A Libertarian Visits Monsanto
“Eww, I can’t believe you’re eating all those GMOs,” a kid once told me, as I was eating Burger King french fries for lunch. Needless to say, it didn’t really help my appetite.
I asked, “How do you know that GMOs are bad for you?” as I ate another fry.
She said, “Everybody knows that.” Indeed. Everybody does seem to know lately that GMOs are bad for you. News articles, documentaries, and protesters have been telling us about the dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms for years, and many people are very upset about the food on our dinner plates. Recently, the Big Island banned GMOs altogether, and other islands are thinking of doing the same. But this raises a question: should we as libertarians be for, or against GMOs?
On Maui, the Monsanto office is right in our backyard; in Kihei. I had the chance to visit with Dan Clegg, the land and resource manager at Monsanto on Maui. He gave me a tour of their factory, and we were accompanied by a team of experts and scientists.
Outside the office was a large corn field. Workers dressed in white were pollinating the plants by putting a paper bag over the yellow tassel on the top of the corn. They would select the very best plants of the bunch, and then use the bags to pollinate the silks – a practice that has been going on for thousands of years.
I told Dan Clegg, “I thought this was going to be a scientific lab with lots of microscopes and syringes.”
He said, “Oh, you mean bio-technology. That’s done on the mainland.” He explained that they use it very sparingly, and that most of the work that’s done at Monsanto on Maui is the old fashioned manual breeding with paper bags.
I asked him, “If you could go anywhere in the world, why would you choose Maui to farm?”
He said, “Because of the seasons. On the mainland, you can only get through one season a year. But on Maui, you can get through three seasons in just one year. That’s a huge advantage.” More seasons means more breeding selection, and more advanced seeds that can be sold to farmers on the mainland.
We spent two hours walking around the property, and Dan and his team of scientists had all the perfect glowing answers you would expect for questions about pesticides, cancer, health risks, and labeling. But at the end of the day, it was Monsanto’s word against the protesters.
The GMO question is a tough one. As a libertarian, I believe that if Monsanto wants to grow plants on their property in new ways, they should have the freedom to do so. At the same time, Monsanto is a monopoly, owning the vast majority of the world’s GMO seeds. This means that one company is largely responsible for most of the GMO food in the world, and that’s a scary thought.
I asked the scientists, “Monsanto is a monopoly. Shouldn’t we get rid of patent laws, so that other companies could use the technology and make it better?”
“No,” was the response. The scientists responded that they work hard to come up with the technology, and if they didn’t have a patent on seeds, the technology would be used by other companies.
But that is exactly the point.
Long ago, seeds were public domain. Any farmer could take any seed and experiment with it. He could breed a new seed, and then sell it on the seed market for a small profit. Then other farmers could experiment with the new seeds, and try to breed their own seeds. This created a market for healthy, safe, and high yielding seeds.
Corn was ‘invented’ this way. Ancient Native American farmers would breed the best stalks of grass into what we know today as corn. The corn was shared and traded in a free market of seeds over many years, creating all the many varieties of corn we know today. The entire process was done with no patents, or copyrights at all.
Today, farmers are restricted from doing any of that. There are so many restrictions on the seeds, some farmers have been dragged into court over allegations of seeds blowing into another farmer’s field – and all of this has to do with patent laws.
Take away the patent laws, and suddenly all seeds would be public domain once again, as they have been for thousands of years. A brand new market would blossom to make the seeds healthier and safer. Seed prices would fall, along with the price of food. Many different varieties of corn and plants would appear again, doing away with the mono-culture of today’s farms. And billions of people in the third world would benefit from cheap, abundant food.
Let’s not forget that Genetically Modified Food could actually be good for the world. However, GMOs in the hands of a government protected monopoly could indeed be very dangerous. Monsanto exists because of it’s patent on seeds. But only recently have seeds been ‘patented’. Seeds have been public domain ever since the agricultural revolution that started thousands of years ago. It’s time to make seeds public domain once again.