What could be more principled than companies that work to genetically modify seeds, breeding out negative traits and selecting a mix of desirable qualities that make them resistant to pests, hardy enough to withstand droughts or floods as desired? After all, farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years, patiently crossing varieties and developing superior strains of the world’s crops. Enter the profit motive. Still no harm done, we thought! Selfish interest is the lever used by civilizations to lift their peoples to prosperity, with the profit motive as the fulcrum on which this lever rests.
The world has generally accepted the truth of this principle ever since Adam Smith pointed it out in his seminal work, first published in 1776. Except for a relatively brief interlude when some nations experimented with communism and socialism in a failed search for social justice and equity, the world has broadly accepted Smith’s premise that wealth creation is a good thing and ought to be encouraged by enlightened governments that simply move out of the way and allow entrepreneurs to do their stuff. By and large, this is what seems to have happened in the case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Basically, some large corporations have copyrighted and distributed their seeds (sounds fair enough; respect for intellectual property rights sets the basis for innovation and prosperity). The problem is, these corporations have also made the rules about what happens to the seed generations that follow. They have decreed, and governments have accepted, that farmers may not retain a proportion of seeds from their crop for planting the subsequent season, but have to buy the seeds from the corporations again.
As Lizzie Wade points out in her Science article “How Syrians saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War”
…Maize, for example, was created by ancient Mesoamericans by painstakingly breeding more and more appetizing teosinte, a stubby grass with tiny, tough kernels that has so little in common with modern maize that archaeologists dismissed it as a possible wild ancestor until genetic tests revealed the surprising truth. The problem in the short run is that conventional breeding can be s…l…o…w. Teosinte was domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, but farmers only managed to create a variety that tasted good a mere millennium ago
As S. Grant points out in his article “10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods are Already Causing,” once they plant GM crops, farmers can no longer legally harvest their own seeds and are in danger of entering an era of perpetual bondage. Thus serfdom re-enters the world in the 21st century, this time clothed in the language of high-tech and carrying the false promise of freedom from hunger. Lawmakers are all too often ignorant and dazzled by technology, so they fail to realise the problems with GM crops are more to do with social and juridical issues rather than with the technology itself.
“In India, seeds are taken as a symbol of God’s blessing. They keep it, they store it, they know what is good seed and bad seed.” “Control oil and you control nations. Control food, and you control people.”
The above two memorable quotes are from a must-see 9-minute video about Natabar Sarangi, a village farmer who distributes free seeds to poor farmers out of the deep conviction that the thousands of varieties of seeds bred and developed over centuries should not be lost. In the process, he helps many of them to modest prosperity.