March 30, 2014
A few years back I met a fine fellow at an international consultancy I was on who regaled the group with stories of academic ritual, on the one hand, and the trials of small farmers in India, on the other. As I recall it, the rituals had something to do with Oxford University in the UK, where memory tells me that this chap was on the law faculty. As it happens, I just spent the amount of time it took me to listen to “Kaulana Na Pua” by John Keawe and “Wherever You May Be” by Bonnie Riatt (where Bonnie sings “If I must do without, I’ll let these sparks fly out Across this wilderness from me to you”) trolling through the Oxford Law webpage looking , and I can’t find anyone who looks remotely like him. So maybe I misremember, or maybe it was something else entirely. Chalk that lost 10 minutes up to tangential rumination, because it was his latter tales that brought me to this morning’s blog topic.
It seems that he had been working on the problem of counterfeits in the Indian seed industry. Now everybody knows about counterfeit CDs and DVDs from Asia, and a few of us may have heard about the problems raised by counterfeit auto parts or pharmaceuticals. The ethical problems with counterfeits may be a bit more subtle than one suspects, however. I mean a counterfeit is a lie, right? And what could be more straightforward from an ethics perspective? But truth-telling is philosophically interesting because there are several different ways in which it turns out to be morally wrong. If you are of the deontological persuasion, it’s just intrinsically wrong—a paradigm case of moral lassitude. But if you are a consequentialist, it’s wrong because the people who are mislead by a lie are likely to suffer harm. When we circle back to the CDs and DVDs, they mostly work fine and the people who buy them are pretty much in on the caper; it’s the people losing money from unpaid royalties who are harmed. But auto parts and pharmaceuticals? That fits the consequentialist’s concern more neatly. Those auto parts and especially those drugs may not perform as the buyer expects, and here the consequences can be fatal.
We could do another tangent on deontology and consequentialism (a topic that we typically avoid here in the Thornapple blog), but I think I’ll just pretend that these rather obscure (or central, depending on your proclivity) doctrines have already been adequately explained by the above proffered example and steam on ahead. Now, seeds. How would you counterfeit a seed? And the answer need not detain us long. Many commercial seeds bear paint or dye marks intended to identify them as such, and sometimes they come in bags identifying their source and identity. Farmers buy commercial seeds—in the developing world as elsewhere—because a) they have run out of seeds or b) because they expect them to perform better than the seeds they saved from last year’s crop. And frankly, folks, it’s mostly “b”, because if you are so poor that you had to eat your saved seed to get through the winter, you are probably not showing up at the seed dealer a few days later with enough money to buy anything. So you can fake seed by making some dubious or simply lousy crap seed you have lying around look enough like a high quality commercial variety that you can pass it off as the genuine article. The unsuspecting farmer goes back home and plants what he or she takes to be a high performing variety, well worth the premium, and then when summer rolls around it’s just a field full of weeds.
Counterfeit seed is a major problem in developing country agriculture, or so I was being told. Now perchance you are wondering whether this fellow that I can’t even recall by name was himself the genuine article. And if he wasn’t a genuine article, then maybe this week’s blog is just a premature April Fool, an article of a different sort, to be sure, but no more genuine than the “some guy who told me” I based the whole episode on. But it’s not. Do your own research: Google “counterfeit seed” and discover. Here are a few places you can start.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University