Less is More

Minimalism benefits seed companies but for farmers, not so much

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Minimalism first got a start with Robert Browning in 1855.Browning described the drab work of painter Andrea del Sarto by saying “less is more”. About 100 years later minimalism was applied to everything from music to architecture . Today, it has finally gotten around to agriculture, because now we know that crops with more transplanted genes can be poorer than better hybrids with less DNA fiddling.

Browning would be inspired.

According to reports, ag seed and chemical company Monsanto’s stock price is on the ropes since farmers have learned that insect pest control integrated into plant cells ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Gene stacking, the seed company practice of cramming as many versions of the insecticidal bacteria, bacillus thuringiensis, into corn hybrids doesn’t necessarily deliver superior yields unless the genes are placed into superior yielding plants. One problem may be that once the gene insertion takes place; good genes are disrupted which renders that corn plant less than it might have been. That’s something the seed industry calls “bad conversion”.

On the other hand, maybe the converted plants weren’t that good in the first place.
Either way seed profits just keep getting better as the inflated cost of seed corn rises, borne by charges for genes that may not really meet the goal of growing more corn.

[imgcontainerleft] [img:soybeans.jpg]

Detail of the mighty soybean [/imgcontainer] According to reports it’s not just seed corn but soybeans too. Boasts of better yields through a ‘new’ gene giving plants resistance to glyphosate were overstated last year. Roundup Ready 2 may be better as newer varieties of plants contain it. But with Roundup Ready 2 scheduled to take the place of the older patented Roundup Ready gene (currently in most commercially grown soybeans) once 20 year protections expire in 2014, the yield had better be as advertised. Otherwise farmers might choose to save seed from their own farm rather than pay seed companies for something with questionable benefits and value.

But there’s a twist, because if somehow the Roundup Ready 2 gene were to be found in older Roundup soybeans, farmers could be prevented from growing their own seed by the same patent law that’s held seed-savers at bay over the last 16 years.

Let me put it this way; I am responsible for keeping my bull out of the neighbor’s cow pastures. If Toro jumps the fence, my neighbor owns the calves he sires. But if patented genes jump the fence into my soybeans, the patent holder gets the whole crop. As owner of the bull the law requires me to maintain a good fence, but biotech seed companies aren’t even expected to build one.
For better or worse, a single company could be an economic gatekeeper, controlling seed rights and profits from an entire crop grown worldwide, for another 20 years. That could go on and on as new gene insertions continue to be patented…possibly forever.

Seed patents upheld by the courts are old news, but it’s interesting the number of off-farm folks who don’t realize the extent or value of control now exercised over some of the world’s most commonly grown and vital crops. Even more important is the power of corporations to persuade government that less is more.

In 2008, Monsanto first convinced the federal government that farmers who plant its stacked gene GMO corn deserve a break on crop insurance premiums. This is supposedly because stacked gene hybrids are less risky to grow . That means taxpayers  now subsidize farmers, and indirectly Monsanto , by charging the farmers a lower premium on their federally subsidized crop insurance when they buy Monsanto’s seed.

Now we have rules in place giving me credit on my crop insurance premium, for planting seeds that may actually yield less than others. I pass that credit on to the seed company by buying their seed at marked up prices even though recent yield checks support the fact that I may grow the same or a smaller crop than if I had used different seed at a lower price without collecting the insurance subsidy.

If results are bad enough, I could even have a crop loss against my subsidized crop insurance. This is like getting a break on car insurance for buying an SUV that homes in on white tail deer.
The plot thickens, because as farmers get crop insurance credits for paying the price of GMO seeds yielding less, a disaster bill now languishing in Congress would have made payments to farmers who experience crop losses as low as 5%.

It looks like greatest benefits of Bt may go to growers of non-transgenic crops as populations of damaging insects are decreased by neighboring fields planted to patented seed. That’s according to a study reported in the journal Science, that insect feeding damage appears to be in decline across the farm belt.

At our farm, yields are almost always best from non-GMO corn, even with crop losses due to insects figured in. Here around Langdon, this year’s experience with a competing brand of RR2 soybeans licensed from Monsanto on one plot has been that yields are about the same under similar growing conditions and on similar soil types to past experience with older Roundup Ready genes. On another field yields may have fallen a little short.

That’s why, with higher prices being charged for the newest designer genetics, it looks to me like Browning got it backwards.

When it comes to seed monopolies, more is actually less.

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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