On missives

Really great folks keep their correspondence, and then generations later it is still the fodder of insight and speculation. Now that we have the Internet, what will this mean to historians? Will it really matter how many Lolcatz I looked at in between figuring out how to make fluorinated organisms?

Anyway, I do maintain a reasonably robust correspondence with peers, and recently a captain of industry sent me the following unsettling piece about how farmers in the developing world are literally laying down to die because of the questionable biological and economic viability of genetically modified seeds:


To which I replied:

“That’s very unsettling … as are the comments that follow the piece. So, we know the benefits of science and technology. I guess I’m so used to thinking about the invisible hand as being ultimately beneficial (self-correcting towards upward progress) that I don’t really think about the possibility of rapacious companies (the Gilded Age, robber barons, and patent medicines aside).

The real folks who could do something about this … are in Monsanto. Why would they even get to this point? I’m sorry to be so naive, but if you had a product that was causing this much grief, wouldn’t you by God do something about it? For business reasons, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do?

Why does Monsanto get so much bad press? Why don’t they take steps to integrate their products with the consumers (farmers) that buy them? This would not seem that hard a thing to do.

I suppose they might say “High tech agriculture beats sustainable agriculture, and these folks would be laying down to die, anyway, once their incomes fell precipitously in a competitive global economy in which others used our products.” Maybe they’d be right. But they could also take steps to help make all boats rise by introducing products in a way that was most appropriate for local or regional agriculture.

Or maybe this is mis-reported? It’s easy to blame GMO for so many things, and one assumes that the suicide tsunami is real, and not a concocted fact. In the comments you can see the old canard about GMO being bad for you conflated with GMO destroying economies. I’m willing to buy into the latter, but I have never seen credible evidence for the former (which is also mechanistically implausible).

Anyway, having looked at it from many points of view, I think I’m just boggled that Monsanto apparently has no one dealing with PR, and would be very sad to find that we actually had a modern day Sinclairian Jungle in agribusiness.”

Now, you can all count me as naive as you want because of my child-like faith in business. But I am rather bullish on capitalism, as long as it’s practiced with social restraints. Those social restraints typically kick in via economic feedbacks, sometimes through political ones, but I am used to them kicking in. Smoking is harmful; smoking is restricted. That said, I think there may be a nascent sense that we have an economic Koyaanisqatsi, that the business world is decidedly out of balance. That capital has taken on a life of its own, separate from the people that use it. After all, companies are now people, as Romney likes to remind us. Such a transformation may be inevitable; capital is a very wondrous thing whose properties we continue to discover, many years after the death of Adam Smith.

If the economic world is indeed so far out of balance, that balance has to be recovered. That recovery will have to be guided by people, with the invisible hand chiming in to make things right on the money side. But it will be a conflict; it will quite possibly be a war. A war against our own money. What an odd thing to think or say. For me, at least. I only vaguely perceive the boundaries of this coming (continuing?) conflict. But the real-world attributes would presumably be a pushback against some of the perceived excesses. If agribusiness is indeed predatory and rapacious, then the seeds that bring hope to many and death to some can be further tampered with, and by those who are not in Monsanto. I do not currently know of engineered viruses that have been released in direct response to GMOs, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if they existed, or if they were on the drawing boards somewhere. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I’m not particularly worried about the DIY Bio community writ large, but once social dislocation occurs, then the technological repsonse begins, likely first at the top (company on company warfare) and working its way down (people on company warfare) and possibly ultimately resulting in our old companion, people-on-people warfare. Bad times make for good wars.

- originally posted on Friday, April 6th, 2012 at 11:22