countries, despite the ‘pro-poor’ ideology. I hadn’t realised that was exactly the situation with GM crops in the UK, but to my knowledge they’re not currently grown here – plenty of voices wanting to change that, and plenty of voices against. And yes, regulatory oversight in theory is very tight here – I know of farm activists turning themselves into the police as a publicity stunt for arranging seed swaps, much to the bemusement of the local constabulary. In practice, nobody’s too bothered about what home gardeners do with their seeds, but the closer you sail to commercially significant materials the stickier it gets, if you’ll forgive me for mixing metaphors. I appreciate the plant breeder’s case for getting a return on their work – and also the case for a certain regulatory oversight of what can otherwise be something of a field day (literally?) for charlatans – but I’m a little nervous about Clem’s use of the term ‘property’ above. I guess I’d say that what the plant breeder owns is their labour, I’m less comfortable about pushing property rights over germplasm very far…sounds too much like an enclosure of the commons to me. And on that note it’s good to hear that there’s still significant (though by the sound of it, not THAT significant) public plant-breeding going on in the US. I’m not sure that’s still the case here – another example of the UK going one step further even than the leader of the ‘free’ world in ‘freeing’ its productivity.

    Beef and lamb – yep, branding. I know of producers who ship their cattle up to Scotland for a few weeks pre-slaughter so that it can be sold as ‘Scottish’ beef. And on lamb, I guess there’s a slight complementarity in terms of the seasonality of UK and NZ lamb, but not enough in my book to justify shipping it halfway around the world, however low the shipping costs or emissions – another case of ‘the market’ trumping the markets. It’s a fair bet that post-Brexit the UK lamb industry will collapse with the likely changes to the subsidy regimen, which will please the re-wilders and the free marketeers. NZ farmers will be able to exact vengeance for what happened to them when the UK went into the EU back in the 1970s (or the EEC as I believe it was called then), but I don’t think any of it makes much sense from a food sovereignty perspective.

    Change agents – my sense is that the Nicaragua and Senegal teams were able to engage people via their farming organisations with significant political clout at least at local levels, which opened doors for some of their initiatives. In the UK, we tried to entice civil servants working in the agriculture ministry and representatives of planning organisations, but without success. We did have people from some large landowning organisations and some people from the financial world with interesting takes on funding small-scale farming, so it wasn’t all bad…

  8. Chris offered:
    …but I’m a little nervous about Clem’s use of the term ‘property’ above. I guess I’d say that what the plant breeder owns is their labour, I’m less comfortable about pushing property rights over germplasm very far…sounds too much like an enclosure of the commons to me.

    Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of… oops, wrong personality. But I do hope to allay your fears of varietal property being somehow like the enclosures of the commons of old. In the land enclosures a given piece of property could only be “held” by one person or one group within a given season. If you have a 50 hectare commons you ONLY have a 50 hectare commons. Further, that particular commons can’t be relocated. It sits where it sits.

    If a plant breeder takes public variety A and crosses it to public variety B and then through many years of labor develops private variety C she has not ‘used up’ either of the parent varieties. A and B are still available to be grown by farmers and gardeners. Furthermore, there is nothing to stop some other farmer or gardener from making the same AxB cross and developing his own new variety (other than all the work). [the case for hybrid crops gets far more nuanced than this simple explanation, but I’d be happy to go there if necessary]. So one can reasonably infer that the first plant breeder has ‘enclosed’ nothing. The new variety is developed from materials that still exist and are still available to others (and might well have been in use at the very same time that the original cross was being made and the subsequent variety developed). Hard to see a land equivalent there.

    Suppose we change the focus of our metaphor to a potter. She kneads up a lump of clay and goes to her wheel and throws a pot. Her skills allow her to fashion a rather nice piece. No one suggests that she has somehow ‘enclosed’ what was once part of a commons. But the original lump of clay she employed is now a pot and can be sold as such. A piece of property. No one else can make a pot from that particular ‘lump of clay’ anymore. Same goes for a painter’s canvass or an author’s ink and paper (or a blogger’s electronic message).

    If by making the cross between A and B the breeder somehow “used up” this resource so that they were no longer available, then you might have a reasonable concern. As it stands, I fail to see an issue.

  9. Clem, for me the issue isn’t about ‘using up’ but exclusive rights to income streams. In your example, if A and B are clearly in the public domain, then I have no problem with the idea of a private company profiting from selling A x B, at least for a while. But maybe some issues arise inasmuch as C ultimately stems from collective human endeavour (true even if A and B themselves have arisen in part from private breeding efforts) so there are boundary issues around privatising the income stream. There are also some issues around what ‘clearly’ in the public domain means, because it strikes me that there are some ambiguities about how available some germplasm truly is. I’ve written before on this site about commons and private property rights, and generally I’m quite sympathetic to private property rights – provided that the few don’t inordinately appropriate resources produced by the many. The seed business strikes me as one arena in which there are considerable risks of that – not because those involved in it are bad people (though I’d concur that certain seed companies deserve the bad press they get) but because of the nature of the business.

    The issue of patent vs generic drugs raised by Vivi captures the nature of the issue for me. There are some intrinsic conflicts between private and public good. The drug companies are always going to complain that the generic manufacturers are a menace. But without them, the drug companies would certainly be a menace.

    Vivi, I only just noticed your comments about golden rice. Like you, I’m not so bothered about the safety of eating it but I don’t think it’s a good strategy for tackling VAD, I’m distrustful of Syngenta’s motivations, I’m not especially sympathetic to Potrykus’s line on it and I think the ‘scaremongering’ of environmental groups is no more reprehensible than the arrogant over-promotion of it as the solution to VAD by proponents whose main interest in VAD seems to have more to do with the possibilities of mitigating it through a GM route than in tackling the consequences of poverty. And so far as I can tell it seems to be still a long way from viable roll-out for reasons largely unconnected with the regulatory burden. There – maybe those assertions will bring Graham Strouts out of retirement…

  10. I think I’ll need more help with this:

    But maybe some issues arise inasmuch as C ultimately stems from collective human endeavour (true even if A and B themselves have arisen in part from private breeding efforts) so there are boundary issues around privatising the income stream.

    What example of anything that is offered for sale doesn’t ultimately stem from collective human endeavor at some level? A book, to be read, must be written in a language… one the author uses for her purpose to convey her creativity. But the author is using a language that ultimately stems from collective human endeavor. What boundary issues should the book author then respect with regard to the income stream from the book? A vege grower markets his produce through a vege box scheme – a scheme he himself has not invented but is understood by others without extensive explanation because, through collective human endeavor, a form of market access has been adopted. Said grower can promote the vege box scheme through the internet – and the internet itself is a collective human endeavor. Are there aspects of the vege growers income stream that require some boundaries? How are these boundaries defined? Who defines them?

    • Ahh… patent expiration. There is a boundary. That’s actually a good boundary from where I stand. The matter in the commercial plant breeding world is that a new variety will seldom last until a patent runs out. Newer varieties will come into the market and replace them. And if they don’t – when the patent expires the variety essentially becomes public domain. Is this the boundary to which you’re referring?

    • >What example of anything that is offered for sale doesn’t ultimately stem from collective human endeavor at some level?

      Well precisely… Which is why claims to have an intrinsic right to private appropriation of anything are always basically fictitious, though sometimes they’re fictions that may be worth entertaining.

      > Are there aspects of the vege growers income stream that require some boundaries? How are these boundaries defined? Who defines them?

      To reiterate my basic point from the piece above I’d prefer to generalise those questions to peasant farming or food sovereignty. There are always aspects of everyone’s income stream that require some boundaries, but in the case of peasant farmers these boundaries are usually defined by people other than farmers and farm communities for reasons that have little to do with the welfare of the same. Generally I’m sympathetic to the view that farmers and their communities should have more of a voice in defining those boundaries, and perhaps the activism around seeds in Senegal and Nicaragua is an example of farmers trying to raise their voice in this way.

    • >What example of anything that is offered for sale doesn’t ultimately stem from collective human endeavor at some level?

      Well precisely… Which is why claims to have an intrinsic right to private appropriation of anything are always basically fictitious, though sometimes they’re fictions that may be worth entertaining.

      > Are there aspects of the vege growers income stream that require some boundaries? How are these boundaries defined? Who defines them?

      To reiterate my basic point from the piece above I’d prefer to generalise those questions to peasant farming or food sovereignty. There are always aspects of everyone’s income stream that require some boundaries, but in the case of peasant farmers these boundaries are usually defined by people other than farmers and farm communities for reasons that have little to do with the welfare of the same. Generally I’m sympathetic to the view that farmers and their communities should have more of a voice in defining those boundaries, and perhaps the activism around seeds in Senegal and Nicaragua is an example of farmers trying to raise their voice in this way.

      …and on patent expiration, yes that’s one example of a public/private boundary. My knowledge in this area is pretty summary, but there’s certainly a lot of activism around what the activists regard as the over-reach of bio-patenting – Vandana Shiva et al on biopiracy. I couldn’t comment on the details – I’d be interested if others can – but there’s an obvious incentive for private companies to try to patent whatever they can for as long as they can, and I’d argue a need for a regulatory framework to keep it in check.

      …but I’m not, of course, arguing that plant breeders shouldn’t be recompensed for their important work!

          • I am quite against it as well. Particularly in the most obnoxious circumstances. As with most phenomena we might consider there seems a certain distribution (the proverbial scale from 1-10). In the case of rent seeking I might set the end points at extremely onerous on one end to mildly irritating at the other.

  11. With reference to ‘privatising the income streams’ from a common, perhaps the issue should be the purpose of that privatisation. Chris, I don’t really see how any resources taken from a common could be described in a way other than ‘privatisation’, in the sense that they are used for the benefit of the individual with right to the common. But customs for the use of commons often stipulated that the resources taken could only be used on the commoner’s holding, not for commercial gain. Moreover the collective management of the common required that resource extraction went hand in hand with maintenance of the resource.

    I’m not quite sure what the seed breeding equivalent would be, but presumably your concerns centre on the commercial use of the ‘privatised’ hybrid. Clem’s example seems to concern a farmer creating a hybrid for private use, so I think it’s fine as far as it goes, but the force of the example would change if the hybrid was subsequently treated as a piece of property to be sold, as in the pot example that follows.

    Surely the key here is to envision ways in which seed breeders and farmers could support one another in the common enterprise of provisioning, and so avoid the need to involve commercial relationships and the introduction of ideas of ‘property’. Presumably this would have to involve some kind of collectively maintained germplasm bank, as the equivalent to a common.

  12. Interesting as ever – I’ve only time to skim the comments section which is my loss – But thanks everyone for posting.
    The lamb question caught my eye – here in the UK we import as much lamb from NZ as we import from elsewhere. It’s a perfect representation of our economics. GDP grows from all that trade and middle men prosper, while there’s not one jot more to eat.
    On a related note there was talk of land values – I saw some figures for the UK indicating that much/most of the growth in the notional wealth of the UK between 1993 and 2015 could be attributed to the rise in land values here.

  13. Clem, you may need to translate that question out of economese for me, but – dusting off my notes from the economics course I took twenty years ago – I’m reading it as ‘Do you think that attempts to increase one’s share of income purely on the basis of superior access to an income generating resource impose risks on other people not party to the resource?’ To which I think I’d say yes, potentially. Maybe you could explain where you’re going with this?

    I’m sensing some irritation on your part, perhaps because the discussion has drifted into questioning the rights of plant breeders to private appropriation. I guess one of your points is why single out plant breeders, when just about everyone else appropriates public resources too? It’s a fair question, to which I’d reply I’m not singling out plant breeders alone – I just think we need to consider private appropriation generally. If the person who came up with the idea of putting vegetables in a box and selling it direct was able to patent it, then we’d all be in very serious trouble. I think we ARE all in very serious trouble (well, a lot of us anyway) because of excessive rent-seeking – I thought Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ was pretty good on this. Bankers and financiers come out of it a lot worse than plant breeders, incidentally.

    But is there anything specifically about private plant breeding that’s a cause for alarm? Probably not. Monopolies are a cause for alarm, and there seems some danger of that in the plant breeding world – more than in the farming world. Likewise with vertical integration. Aggressively punitive action against alleged transgressors doesn’t always look good – though perhaps the extent of that is debatable. Some people get a bit queasy about the patenting of living things. I’m not sure how much that matters, but I’m sure that a world in which the building blocks of a decent life – veg boxes, steel, that sort of thing – are subject to monopolistic control is one worth avoiding. So at that basic level, I think farmers who save their own seed are worth cheering. And I generally favour making entry barriers in the agrarian world as low as possible.

    In relation to Andrew’s points – I guess it may be worth distinguishing between ‘a commons’ qua a defined common pool resource and a more generic sense of ‘public domain’. As Clem pointed out, the issue isn’t about using up the resource, so private appropriation from the public domain isn’t really the problem. The problem is how much of the germplasm remains truly in the public domain – to which I don’t have a specific answer, only the contention that the answer ought to be ‘a lot’. To me that’s more important than keeping commercial or property relations out of the seedsman/farmer relationship inasmuch as ‘property’ essentially means the right to an income stream. I don’t dispute people’s right to income streams – but exclusive appropriation of their constitutive resources needs safeguarding against in all fields, not just plant-breeding. Indeed, it needs safeguarding against in ‘fields’ especially – land prices being another important arena of appropriation.

    • Your sensing abilities serve you well. You and I tend to agree in broad strokes on most issues, but I had gotten the feeling earlier in the thread that plant breeding was being singled out for private appropriation (which I’d still maintain is stretching the appropriation aspect, but that matter can rest for now). When you came back with the Vandana Shiva reference I just about lost it.

      Biopiracy does occur. There is a most egregious example of it right here in the States involving dry bean germplasm that was patented in the US. Should never have been patented in the first place (applicant did no breeding or even selection… basically a theif). So there is an issue. But there is also the more respectable (to me anyway… and yes, I am biased here) breeding to improve the domesticates we rely upon for our daily sustenance. Also roped into Dr. Shiva’s net of bioprospecting is germplasm collection which has a long history – and a history that rides the coat tails of empire building and colonialization. So if we want to go down that road we’ll find it difficult to wash the collective blood off almost anyone who isn’t yet today a peasant. We’ve already talked about what the foodshed in England might look like if it had to rely upon only what existed there when the first peoples crossed the channel.

      Allow me to offer a paragraph from the paper you referred to above (these are Dr Shiva’s words):
      Bioprospecting creates impoverishment within donor communities by claiming monopolies on resources and knowledge that previously enabled communities to meet their health and nutrition needs and by forcing those communities to pay for what was originally theirs. Thus bioprospecting leads to the enclosure of the biological and intellectual commons through the conversion of indigenous communities’ usurped biodiversity and biodiversity-related knowledge into commodities protected by intellectual property rights (IPRs).

      And the dry bean patent issued here in the US (since revoked BTW) is an example she could point to. But if we change the details from appropriation of a currently grown landrace variety to the landrace varieties of a society now long dead and where no modern society still raises said landrace except perchance for a hobby… and then use these ancestral genetics alone… no communal knowledge.. to do the A x B cross described earlier and to develop a new variety C which is unlikely to even be adapted to the environment from which the progenitors arose (due to matters of selection)… and progenitors A and B still exist because some bioprospector took on the mantle to preserve these genetics (their not being preserved in the native community) – so that they still exist and could reasonably be made available to members of the modern community (where they originated) who have long since gone onto other varieties themselves…

      Tis quite a bit to sit still about when a whole industry gets tarred for the insidious behaviors of a few. Donald Trump is a white male. I am a white male. I sure hope there are a few folks left who might spot me a break and consider that even for my white maleness I still might not be lumped in with him.

  14. Coming from the scorched earth battlefields of Hawaii, I want to congratulate you all on the civility and nuance of this discussion of plant breeding.
    Also Iʻd like to recommend even more civility and nuance. The sins of multi-nationals that moved into the plant breeding realm with their contracts and lawyers should not be visited on the likes of Clem and the other truly public-spirited plant breeders that I know personally. And then we have that whole history of being a ruthless civilization in general, which you have been so kind as to outline for us Chris, which, much as weʻd might like to disown big chunks of it, is not going to let us disown it any time soon.
    We would learn more by looking at a particular case study of the R&D, commercialization, and marketing/distribution of a plant breeding effort and what were the motivations behind it, the social benefit it offered, the history of the parent stock, the agricultural systems and the markets it would be deployed into, etc.

  15. Clem, Michelle: thanks for the debate. One of the things about a blog is that it can go off in all sorts of directions. A specific plant breeding case study would be interesting, but not something I’m planning to do here for now. I don’t think what I’ve written above can really be taken as any kind of blanket critique of plant breeders like Clem, or indeed any other kind of plant breeder. All I’ve said is that I think it’s necessary to attend to private appropriation, in plant breeding as in every other sphere of exchange, and I’ll stick with that. Note that I expressed no opinion about Vandana Shiva’s stance on biopiracy – I just raised it as a matter for debate. She seems to be quite a polarising figure. I once got a roasting for mildly questioning her analysis on this blog. But the starting point for this is Nicaraguan and Senegalese farmers wanting to save and promulgate their own seeds and to grow what they want to grow, rather than what other people say they ought to be growing for their own benefit: I’m not inclined to criticise them for that, and I’m not hearing any major objections to it on this thread, so I’m inclined to leave it at that (Smiley face here).

    • So we should leave with the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address: With Malus toward none, with charity for all

      • Clem, I’m sure you’re a superb plant breeder but I think your real vocation must be as the coiner of truly terrible puns, albeit ones that I concede are always entirely appropriate to the situation.

        • The money in punning is puny. Sorry.
          The money in breeding is more sustainable.
          The fun in punning, well…
          The fun is breeding is also more sustainable.

          Oh, and thanks to Michael’s Pyrus addition we now have a pear of puns. The Rosaceae are great are they not?

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