Bad Seed

April 6, 2014

Let me set the festering minds of everyone who arrived at this website hoping to read up on supernatural horror flicks or prurient tales of some wayfaring maiden at rest immediately. This blog is about seeds, as in those little niblet things that grow into plants once they have been safely ensconced in soil and nurtured through their period of vulnerability. We are (if the calendar has not deceived me) in April, which depending on where you happen to reside may well be early in that aforesaid time of susceptibility to the vicissitudes of arbitrary climatic variation (or as some say, weather). Not so much here in Michigan, though some are starting little seedlings in the barn or basement.

Every so often we carry on in the Thornapple blog from one week right over into the next, and if you were with us on the last Sunday in March, you were apprised of the circumstance that farmers suffer from disreputable seed dealers, and especially so in the developing world. It can be ruinous when a subsistence farmers’ crop fails to come up. It’s definitely an ethical problem, and so it’s well worth an extra blog here in the first few weeks of official Spring (even if you can hardly tell it sometimes in the year of the polar vortex). {We are finally creeping up on average temperatures, but crimony!}

So the issue is that, of course, selling seeds as something they aren’t is ethically wrong, but that doesn’t exhaust the topic for a food ethicist. This phenomenon also skews the broader debate about food, farming and international development. Let me mention two skewerings.

Skew Number One Some seed company (maybe it’s even associated with the Great Satan Monsanto) or some international development agency introduces an improved variety in some developing country.  And word gets around that it doesn’t live up to farmers’ expectations. Heck it doesn’t even have to be a developing country—this could be Texas. This definitely can and does happen with authentic articles: Something got screwed up with the seed production. Seed developed for one ecological region (say where it’s wet in the Spring) accidently gets shipped someplace else (like where it’s dry). Farmers themselves don’t understand something important, like they better be out there weeding because this variety doesn’t compete well against other plants. A million and one things can go wrong and inevitably some of them do. So let’s be clear: I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture or develop a blanket defense of improved varieties here. But sometimes—and my point would be that this seems to be happening more and more frequently—what happens is that the novelty of the new variety becomes an opportunity for the unscrupulous seed dealers out there to screw people (Read last week’s blog for the backstory). And then what happens is the new variety gets a bad rap. And then what happens is that people who love to hate agricultural science and the Green Revolution start wagging their fingers and saying “I told you so!” Only in this case, at least, they’ve gotten it wrong and may well be further tarnishing the rep of a seed variety that could be doing poor farmers some good. There is a tie to the GMO theme here, but we’ll ignore it for now.

Skew Number Two Farmers are not stupid. They have learned to be wary of counterfeits out there. And in this case, this makes them understandably and even rationally reluctant to jump on the bandwagon with promising new varieties that (if they aren’t what they are represented to be) are going to be extremely disappointing when harvest season rolls around. So there is a rather slow uptake on these improved varieties in many parts of the world. If they could benefit poor farmers, the slowness of the uptake is itself an ethical problem—like adding insult to injury from the counterfeit problem. But it’s accompanied by another species of finger wagging from the anti-development, anti-technology, anti-Green Revolution types who are out there campaigning. Famers don’t want or need so-called improved varieties: Just look at their behaviror (the story goes). They aren’t buying them. And the people reciting this story (probably out of truly laudable motives but in ignorance of what’s really driving farmer behavior)  are putatively campaigning on behalf of the poor.

And that’s just tragic.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University