UPDATED: Eat your public domain broccoli. Or eat Monsanto’s. They might be nearly the same.

Every time I wade into thinking about corporate control of agriculture, it steals several hours of my life and I usually end up flustered and wrong. Alas, I’ve done it again.

UPDATE AT BOTTOM with a response from one of the scientists involved. As always, there is more to the story. The short of it: The major breakthrough, it seems, would be held in public trust. Corporations will pay licensing fees to use it in their adaptations. Not sure this will ultimately circumvent the market power and hegemony of players like Monsanto, but it’s a start.

Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones writes about the prospect of fresher summer broccoli east of the Rockies. A number of land grant university scientists are trying to make a heat-tolerant variety of broccoli, so we don’t have to always buy it from California. And they want their creation to be public domain.

Smaller seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds are involved. But so are Monsanto and Syngenta. Errp.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny’s license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. “Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli,” he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny’s and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli in the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they’d prefer not to.

Monsanto and Syngenta are partners but they ostensibly have no control over the science. If the goal is public seeds, what’s their incentive?

Well, corporate seed developers can piggyback, right? Cross the public domain strain with a so-called proprietary variety, gain the breakthrough trait and then market the patented seeds (someday, RoundUp Ready broccoli, perhaps?) in competition with the public domain variety.

Philpott’s post has been lit up by the anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto crowd, somewhat unfairly. But I’ll hazard a guess that the legitimate backlash here exists — ideology and parroting not withstanding — because when you look into the future, this feels a lot like more of the same.

Maybe both varieties exist, but Monsanto and Syngenta also have the extraordinary market control and access to the levers of power that allow them to continue to profit further off what supposed to be a public good — in this case, a specific variety of broccoli that withstands heat.

So… perhaps East Coasters and Midwesterners eat more broccoli, most likely Monsanto and Syngenta continue to make money, maybe fledgling seed companies limp along and I guess that means all is right with the world? Of course, Monsanto and Syngenta also pump money back into rent-seeking, into further proprietary tweaking, into legal wrangling and into spin/manipulation. So we’re no more disentangled from a fundamentally inequitable and self-destructive agro-food system.

An analogy: Give a team of little league-ers and the Yankees the same balls, bats and diamond and tell them to square off in a month. Who do you think wins? Do we call that outcome fair, sporting or right because they had the same rules and the same playground? Is that what we wish to accept?

At a basic level, that scenario is not so far from giving the organic farm co-op (or even Johnny’s of Maine) the same publicly held seeds as Monsanto and telling them to compete on the market. Except that instead of the warm and fuzzies of kids in baseball jerseys, we have another corner of the food system at stake.

Understand, I’m not trying to simply poo-poo this because Monsanto or Syngenta is involved. I support public science. I support locally grown. A public domain heat-tolerant broccoli might be a good thing. But my core argument here, however, remains that this by itself does little to reform an industrial food system. If a corporation can effectively co-opt another public good — and they seem to be good at that — then we’re mostly left where we started.

Here’s a response from Thomas Björkman, a scientist at Cornell, who is part of the team behind this.

Your concern is one that we thought deeply about when developing the proposal for this project. The answer is a bit more complex than you lay out.

First, there will be many varieties developed out of this project. Just this year, before the companies began using any publicly developed germplasm, three companies released five new varieties that are better than what was on the market before. (Better, at least for specific markets and growing periods). When the public germplasm is used by the seed companies we will see further advances and many more varieties. It is not a scenario that makes market control easy. Farmers will buy the varieties that work for their location and market, so the breeders who deliver that will make the sales. Seed companies will all be in competition with each other for the eastern broccoli market.

The source of the really good eastern adaptation is not a public domain variety. That will be in germplasm (collections of different genotypes) developed by my colleagues at USDA, Cornell and Oregon State. Companies that want to use it will have to to license specific materials for use in their breeding programs. This structure also prevents control of essential traits by any one entity. In addition, the licensing fees allow public breeding for the public good to continue.

Also, our goal is the public good, not specifically public-domain seeds. There is one public domain population, developed by the Northern Organic
Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. We are mainly helping get it in
commercial distribution so that farmers can buy quality seed.These days, “public domain” and “public sector” are not the same.

Thomas Björkman, Cornell

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Not exactly Tyson, Perdue or KFC

Pretty healthy for an Indian chicken

Pretty healthy for an Indian chicken

I’m not saying that this chicken’s life is perfect, especially since this shot was taken in front of a butcher shop, but I feel far better eating meat here in India where farming remains a less corporate endeavor.

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