Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Supreme Court and Corporate Personhood

The recent Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) isn't about corporations being able to give money to a candidate that can then be used by that candidate to pay for a campaign for public office. My understanding is that people and organizations (including companies) have been able to do that with certain limitations for many years. Also, groups of citizens have long been able to pool their resources to influence policies and elections, just as individuals can attempt to do so.

This ruling grants the same rights to any corporation or group that an individual has. These are not groups of citizens united in a common
political goal. Moreover, big companies have comparatively unlimited financial resources to draw upon to influence elections. Companies can now create and implement their own support for a candidate. This opens the doors for companies to not just contribute to a political campaign, but to pay for their own ads, infomercials, documentaries, signs, etc. to aid a given candidacy or to hinder another -- without limitation.

What this will also serve to do is politicize the board of directors of companies. That isn't to say that members don't have political views already or that those views probably already lean to the right. But if the company is going to spend tens of millions of dollars to influence an important election, that board is going to have to decide which candidate that is, which is a political decision that defines the political stance of the whole company. And that is a fundamental change, since every company in America that wants to influence government has now become as much a political entity as a financial one.

Generally I come down on the "let the marketplace of ideas sort things out" side of things and approve of judgments that open up free speech for individuals. In this case however I do not agree with the Supreme Court. Employees of companies can and do have every right to voice their support for a candidate, but to give that same right to a company is granting too many personal rights to an organization. Corporations should not as entities be entitled to the same rights and protections as individuals. Prohibiting corporations from freely influencing elections is a layer of protection we individuals have from companies being able to in effect buy our government. 

Consider this. In 2009 companies in the financial securities business were able to afford to pay out an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses to their executives -- executives that were at the helms of their companies during one of the largest financial collapses in history. That is just bonus money. Imagine what companies might be willing to spend to put into office someone who will legislate consistently in the favor of that company. Which is to say nothing of how much whole industries might spend to install a completely cooperative Congress and President. And why not do it? Think of how long term corporate profits can be insured by a continuing investment in friendly government. It is almost worth it at any cost.

Here is an excerpt from the dissenting opinion on this case, written by Justice Stevens:
At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.
You can read the whole opinion including the dissenting opinion here: (be warned, this is a very long document)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cross pollination of genetically engineered traits

It is important to note that in the age of genetic engineering, traditional plant breeding techniques have not been abandoned.  Those breeding programs are still used to provide a good base genetic stock into which to insert GMO (genetically modified organism) genes. The advantage of GMO techniques is that they are both faster and cheaper, because it is considerably less haphazard.  This is especially true when trying to insert the ability to produce a protein from a different species, such as the Bt in insect resistant corn.

Because GMO corn still uses pollination to produce grain, there is a concern that GMO traits will migrate into non-GMO fields. One example might be when a field of non-GMO corn is right next to a field of Roundup Ready or Bt corn.  The non-GMO plants might end up producing grain that has picked up partial genes that code for GMO traits.  This would effect the grain in the ear of the corn plant, not the plant itself.  And because corn seed is not held back for planting the following year this would be a one-time issue if it occurred at all.  See the paragraph here about hybridization.

I used to grow non-GMO corn and it was exceptionally rare that we'd have problems with that.  Non-GMO corn is tested for GMO traits when it is delivered to the buyer -- and we had very few loads rejected in the years we grew that specialty corn.  We stopped because the premium we were paid did not come close to making up for the yield difference, not because cross pollination was a problem.

Cross pollination of soybeans is even less of an issue.  Their flowers don't move pollen very far and produce a lot less of it over a shorter period of time -- compared to corn.

So called organic farming is simply not done on any scale at all with corn and soybeans near me.  The closest I can think of would be growing non-GMO corn or soybeans for a premium contract -- which isn't done much anymore since Europe lifted their restrictions on American GMO crops.  I do have (and buy from) a local organic vegetable producer, but there is no danger at all of cross species pollination from the GMO crops planted around their (really big) garden.  Oh and for the record, I buy from this local organic CSA because they are local, not because they are organic.  

Monsanto has sued farmers for violations of the seed technology agreement that the farmer signed in order to buy soybean seed, in which the farmer promised not to retain seed to plant the following year.  If Monsanto tests leaf samples from one of my fields and those samples are definitively proven through genetic tests to be a specific Monsanto soybean seed, I had better have seed invoices to account for that.  Cross pollination would not cause the plant itself to suddenly pick up some Monsanto trait, let alone change itself into a completely new variety.  I haven't looked into many of these cases, almost all are settled out of court with sealed records.  But my understanding of the testing methods used to build a case is that cross pollination wouldn't explain the genetic testing results.  

Friday, January 15, 2010

Some perspectives on Monsanto and GMO crops

Like many Americans, I hear all sorts of interesting attitudes and misconceptions about genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. Unlike most Americans, I am a corn and soybean farmer. I have also been a Monsanto brands seed dealer. Given my occupation, I have had to learn about the genetically modified crop issues because all of this is irrevocably linked to my job. All of that said, I am no fan of Monsanto and I'll try to explain why while I clear up some misconceptions that I have encountered.

The soybean seeds that we farmers plant are almost always GMO, so that they will have the Roundup Ready gene, which is patented by Monsanto. There may or may not be other GMO traits inserted into the genetics for other herbicide resistances or disease resistance. Those genes may be from Monsanto or some other seed company like Pioneer. Farmers want this seed because it boosts yield and simplifies weed control. My average soybean yields have gone up by more than 30% since the advent of GMO seeds. Instead of up to three herbicide applications, using three or more different herbicides, I now usually use one application of one or two herbicides. We definitely use less herbicide now -- a lot less.

Farmers sign a technology agreement promising not to retain seed after harvest for replanting the following year. This agreement exists because soybean seeds are not sterile. If I grow a field of a particular variety of soybeans, what I harvest will be that same seed with the same traits, just a lot more of it than I bought to plant that field. Not only are these plants and their seeds not sterile, they also can't cause sterility via cross pollenation with unrelated plants nearby. Perhaps in the future that will change, but for the time being, forced sterility is a fiction.

Corn is a different matter. Firstly, the corn I'm going to be talking about here is field corn which has various industrial uses, not the sweet corn that you'd buy at the grocery store. Corn seed is the result of hybridization, with male plants and female plants in a field that is grown to produce seed for the following year. This has been the way corn seed has been grown and sold to farmers for many decades. Why? Regardless of GMO traits, hybridized corn has a huge yield advantage. Corn yields have gone up by more than 300% in the last century as a direct result of hybridized breeding programs.

Adding GMO traits is just another set of tools that seed companies have used to boost the yields even more. As with GMO soybeans, my corn yields have gone up in the last few years as I've switched over to GMO corn seed. Again, Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene is omnipresent and for the same reasons I wrote above. Corn has also been modified to insert many different kinds of disease and insect resistance, which reduces the total amount of chemicals that must be sprayed onto a field of corn. For example, this coming season I will only apply insecticide on about 10% of my corn acres, instead of every acre just 6 years ago.

The problem with all of this as far as I'm concerned isn't the use of genetic engineering. It is a selective breeding tool and we are going to need every trick we can come up with to push yields even higher, with many more crops, if we have any hope of being able to feed 10 billion people from the same (or fewer) acres of arable land in the not distant future. If we discover a trait with an unintended health consequence, change it or drop it -- either of which is easier to do now than it would be with traditional breeding techniques.

My problem isn't with the applied science, it is with the business practices of the big player in this industry, Monsanto. That company has a virtual monopoly on corn and soybean seed production in North America and therefore the world. Because the Roundup Ready gene is patented, highly desired by farmers, and has no competition -- Monsanto licenses it's use to their competition. I don't have a problem with that. However, Monsanto doesn't just lease the trait, they force package deals of many patented traits on their competition. Also Monsanto won't allow their traits to be mixed with certain competitor traits in the competitor's own seed! This makes it nearly impossible to buy a corn or soybean seed that doesn't have Monsanto genetics and it severely hurts competitor brands from developing completely separate genetic lines to compete with Monsanto in the marketplace.

So even though Monsanto isn't a true monopoly, they are able to leverage their competition to such a degree that Monsanto is able to act like a monopoly in some respects. Such as influencing the price of seed. When Monsanto raises their prices for seed, so does everyone else, because Monsanto raises the fees these other companies have to pay to get Monsanto's genetic traits. And Monsanto sure has been raising the prices! In the last three years, the price of a particular Monsanto corn seed has jumped by close to 40% -- despite being genetically unchanged/unimproved in that period.

[EDIT -- As of September 2010, I have given up the seed sales aspect of my operation.  My only link to Monsanto is as a customer.]