Issue 192: July 2001

Food and Drugs:
The Construction of Dependency

by Brewster Kneen

It has been the Ram’s Horn editorial policy to stick fairly closely to our original food/justice agenda – which was first focussed on sheep farming 20 years ago, hence the name. In recent years we have had to give biotech far more attention than we enjoy, but we hold the biotech/drug industry responsible for this. They set out to conquer nature, including us, and we feel, like any good weed, that we have no choice but to resist.

We have, in the past, described industrial agriculture as the construction of dependency. The same can be said for ‘2modern’ medicine. In more recent years it has become, more deliberately I am sure, a process of creating addiction. Addiction requires a fix, and those in a position to deliver the fix can reap handsome profits, or as they say these days, shareholder value.

So now we find our original agenda stretched as we try both to adhere to it and to adapt to our changing environment. We know we have a dedicated and influential readership that has followed us as we were pushed by the likes of Cargill into analyzing trade and corporate control and by Monsanto into developing a critique of genetic engineering. Now we ask you to travel with us a road that was first paved with pesticides and now carries human drugs, xenotransplants, gene therapy and other increasingly costly and esoteric technology for the control and ‘improvement’ of life for the elite.

With corporate consolidation and concentration, it is no longer possible to draw a line – if it ever was – between food biotech (GE crops), drugs for human consumption, genetic screening and gene therapy, and reproductive manipulation. If PPL Therapeutics is genetically engineering pigs with human genes to produce spare parts for human use (xeno-transplantation) what is going to happen to the pork? It’s more likely to enter the meat trade – in one form or another – than the garbage dump or incinerator.

With what the biotech/drug pushers are pleased to call "neutraceuticals," or crops and animals engineered into drug factories, the line disappears altogether, just as it does with genetic screening and selection and the production of carefully selected and ‘improved’ embryos, including human.

Let us first consider what is misleadingly called ‘conventional’ agriculture in North America. The crops it grows have been designed to respond to artificial stimuli (synthetic fertilizers) and to require ‘protection’ (by means of pesticides) from what would, under more normal circumstances, be their natural environment. Lacking a ‘home’, they become, by design, addicted.

The export model of this approach to food production was the Green Revolution. The short-strawed, high-response hybrid rice that was the vehicle of this cultural invasion was dependent on irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. The formerly self-sufficient farmer in turn became dependent on the suppliers of the international aid which enabled him [sic] to purchase seeds, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. The victim was hooked, in other words, by means of ostensible ‘aid’ programs. Such programs, not inadvertently, also displaced women farmers from their traditional lands and practices, such as seed selection, conservation and sharing in favour of men who were assumed to be ‘head of the household’ and who were in any event more amenable to the new ‘technologies.’

When the condition of dependency was sufficiently established, including the restructuring of the farm and food economy, the aid programs were cut off, abandoning the farmers to either become dependent on credit to maintain the addiction of their crops or to attempt to return to their now-demolished traditional self-sufficiency and crop diversity. Suicide by drinking pesticides has been a far too common expression of the despair at being unable to provide for their families either way.

The introduction of genetically engineered crops is simply the latest chapter in this history of colonization.

Like all drug addictions, including tobacco, the addictions of industrial agriculture have been exploited to amass individual and corporate fortunes. These, in turn, have been gathered into ever more powerful drug cartels. Now they manufacture and dispense patented drugs for their patented engineered crops and their farmers and the general public. Diseases requiring drug treatment are created as readily as herbicide tolerant crops. Turning PMS (premenstrual syndrome) into PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) is a fine example.

Eli Lilly is now promoting the drug Sarafem, approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to treat PMDD, which the company describes as a mental illness. But Serafem isn’t a new drug, it is simply repackaged Prozac. Prozac had $2.6 billion in sales last year, but Eli Lilly’s patent on the drug runs out in August. With Sarafem, the firm now has a separate patent to cover use of the drug for PMDD through 2007, allowing it to partially offset losses in sales, which could be as high as one billion dollars in the first 12 months following the introduction of generic competition. So doctors will soon be able to prescribe a cheaper generic version of Prozac for their patients while women seeking Serafem will pay a premium. Lilly has spent close to $2.3 billion in marketing and administrative costs for Serafem, much more than the research and development, which is about $1.5 billion.
— CBS MarketWatch, 7/3/01; WSJ, 23/2/01

Issue 193: Consolidation

From the amount of space and energy we have devoted to biotechnology and the attempts to reconstruct life one might almost think that corporate consolidaation in the food industry was an accomplished fact no longer worthy of report. Not so. The noose of corporate control continues to tighten, and we promise to continue to demystify that process, so as to counter the fatalism that economists, policy makers and government-corporate apologists seek to induce.

co-ops coopted
For example: Once upon a time there were farmer-owned cooperative grain companies in all over the Canadian west. Now the last vestige of this co-op movement is about to disappear.

The founding of Territorial Grain Growers Association 100 years ago in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, is regarded by many as the birth of the prairie co-operative movement. United Grain Growers Co-operative (UGG) was founded in 1906 and the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta Pools in 1923-24.

UGG lost its co-operative status when it restructured itself into a corporation with public shareholders in 1992. This allowed UGG to wipe out a $22 million debt by simply turning its undistributed patronage dividends into common shares. It was a fairly logical move, given the fact that UGG has long been a strident proponent of the ‘free-market’ and opponent of the Canadian Wheat Board. It was equally logical, then, for UGG to sell 45% of itself to Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in 1997.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool went capitalist when it restructured and began trading shares in 1996. That left Manitoba Pool Elevators and Alberta Wheat Pool as actual co-ops, and they merged in mid-1998 to form Agricore after failing in a hostile bid to take over UGG in 1997 before ADM moved in. Agricore remained a farmer-owned co-operative; Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, meanwhile, dug itself into a debt trap pursuing the corporate-fashon-of-the-day, expanding and diversifying into everything from donut shops (Robins Donuts) to a grain terminal in Poland (for which they had to write off $80 million).

Now Agricore is planning to merge with United Grain Growers to form Agricore United, which will require Agricore’s member equity to be converted to shares in the new company. If the present farmer-owners of Agricore keep the shares they receive, they will own about 55% of the new company, while UGG will own 45%. Agricore United directors are to consist of 6 from Agricore, 6 from UGG and two from Archer Daniels Midland. ADM will have only a 19% share in the new company, but there are provisions in the deal that will allow ADM to gradually increase its holding to 45% within twenty years. In other words, farewell to the farmer-owned co-op.

Brian Hayward, chief executive officer of UGG, is to become c.e.o. of the new company while Gordon Cummings, c.e.o. of Agricore, will retire and take a well-earned rest after a distinguished career of killing off some of the major farm co-ops in the country. Cummings worked with the consulting firm of Ernst & Young before becoming president of National Sea Products in 1984 to 1989. In 1992 he moved on to manage, as president and c.e.o., the break-up of United Cooperatives of Ontario and finally to Agricore in 1995.

Mayo Schmidt, c.e..o. of Sask Pool, made the interesting comment that "we’re in an industry that is challenged and we need to see consolidation so that the industry can get healthy again. . . Consolidation means [elevator and terminal] closures, closures mean opportunities for others." To which "others" might he be referring? Such a comment could well indicate that Schmidt’s game plan is to sell Sask Pool to Cargill, the only major grain company operating in Canada that has not participated in the fool’s rush to build excessively large and too many massive inland grain ‘terminals’. Instead, Cargill has followed a policy of managing, on contract, some of the new inland terminals built by farmers – a fee-for-service arrangement which gives Cargill the decision-making power while using other people’s capital.

As for the farmers who stand to lose in the face of corporate oligopoly, they were not consulted. Agricore farmer delegate Ken Sigurdson commented, "We as delegates have never promoted, asked for or even entertained any of these kind of suggestions to privatize the company. . . This is totally a board and management decision." A membership vote on the merger is to take place in Calgary on August 30th.

Peace River, Alberta, farmer Art Macklin pointed out that co-operatives were founded to provide service at cost so farmers could make a living on their farms. A publicly traded company, on the other hand, has to make a profit which goes to its shareholders in the form of dividends. Trading shares on the stock exchange is not the most obvious way to pass the dividends on to the farmers responsible for them.
— sources include WP, 2& 9/8/01, MC, 2/8/01

meat concentrate
Corporate consolidation has been particularly evident in the meat business. I follow it through Meat & Poultry, the primary trade journal of the North American meat trade. For 22 years M&P has been publishing an annual listing of the Top 100 meat companies. This year the Top 100 has become the Top 50. "The decision to consolidate the ranking to the Top 50 was made to better reflect the major changes that have taken place in the industry. . . The consolidation is not going to stop either. . . Cargill is rumored to be on the prowl, and how long will it be before the brass at Smithfield Foods [the dominant pork processor] make both cows and pigs fly?"asks editor Keith Nunes.

In fact, Cargill’s beef subsidiary, Excel Corp., has agreed to purchase Emmpack Foods Inc of Milwaukee. Emmpack, #29 in Meat & Poultry’s listing and a producer of ‘value-added meat products’, "will broaden the array of customer solutions we can provide," said Bill Brucker, president of Excel.

This does not mean that the other 50 companies are out of business (though some of them are); rather, that the smaller companies have been pushed to the margins.

The figures: sales ($billions, latest fiscal year)
1. ConAgra Foods 20
2. IBP Inc. 17 (includes Lakeside Packers, Brooks, Alberta)
3. Cargill Inc (Excel) 10 (includes Cargill Foods, High River, Alberta)
4. Tyson Foods 7.1
5. Smithfield Foods 5.1 (includes Schneider Corp. sales in Canada of $1.3 billion)
12. Maple Leaf Meats 1.6
16. Olymel 0.8
— M & P, 7/01

This consolidation has had a devastating effect on the labour force. At one time the local meatpacker was paying the top wage for unskilled labour. Workers’ purchasing power steadily increased until 1980. UFCW’s (United Food and Commercial Workers Union) base wage in the US was $10.69/hour in 1982, the year many unionized companies started pressing for reduction in base wages to $8.25, the rate offered in non-union plants. "The decline coincides with consolidation in the industry and the breakdown of unions," accordingly to Azzeddine Azzam, an ag economist at the University of Nebraska. In the early 1980s, half the workers in the meatpacking industry were union members, and most belonged to UFCW. By 1987, union membership fell to 21% of the workforce, where it remains. Packers today thrive on paying low wages, and the savings are showing up in record profits and huge salaries for executives.

IBP was established in 1961 as Iowa Beef Packers. It is now in the process of being taken over by Tyson Foods. Tyson broke the trail to lower employee wages with its development of the disassembly line concept while it simultaneously resisted all unionizing efforts. "In terms of real purchasing power, the hourly wage is really not any different than what people used to make 50 years ago," says Azzam. — from a story in M&P, 6/01

A Higher Profile – and more leverage
– for Parmalat

The world’s largest dairy company and the largest distributor of milk in Canada, based in Italy, is going to make sure that Canadians know who owns their food system – at least a big chunk of the dairy – by putting the Parmalat name on their Beatrice and Sealtest milk, Astro yoghurt, Lactantia butter and Balderson and Black Diamond cheese. "By building a national profile with the Parmalat brand, we can leverage our global strengths and provide increased marketing effectiveness," said Parmalat Canada president Mike Rosicki. (Ontario Farmer, 31/7/01) Translation from the Italian: We intend to use our global clout to play our suppliers off against each other for the benefit of our corporate profits. Canadian farmers take note.

At about the same time, The National Dairy Council, which has represented the dairy processing sector since 1917, announced that it was ceasing operations. "You can’t present yourself as a national organization, representing the sector, if you represent only half of the milk that’s processed and none of those [processors] are the foreign-based multinationals," commented Kempton Matte, who had been president of NDC since 1980. (OF, 14/7/01) In other words, Parmalat withdrew its membership and thereby destroyed the organization. The fact that the "foreign-based multinational" is not named would appear to be a reflection of the ability of TNCs to intimidate, particularly a newspaper which might be hoping to gain advertising revenue from the nameless corporation as it "builds national profile".

Canada’s largest dairy processor (as opposed to Parmalat, the largest milk distributor), Saputo Inc of Montreal, has formed a partnership between its Culinar subsidiary and Dare Foods. Dare is to get Culinar’s line of cookies, specialty bread and soups while Saputo gets a 21% interest in Dare, a private company and Canada’s second largest producer of crackers and cookies behind Nabisco.
—M&BNews, 24/7/01

Issue 194: September 2001

Conscientious Objection

by Brewster Kneen

Nearly 40 years ago we were engaged in the resistance to the American war against the people of Vietnam. Cathleen was a Canadian when we met in 1964. I was a U.S. citizen (I almost wrote "American") and at that time a full-time peace movement new-left activist travelling for the Fellowship of Reconciliation from campus to campus counselling conscientious objection to the U.S. war machine and helping to organize public demonstrations.

I had already been on active duty in the U.S. Navy for two years after graduation from university, but even before I graduated, my visit to Havana, Cuba (before the revolution), on a required summer "midshipman" training cruise had had a profound effect on me: witnessing the degradation of the Cuban people living literally across the street from appalling American tourist wealth made me realize that the real mission of the U.S. military was to protect American wealth and privilege from those from whom it had been stolen. (Forty-five years later we see biopiracy and patents performing the same function.)

At the same time, my religious convictions were taking the form of a radical Christian faith that placed far more emphasis on social justice and peace than on "salvation" and conformity with the dominant culture. The Jesus I came to recognize was the person who accepted abuse rather than administering it, who took violence upon himself rather than inflicting it upon others. By the time I had finished my two years of post-graduation active duty in the U.S.Navy (on "non-combatant" - i.e., no guns - ships), what I had seen in Korea and elsewhere reinforced my Cuban insights and I realized that I could no longer recognize the military as having any claim on my life.

The fact that American flag-waving nationalism has remained so entrenched in the face of the obvious absence of equity and justice in the land has something to do, I think, with the fundamentalism of the culture of the United States, the notion that "Americans" are the Chosen People of God with a divine mission and hence divine license to do as they see fit to further their global hegemony.

It was with that outlook that I began my theological studies and peace activism. Along the way the justice "portfolio" grew in importance as I came to understand, along with many others, that economic justice and equity are essential to peace.

Forty years later, with genetic engineering and the "invention" and patenting of life upon us, it seems to me that we need to revive conscientious objection as a legitimate, indeed essential, personal-social response. In the bellicose aftermath of the bombing, not of "America," but of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon (symbols to the rest of the world of what America really stands for) it is even more imperative to refuse and resist, to stand for peace and justice.

When George W. Bush proclaims with unbelieveable stony-faced arrogance that "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," where does that leave all the decent people who have some idea of how much terror, death and destruction the U.S. has inflicted on others over the past 40 years?

On grounds of conscience, with a willingness to accept the consequence of convictions, it is the season to take the side of life, not of death and its administrators.

"Death . . . is an integral aspect of life. A plant dies back once it has gone to seed, that is, given its life over to the next generation. Death is 'overcome' precisely when it is taken up into life and accepted as the final act of being alive. This is a widely held religious perspective. The monoculture of industrial agriculture and, indeed, western culture and science as a whole, is built on a radically different attitude toward life and death, with its practice of administering death to 'others'- defined as 'weeds' or perhaps as 'defective' - so that an elite may survive."
-Farmageddon, p.10

from Cathleen:
I have grown up in a world defined from the outset by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a world in which the phrase "American Imperialism" has been a prime definition of political reality. America's bland certainty that America is the definition of democracy and freedom, while America feels quite free to engage in the most horrific violence against people who have been dehumanized by the labels 'gook', 'jap', 'terrorist' etc., has given me nightmares all of my life. At the same time, I know that 'America' does not define Americans, who I know as honest caring people struggling for justice for the poor and carrying a vision of communities in which everyone has all the necessities of life, including not only food and shelter but also art, music, and joy.

I think just about everyone in North America feels the pain and horror of the human suffering in New York and Washington. We are all grieving. But the US government is taking that grief and warping it into a self-righteous vengeance which should be dubbed 'Operation Infinite Hubris'. It takes courage to confront and counter this powerful and apparently unanimous attitude.

I deeply believe that only when we are honest about the causes of injustice, poverty and hunger will our efforts to build real community be successful.

The immediate effect of the events of September 11th has been an obsession with 'security'. Prime Minister Chrétien speaks of 'securing the perimeter'.

We do not want to live in a "gated" community!

If there is going to be a perimeter fence to 'protect' our borders, then let's be consistent and also recognize and respect the borders of all organisms and ecosystems. If we are going to monitor and limit the movements of persons, this must include corporate 'persons' - and capital itself. Or, to put it the other way round: if capital and corporations are to be granted the privileges of global citizenship, then real people must as well.

Speaking of Hubris:
Imagine the ancient Celtic hammer throw where a burly oatmeal-nourished Scotsman, kilt furling in the breeze, with two hands on the handle of a long-handled mall, begins to turn in a circle to swing the 'hammer' slowly off the ground. When the hammer is up circling around his head and he is good and ready, he lets go.

Now imagine Monsanto in the centre, swinging patent offices, government regulators, and the entire wheat industry.

Are we so accustomed now to corporate domination that we do not even notice, much less resist, Monsanto's unilateral setting of the agenda, whether in regard to wheat, patents, or farmers' rights?

It has recently come to light that Monsanto has received a patent in the U.S.A. on herbicide tank mixtures and premixes used to control glyphosate-resistant volunteers in all current and future Roundup Ready crops.

The patent covers herbicide mixtures applied "in any order or simultaneously" that use glyphosate together with any combination of five named active ingredients of non-glyphosate herbicides to control weeds on glyphosate-resistant crops. (Glyphosate is the generic name for Monsanto's Roundup.) The patent goes so far as to include glyphosate-resistant weeds and any crops that one day might be bred "naturally to be glyphosate resistant." In other words, as more and more crops and weeds develop resistance to Roundup, the broader will be the patent's coverage.

Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said the company has been working on a solution to Roundup Ready volunteers - as in canola - and the patent is simply to protect their research. Of course the problem for which Monsanto has obtained the patented 'solution' is a problem patented in the first place by Monsanto, i.e. create and patent a problem, then patent a solution to the patented problem.

As we have pointed out before, the very process of genetic engineering is violent: remove an organism from its environment (community) and force it by means of inserting a foreign piece of DNA (torture) to do something it would never have done on its own. But of course this has been developed within the paradigm of industrial agriculture which is itself violent: pick one crop plant that you want and kill every other organism around ("weeds" and "pests"). Now there are glyphosate-resistant weeds and Bt-resistant insects all over the place - not to mention the spread of Roundup-Ready canola to farms where it is unwelcome. The parallel with 'terrorism' is compelling, and the solution as well: go back to the beginning and accept diversity and, most important, get rid of the elitism that assumes that one group, race, country has the right to thrive while others sicken and starve. The only alternative is an escalating cycle of violence.

While Monsanto has applied for a parallel patent in Canada, it has not yet been granted.
- sources: WP, MC, 13/9/01, WP 20/9/01

Issue 195: October 2001

Deskilling the Butcher
(and everyone else)

by Brewster Kneen

When I wrote From Land To Mouth (first published in 1989), I described what I called the logic of the food system with three words: distancing, uniformity and continuous flow. Distancing has since then become widely recognized and used as a tool to analyze and understand the industrial food system, as has proximity, the word I found best described the antithesis of distancing. The uniformity aspect is fairly obvious, certainly in the monoculture fields of wheat, canola or corn, and now in the genetic uniformity of patented crops and the monoculture of the supermarkets, despite the superficial diversity contained within them. Continuous flow was the least obvious characteristic. It was inspired by my visit to a very large dairy processors trade show in Chicago where I saw, for the first time, the latest equipment in dairy processing, in particular a very large machine that had a column of milk descending between two sheets of plastic which were formed non-stop into the familiar pouch around the stream of milk. Three of these one-litre bags were then packaged in a single larger bag for retail sale. It seemed to me then that this machine represented the essence of the industrial system - an endless flow of Product from Source (anywhere in the world) to Consumer to Sewage. The consumer's job is to keep the system functioning by being a good consumer, just another piece of tubing in the system. If we don't do our job, the system backs up and the overflow has to be siphoned off to the food banks.

Well, a dozen or so years later I decided that it was time to expose myself once again to the latest in food technology - not biotechnology, but food machinery of a more material kind such as ice cream machines and sausage machines and machines that disassemble a whole carcass of beef and turn it into packaged and even cooked bits and pieces for the deli case. The show I decided to attend in mid-October was the Worldwide Food Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago, sponsored by the American Meat Institute and the International Dairy Processors. I wandered for most of two days through what must have been thousands of exhibits, trying to understand what was being presented.

What I saw was a representation, in gleaming stainless steel, of the corporate consolidation that we all know has been taking place, and of the practice of 'continuous flow', though now it's from the centralized TNC-owned total-processing facility all the way out to the retail counter. Specifically, what I observed, and could admire in its ingenuity and design, was processing equipment that could transform the globally-packaged in a single-serving container, whether it was a meat or dairy product. In other words, all the processing and packaging is to be done at a single location and distributed without further transformation to the final consumer at the retail counter. Forget the one-litre bags in a three bag package. Now the proliferating flavours and combinations come in very attractive 150 ml or so Tetra-Pak 'prism' containers or 'wedges' or little plastic pouches (designed for third-world street vendors). Just look at what's available these days at the gas station, convenience store or supermarket. Of course you can buy the single-serving containers packaged in units of 6 or ten or twelve, but the point is that the basic package originates in head office, so to speak, and experiences the continuous flow of the vertically integrated corporation (or an alliance of corporations) from head office to retail counter to individual consumer.

For example: Meat packers used to buy live cattle and ship out 'swinging' beef, that is, beef carcasses by the side - swinging because the halves hung from a hook and would swing (and age) in the railway cars travelling from Chicago or Iowa to the eastern cities. There they would be sold to local butcher shops and, later, supermarkets, where the butchers in the back room would cut and wrap the meat according to customer desires. Then around fifteen years ago the packers such as Cargill and IBP started cutting the beef into smaller chunks and boxing them for shipment by truck - hence, boxed beef. But the local butcher still had to cut the big pieces into smaller cuts for the retail counter, and maybe even make some sausages if he still had the old-world skill. The latest chapter, of course, has the big packer taking over the whole process, shipping fully packaged and weighed retail cuts directly to the supermarkets. You won't find a 'back room' at the supermarket anymore, but you will find minimum-wage employees pricing the packages and keeping the display case stocked. Instead of the back room you will now find a deli counter up front, where food products are to be found in even smaller containers.

What's now in the works is a further centralization of preparation and a further de-skilling of everyone in the system down to the consumer at home or in the fast-food outlet ('outlet' is so appropriate!). The food product is cooked at factory-central so that the retail consumer just has to heat his individual 'serving' in the microwave.

The global food packaging industry has gone from being almost nothing 50 years ago to a $100 billion-a-year monster today. British farmers grow about $100 billion worth of food a year at farm-gate prices. The packaging industry is thought to turn over about $11 billion per year. Between 10% and 50% of the price of food can now be attributed to its packaging. - Guardian, 27/9/01

Oh yes, there is one other characteristic that I should note: ESL. (Extended shelf life, that is, not English as a Second Language, although given the global reach of the system that kind of ESL may be included as well.) Obviously, if food is going to be prepared and packaged hundreds or thousands of kilometres from its final resting place, it has to have ESL. This is achieved, in part, by the fancy and ingenious a-septic processing and packaging developed by Tetra-Pak, or by the process known as ultra-pasteurization (UHT), or irradiation (cobalt 60 has not gone over well, so now x-rays and 'electron beam' processing are being pushed).
At the end of the day, what this all adds up to is great individual "convenience," more of the food dollar going to packaging and distribution, and above all, more centralized control of the food system, and with that control, and profit.

What does all this have to do with nutrition, equity and justice? Not much. And even less with environmental well-being.

Issue 196: November 2001

The Right to Loaves and Fishes

by Brewster Kneen

In our last issue I suggested that what we should be talking about is food quality, not food safety. In this article I suggest that we think and talk more about the quality of our lives together - our society - than about security - even food security. No matter how I struggle with it (and with Cathleen who spends much of her time working in the movement for community food security), I cannot avoid the identification of the concept of security with an individualist assertion of my welfare over against someone else's. It's too easy to think of security as a fortress, and food security as having enough food stored up in my fortress to see me through an enemy attack. But who is the enemy?

There are societies in which it is understood that everyone, including the gleaners, has a share in the harvest. How else can you maintain a community? Sharing and swapping seeds is both more universally practised and more primordial than owning, patenting and selling seeds. Feasting and sharing what is available are, similarly, more ancient and ubiquitous practices than shopping at the supermarket for branded, processed, packaged foods.

"I do insist that the people of the Neo-Europes [North America, Australia and New Zealand, and those areas in many countries where there is a concentration of European descent] almost universally believe that great material affluence can and should be attained by everyone, particularly in matters of diet. In Christ's Palestine, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was a miracle; in the Neo-Europes it is expected." - Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism - The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 , Cambridge, 1986, p .307

"Perhaps European humans have triumphed because of their superiority in arms, organization, and fanaticism, but what in heaven's name is the reason that the sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion? Perhaps the success of European imperialism has a biological, an ecological, component." (Ibid, p. 7)

If, as the affluent West seems to assume, natural resources are infinite, then one might argue that expropriation of a quantity of these resources is tolerable. Everyone can claim some portion as their own, without necessarily depriving others of a portion. But in just saying that much, we have already introduced two other concepts; that of natural resources and that of own.

Natural resources are, of course, not infinite at all, despite our carefree blindness to the fact as we use up fossil fuels and fresh water in our version of 'development'. Furthermore, using the term resources suggests that value adheres only in that which we can utilize, that which is available for our exploitation. Nature/Creation, is not recognized as having any inherent value. Owning is simply a natural function of this assumption, since it is we - or I - that lend, or add, value to these resources.

Because we think that we add value, we also think that we have a claim on, or right to, that value. In a sense this is the old Marxist labour theory of value, except that seldom is the value now claimed actually the result of the labour performed by the self-proclaimed owner who is more apt to labour in the gym than at the workplace, and rewards to the shareholders has nothing to do with any contribution the shareholders might have made to society at large.

There is no thought of mutuality, that perhaps it is these resources that own us. But how else should we describe our dependency on fossil fuels? Can it not be said that our automobiles own us, that is, they determine the shape of much of our lives? Or is it not true that in the highly industrialized societies we are owned by the supermarkets as far as our food supply is concerned? Only a small - although growing - percentage of the population in these societies actually own their own food system in the sense of being responsible (growing, harvesting, preparing) for it. Most of us are utterly dependent on the global corporate food system over which we have absolutely no control and from which we can expect no security. We are owned by the system, and, unless we rebel, dependent upon it.

On the other hand, if we think, as our collective behaviour would indicate, that natural resources are infinite, then there should be no rationale for claiming ownership, for claiming territory and excluding others in pursuit of security. This logic applied to the patent system until very recently. Ideas could not be patented, only objects. Ideas were thought to be limitless and unbounded. (Copyright, and how cultural workers should be compensated for their work, is a different although related issue.)

Now, of course, in recognition of the corporate demand for protection of its property, we have the patenting of genetic material, including seeds, the patenting of computer software, and the patenting of procedures of genetic engineering. In other words, the claim to ownership rights has become limitless, without boundaries, and these limitless claims are steadily being enshrined in international trade agreements as universal law.

Natural boundaries are elusive. The property of our farm in Nova Scotia, for example, was never surveyed. One of the property boundaries was a creek. Two others were roads. Naturally, the creek did not stay exactly in one place. (For that matter, neither did the gravel roads.) Beavers had their role in shifting the boundary, but so did occasional flooding and silting and fallen trees not-by-beaver. It did not matter; we never did discuss the property line with our neighbour, either when we bought the property or when we sold it fifteen years later. When we purchased another farm, however, to expand our land base, we had to get the land surveyed in order to get a mortgage. None of the properties in the area had ever been surveyed and the nearest officially surveyed land was about 15 miles away. That meant we either had to survey the whole 15 miles or establish a local starting point for a survey. The simplest thing to do was to establish a point mutually agreed upon by Alex and Sam, the two old farmers who owned the farm we wanted to buy and the one next door, respectively. Sam and Alex had no problem agreeing that the old tree along the road marked the common boundary of their farms.

Now while the tree was old, it had certainly not been there forever, and probably not even for a century, though it had been there as long as Sam and Alex could remember. So what was the character of the boundary, and the deed of the land so bounded?

When the property was officially surveyed in the middle of winter, the fields were deep in more snow than the surveyors wanted to walk through, so they settled for two markers along the frontage road. The property lines then laid down on paper seemed to make sense to the records office. In the spring, however, when the snow was gone and we figured out where the paper lines really fell, we discovered that one corner of the official property fell smack-dab in the middle of the pasture. Two of the four property lines described on paper were utterly arbitrary and totally disconnected from topographical reality. A joke, in other words, but official, and officially recorded.

The real boundary line was one that Sam and Alex agreed upon and both respected. Similarly, the creek on our home farm was respected as the boundary by ourselves and our neighbours. Both boundaries were more a recognition of responsibility than a claim of the right to exploit. It was a matter of mutual respect among neighbours. It could just as well have been a matter of respect between whole communities, or of respect for the rights of the stream to wander or of the tree to die and rot.

(I know, there are arguments to be made about good fences making good neighbours. . . In our tiny yard in Toronto we planted beans in a box. They were prolific and grew, quite literally, all over the fence. We agreed that it would be best for our neighbours to take the beans on their side of the fence and we would pick "our" side. Later, in Mission, we grew beans along the back fence, but this time the neighbour on the other side of the fence wanted his property 'clean' and used Roundup herbicide to 'clean up' the perimeter. We stopped him from spraying right up to the fence - and the beans still grew through to his side of the fence where his kids picked them.)

What then of the fish in the creek or the seeds from the trees or in the beans? Perhaps ownership and property are less than useful concepts. For the fish to live in the creek, or the tree to bear leaves and drop seeds, those on both sides of the boundary had to respect and care for them.

Now let us take this another step. The boundaries I have been describing do have some objective, material basis, but when we wanted to establish a starting point for a more abstract and technical boundary on Alex's farm, it came down to what was in the heads of those two men. Furthermore, had I not already been farming that land, I would have been quite dependent on their knowledge of it to decide if I wanted to go to the trouble of establishing a legal definition of its boundaries so I could purchase it. Their knowledge did not come with the farm, and from a legal point of view, it was worth nothing. It was nonetheless valuable, and, if it has to be said, their knowledge added value to the farms for me. The same holds true for traditional crops and seeds. The knowledge - some would say wisdom - of when to plant, where to plant, how to plant, how to nurture, harvest and preserve the seeds and their crops is not contained in the DNA of the seed, but in the knowledge of the farmer and the community.

The recognition of a boundary signifies recognition of the integrity of what is bounded, be it a micro-organism, a seed, a farm or a community. Boundaries, and the organisms they identify, can take many forms, and often the forms they take bear no relationship to the property lines and political jurisdictions imposed on them. For the intrinsic boundaries to persist, there has to be some degree of mutuality or conviviality between the organism on one side and the organism on the other side. In other words, there has to be mutual respect, as, for example between a gardener and the seed.

Owning property may be simple on paper, but the reality is considerably more complex, and what one can own even in a legal sense is not as clear cut as we pretend it is. So when it comes to a question of patenting genetic resources and knowledge about them - indigenous and traditional knowledge - ITK as it is disrespectfully referred to - we are moving into a very questionable area. The notion of being able to claim ownership over ideas and information, whether in the head, heart, genes, or community tradition, becomes more and more implausible and outrageous the more one thinks about it.

What is and what can be considered property is not a simple matter. To even speak of property rights is difficult, if not morally objectionable and even impossible. What does it mean to assert my property rights over a creek except in terms of exercising my power and ability to exploit the creek as a resource for personal benefit?

Perhaps more light can be shed on the issue of rights by considering legal rights and civil rights. Legal rights are rights before the law, that is, freedoms of the individual person that are, supposedly, legally protected by the law. Similarly, civil rights are rights before the state, that is, rights and freedoms of the individual over against the claims of the state on the person. In both cases, rights refers to the protection of personal privileges over against the interests of an external authority. In other words, rights are a form of protection against an acknowledged greater power. They are a reservation for the individual against the collective power of the law and the state. The centre of gravity (power) is assumed to reside outside the person, hence the need for (limited) protection of the person. [We must note that the provisions of the so-called 'anti-terrorism' bill C-36 currently being considered by the Senate, having passed the House of Commons, are a serious attack on both legal and civil rights of Canadians.]

Security can be understood in a similar fashion as being protection over against external threats and powers. Thus food security can mean being assured of an adequate food supply for your own survival, whether 'your own' is you individually or as a family or community, although this is not the intended meaning of the term as it is used by those seeking food justice and food sovereignty.

The basis of our present commercial global food system is the understanding of food security which implies that there is not enough for everyone, and therefore I, or we, have to secure enough for ourselves over against the needs of others. Food security in this sense is like life or health insurance: when it is on an individual basis, what is enough? How long am I going to live, how sick am I going to get, will I be unemployed and so on pretty well ad infinitum.

The growing 'food security' movement, however, starts from a different understanding of security as based in community. The earth, as Gandhi famously commented, has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed. Security begins with the recognition - and celebration - of our dependence, not on the lords of the food system but upon one another and the natural world in all its diversity and abundance.