Genetically Modified Law

Copyright 2010, John Manimas Medeiros

I recently read and viewed stories of farmers who have been successfully sued by the Monsanto Corporation, because when the "receiving farmer's" crops were pollinated by the wind, or by insect pollinators, or by both, and the receiving farmer's crop seeds were thereby changed from traditional natural seeds to genetically modified seeds, Monsanto claimed that the farmer, who previously owned the natural seeds from his natural crops, now could not own them and could not collect them and plant them, because Monsanto owned the patent on the genetic modification that had taken place. I call this "genetically modified law" because it is a modification of common law that has been recognized by human society in all cultures for thousands of years: a farmer owns their plants and the seeds that they produce. Every farmer has the right to practice seed collection from their own crops and farmers have been doing this every year stretching into the pre-historic past. Community agriculture is deemed to be the key activity that changed human society from nomadic "hunters and gatherers" to the builders of villages and cities and later vast human enterprises in the arts and sciences.

The usual intent of the genetic modification of crop seeds, at least by Monsanto, is to make the genetically modified crops resistant to harm that might be caused by weed killers produced and sold by Monsanto. Or, the genetic modification might also be to have the new genetically modified crops produce a weed killer or insect repellent chemical themselves. In either case, the effect is to take human agriculture away from farmers and make it the patented property of Monsanto. This the equivalent of having a patent on civilization and the right to sell it at whatever price the market can bear. The effect is to forbid others to practice agriculture -- the technological equivalent of civilization -- unless Monsanto is paid for their patented crop seeds. The impact of this interpretation of the law is to change a set of principles that have sustained the common law for centuries, which principles can be readily illustrated by the old story of a pig escaping from a pen and eating Mrs. Murphy's cabbages and beans.

If my pig escapes from my enclosure, and wanders over to Mrs. Murphy's garden and eats all of her cabbages and beans, she has suffered a loss due to the action of an animal that I own. A person who owns an animal is responsible for any property damage caused by that animal if it escapes from its enclosure, even though the instinctive behavior of the animal is caused by "nature" and not by its human owner. I now owe Mrs. Murphy compensation for her loss. I certainly cannot claim that I owned her cabbages and beans at that moment when my pig ate them. The modern situation with Monsanto suggests that since my Monsanto pig, not enclosed in the first place, wandered over to Mrs. Murphy's garden, or to Farmer Jone's corn field, and ate everything down to the stubs, I now own the vegetables and crops that were eaten, and neither Mrs. Murphy nor Farmer Jones has suffered any loss.

It is Monsanto who took action, did something that changed the seeds produced by their crops. When the wind and insect pollinators carried the pollen from their genetically modified crops to the crops of a neighboring "receiving farmer," that was what is accepted in the field of law as an "act of God." The random pollination was not caused by either Monsanto or by the receiving farmer. However, had the Monsanto crop been a natural crop, not genetically modified, then the "receiving farmer" would have suffered no loss of his natural crop. The seed would be the same as before, natural corn seed. Therefore, it is Monsanto's action and Monsanto's action alone that made it possible for the receiving farmer to lose his source of natural crop seed. His crops now cannot produce the natural crop seeds that he used to collect in the past. He wants to have the same freedom and right he has always had, for about ten thousand years, to collect the seeds from his crops and re-plant them next season. Monsanto says he cannot because the genetic modification in the seeds is the private property of Monsanto. But where are the lawyers who should be arguing that the "receiving" farmer is also the "injured" farmer who has lost his source of natural crop seeds? Monsanto has caused a loss of property to the receiving farmer, whether he collects his seeds or not, because his source of natural crop seeds has been taken away by the action of Monsanto and the random pollination that is caused by nature and which cannot be controlled either by Monsanto or the receiving farmer. Monsanto is taking a position that is truly bizarre: we have done something that removes property from another farmer, but we are the one's who should be compensated. This current application of the law illustrates a kind of illness in American society. The lawyers and the courts now consider the property rights of a corporation to be more important than the legal traditions in agriculture for the past ten thousand years. This implies that the special quality of American law is not to sustain democracy but rather to destroy civilization by making it the private property of a corporation that wants to own it and sell it for a profit.

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