Both of these were headlines today:

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Ban On GM Alfalfa [ScienceInsider]

High Court Leaves Ban On Planting Of GE Alfalfa In Place [Civil Eats]

There was much confusion in my Google Reader, but perhaps more so amongst the media coverage, with each side in a major legal battle over genetically modified crops claiming victory.  As so often happens, the excellent online magazine Grist gives us the real story.  The key paragraph is about two-thirds of the way through the article:

“More importantly, the Supreme Court has also now ruled for the very first time that “environmental harm” includes economic effects such as reduced agricultural yield or loss of market due to genetic contamination, as well as the concept of what biologists refer to as “gene flow” (in practice, the idea that genetically engineered material may get into conventional plants through cross-pollination). The Supreme Court now accepts that this phenomenon in and of itself is harmful and illegal under current environment protections.”

I’ve had countless debates about genetically modified crops with my brother, who, being a scientist, is unabashedly pro-technology, in this instance as in most others.  While many members of the food and environmental movements are reflexively anti-GM, to my mind, the real issue is economic, and more than that, it is very real.  Unlike earlier generations of genetically engineered crops, which were typically developed at land-grant institutions and went unpatented, corporate development of GMOs has led to dozens of patented seeds, turning the issue into one of property.  Monsanto has successfully sued numerous farmers who’ve made no error beyond neighboring a farm that plants patented Monsanto seed: because of a natural process called genetic drift, in which seeds are borne by the wind beyond the property line of the farmer who paid for the right to plant those extra-special Monsanto crops, patented, genetically modified crops have grown on farms that never paid for or procured the right to Monsanto’s intellectual property. 

In most instances, it is impossible to acquire another’s intellectual property so accidentally, and so we call it piracy and theft and punish such acts.  Although genetic drift is undeniably different from, say, Napster, small farmers that have found themselves pitted against the resources of a massive multinational corporation have fared poorly; such farmers often lack the deep pockets necessary for a protracted legal battle, and there is little precedent upon which to build a case (for a poignant description of one farmer’s failed fight against Monsanto, check out the excellent “Food, Inc.”).  However, now that the Supreme Court has recognized that genetic drift causes harm to farmers, activists have finally been handed a strategy to fight the most immediate deleterious effects of genetically modified crops.  No wonder they are celebrating, no matter how much of the media is reporting a win for Monsanto.

In unrelated news: this story is worth a read, disheartening though it may be.  I also encountered today for the first time a publication called n+1, which had some truly fascinating macroeconomic analysis about the impact of the financial crisis upon the distribution of labor and capital in contemporary America.  Although the terms of the analysis are Marxist, its bias is not (given that half of my family tree is composed of exiles from a Communist state, I find it necessary to offer that caveat).  Definitely worth a look-see.

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