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.