Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Monsanto and The Farmer

David the Good Farmer on the lookout for Cyclops.
If you've been on the internet for longer than ten minutes, no doubt you've either clicked on a blog or received a forwarded email (aren't they always?) telling you a story about Monsanto and a farmer that was "just trying to save his seeds." A few details vary depending on who's telling the story, but the general narrative goes like this:

Good Farmer works hard in his fields. One day, the wind blows pollen (seed? depends on the writer's comfort with invoking biological fictions...) from adjoining field of Bad Farmer who's using the seeds made by Evil Corporation.

Good Farmer believes this is "natural", and sees no problem keeping the seeds from his Good Strain of "crops" (wheat? maize? rice?) and replanting them the following season. This is a Good Tradition.

In Season 2, the Evil Corporation confronts the Good Farmer claiming he must either pay up or plow under. Worse, this is by design. The Evil Corporation has set these events in motion to achieve it's Evil ends.

If you've spent any time thinking about narrative analysis, you can instantly recognize this setup as a David v. Goliath story arc, with all its attendant implications: Evil Corporation is the Cyclops, a single-focus giant with all the power, while Good Farmer is David. What's curious is why this framing is invoked when David has completely failed to fell his Cyclops...

The details of the actual case, however, differ enough that the disparity deserves some examination, and I think it's helpful to write the actual story using the characters of David and Goliath.

This story actually begins with David taking something that belonged to Goliath - his bag of seeds. Goliath asked for something in return, but David refused, instead challenging the giant to a fight. As soon as Goliath accepts, David makes an appeal to the populace: "Help me, look how big this giant is! He'll crush us all!"

So for ten years, the Good People throw small rocks at Goliath until finally, David admits he's just a small-town bumpkin who picked a fight with a giant because "Hey, look, a giant!"

We close the book, so to speak, but David's still a farmer and Goliath's still a giant. What was the point of this story, again?


It's critical to note the tendency to substitute narrative for knowledge: fiction for fact, as it were. Anti-GMO crusaders invoke this story not for its facts but for its character shorthand and narrative suggestion(s). We invoke David v. Goliath because we want to talk about power, specifically a perceived disparity in its distribution, but more specifically, by setting up the conflict, we agree that power exists in the first place.

Because someone's got to have it, right? "What else could explain this soul-crushing pressure I feel everyday? Some one or some thing must be doing this!"


Corporations represent an existential threat. They are powerful as a summary of their activities, yet can be strangely ephemeral - our most common contact with a corporation is via its lowest-paid employees, and many of us have immediate family/friends that work for major brands. So they are both threatening and insulated from violence (you can't 'hurt' them.)

In this examination, people invoke this story about Monsanto not because they want to discuss biology or patent law, but because they want to deal with the idea of power, specifically the feeling of powerlessness, more specifically, the feeling of being put upon by someone/thing more powerful while being unable to assert oneself or influence circumstances.

THE PROBLEM with using this framing is it only serves to set up the (losing) fight - it's better to find a framing that suggests a resolution or path to change.


(in part 2 I will explore some ideas about picking narrative frames to describe/affect one's worldview.)


Nathan said...

So this was the case about the farmer vs. Monsanto. Talk about a telephone game occurring. I didn't even know that the case was in Saskatchewan, every story showed it as being in the US.

Also, it appears that the defendant was actively cultivating these particular seeds and the genetic material didn't just get blown in by the wind. I'm curious to know how he ending up cultivating the seeds and using them without an original purchase from Monsanto; though I'm also not all the way through the court document.

As for your statements regarding Corporation, I would say that they would be considered a necessary evil in that they are very large employers and are heavy contributors to the economy. However, I think that they have become too powerful and in some ways corrupt in the sense of being in positions to regulate themselves and not be examined by the third party entity. Since we're talking Monsanto, let's use them. Honestly, I don't think I'm okay with a company who makes genetically modified foodstuffs to be self-regulatory.

Jeremiah said...

" I'm curious to know how he ending up cultivating the seeds and using them without an original purchase from Monsanto.."

The explanation accepted by the court was it was an error on the part of the seed mixing contractor - they'd accidentally mixed a few (few = < 100) GMO seeds. The farmer let the crops seed (not a terminator!), replanted until he had a full field of Monsanto maize.

Nathan said...

In that case, my primary interest in regards to judging this whole debacle would be whether or not the farmer knew that he had propagated Monsanto seeds when he let the crops do their work. If so, then yeah, I can see how he would be at fault. If not, then Monsanto is just being an ass.

Jeremiah said...

In my understanding, yes, he knew, but had planned all along to claim it was his right as a farmer to harvest the seed.

If memory serves, one interesting detail about the case was that Monsanto was alerted to his crop by other farmers who'd paid the licensing fees. They originally offered him a reasonable deal to keep his crop legally. He turned them down.