The Politics of Agriculture

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:10

    Genomics is the cartography of organisms, the mapping of the source code of all forms of life on the planet. As Harvard University researcher Juan Enriquez wrote in a seminal 1998 Harvard Business School case study, genomic scientists "are not only discovering the fundamental code of DNA, but also many different disciplines and discoveries are giving man the ability to study, design and build on a molecular level. By understanding and being able to recreate and modify the instructions that make life, humans will soon be able to directly and deliberately influence their own evolution and that of other species."

    The vanguard of the genomics revolution is, not surprisingly, agriculture. Everybody needs food. First introduced in 1992, genetically engineered crops are now being planted all across the United States. Roughly 50 million acres of genetically altered or enhanced corn, soya and cotton were harvested last year. That's an area roughly the size of New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island all put together. By 2003, agronomists expect that roughly two-thirds of all corn, soya and cotton planted in the United States will be genetically engineered.

    The reasons for planting such crops are straightforward. Genetic engineering holds out the promise of increased productivity, better nutritional value and enhanced capabilities. Corn can be altered to fight off pests. Squash can be engineered to fight off viruses. The protein in soya can be doubled. Bananas can be genetically enhanced to grow medicines that would vaccinate children all around the world. Eventually, food products might merge with pharmaceuticals to create a whole new category called agriceuticals. The promise and possibilities of genomics technology are limitless and profoundly exciting.

    But there are huge risks involved. The possibility of a catastrophic genetic accident looms. In the Times article, the micro concern was that genetically altered squash could breed with wild squash, "creating a 'superweed' that would proliferate in the wild or farmers' fields, comparable to relentless invaders like the kudzu vine of the South and the zebra mussels of the Great Lakes."

    The macro concern is that as global agriculture shifts from a biologically diverse set of crops to a small set of genetically engineered seeds, some unintended consequence might obliterate one-third of the world's soya or half of the world's rice. Lest this seem alarmist, consider one fact: Today, four companies?Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis and Seminis?control 70 percent of the world's seed technology.

    Since genomics research is extraordinarily expensive, the likelihood that most of the world's seed technology will be owned by even fewer corporate entities is almost certain. Huge "life sciences" companies will be the only ones capable of affording the research and development costs. By the year 2010, 90 percent of the world's seed technology will probably be owned by two, perhaps three such companies.

    The implications of that go way beyond the current European backlash against what the English and the French call "genetically modified" or "gm" foods. More than half of the world's population is employed, one way or another, by the agricultural industry. A large percentage of community taxes in Europe and Japan go to pay agricultural subsidies. All of these people are looking down the gun barrel of genomics-driven agriculture.

    Latin America might export millions of bananas every year, but in 10 years' time those bananas might be worthless if they're not genetically enhanced. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world make their living growing coffee, but if that coffee is not genetically engineered to contain the side effects of caffeine, it won't be competitive in the marketplace. Millions of people around the world make their living growing rice, but if that rice is not pest-resistant and twice as nutritious, it'll be heavily discounted in global commodity markets.

    For hundreds of years, the value-added in agriculture was in the farmer and farm machinery. The genomics revolution places all of agriculture's value-added in the information and instruction-sets inside what are called HiBred seeds. HiBred seeds are nonregenerative. Farmers have to buy new packets every year. If all the money is in the packet, what does that mean for half of the world's workers?

    It means they're marginalized. As it is, most of them are supported by community taxation, in the form of agricultural subsidies. Half of all community taxes in France, for instance, go to pay for agricultural subsidies. If the productivity of genomics-based agriculture increases by three percent every year, then agricultural subsidies for traditional agriculture must increase in tandem. In 10 years, that means that 80 percent of community taxation must go to agricultural subsidies.

    That's unsustainable in the short-term and medium-term. It is impossible in the long-term. All agriculture must be genetically engineered in the long-term, or it simply will be unable to compete. And if all the value of agriculture is in seed packets, then the companies that control those seed packets control the livelihoods of half of the world's working population as well as the livelihoods of all those who support them through subsidies.

    That's incredible power and will almost certainly generate a strong social and political backlash. What's truly amazing is that agriculture is just a piece of the genomics revolution. By the end of the next year, either the Human Genome Project or the Celera Genomics Corp. will finish the sequencing of the nearly 3.5 billion nucleotide base pairs contained in every human genome. Once that work is complete, the business of health care, pharmaceuticals and national defense (to name just three) will be transformed. All of the value in those businesses will shift to genomic knowledge. Virtually everything else will be marginalized, in the same way that a Mexican peasant farmer is marginalized by genetically engineered corn.

    The social, political, moral and ethical consequences of that are staggering. Remember Enriquez's words: "By understanding and being able to recreate and modify the instructions that make life, humans will soon be able to directly and deliberately influence their own evolution and that of other species." Today it's seed technology. In a few years, it'll be human technology. The Chinese curse is ours. We live in the most interesting times, ever.