Sowing Scarcity

image by imp kerr

In capitalism’s inverted world, scarcity grows on trees while resources are blithely wasted

Unexpected scarcity long characterized agricultural societies—drought, pestilence, fire, and other natural calamities could bring about famine at any moment. But today’s farmers, who have learned to overcome many of these challenges, now face the prospect of a legal, rather than natural disaster. In a case that will soon appear before the Supreme Court, a 74-year-old farmer named Vernon Bowman was ordered to pay $84,000 in damages for infringing on the patents of agribusiness giant Monsanto. His crime was to plant a seed—a patented “Roundup Ready” seed, whose license agreement prohibits using it to produce new ones. Fears about genetically modified crops often revolve around nebulous health concerns, but the Bowman case suggests a different problem: capitalist agriculture puts science to work in the service of increasing profits rather than improving farming.

Farmers of old had to worry about parasites infesting their fields. The solution was to douse the plants in chemicals, but this often killed the crops along with the parasites. Roundup Ready soybeans are the technological fix to a technological problem; their DNA is modified to make them resistant to the Roundup pesticide. As of 2012, they accounted for 93 percent of all soy crops in the United States. But as Vernon Bowman discovered, these futuristic seeds carry a sort 28 of legal parasite, one bearing alien property claims that threaten to destroy the independent farm entirely.

It turns out that Bowman was trying to obey the terms of Monsanto’s license agreement and dutifully threw away the seeds from his crop of Roundup Ready soy rather than save them for next season. But he also bought off-brand seeds from a grain elevator that had been “contaminated” with Monsanto’s designer version. When he replanted the seeds from the supposedly off-brand plants, he left himself open to legal action. The appeals court that ruled against him was untroubled by the implications of enforcing the patent when virtually all available stocks of soybean seeds contained the Roundup Ready genes: “While farmers, like Bowman, may have the right to use commodity seeds as feed, or for any other conceivable use, they cannot ‘replicate’ Monsanto’s patented technology by planting it in the ground to create newly infringing genetic material, seeds, and plants”. What Monsanto owns is not a thing but a self-replicating pattern, which opens up the possibility that Monsanto will soon control all soybean seeds everywhere.

The contours of the Monsanto seed lawsuit are really not so different from the cases that have been brought against mp3 downloaders. If one person can buy a CD and then copy it for all their friends, the sales prospects of record companies are greatly diminished. By the same token, if a farmer can harvest and replant seeds from his crop, rather than buying new seeds each year, so much the worse for Monsanto’s stock prices.

All of this should make us reconsider the now-popular notion of “austerity,” the idea that scarce resources require state spending rollbacks. Where we see scarcity, much of it appears to be imposed by choice. In particular, the increasing weight of intellectual property law heralds a world where the prime objective of business is to make things scarce enough that people will still need to buy them.

Life for many individuals remains austere indeed, due to high unemployment, idle factories, and stagnant or declining wages. Yet the proclamations of a new era of scarcity do not correspond to any obvious change in the material possibilities of our advanced industrial civilization. The factories were not been destroyed in the financial crisis, and our technology has not disappeared. American gross domestic product per capita, after its precipitous decline during the Great Recession, is well on its way back to its 2008 peak.

And each day brings news of new technological developments that promise to make us richer still, of which high-tech seeds are only one example. 3-D printers that will let us download and print out a new pair of shoes. Artificial intelligences that can comb through medical databases and diagnose our obscure ailments. Synthetic meats that will make factory farming obsolete. And while we may not get flying cars anytime soon, we will get vehicles that pilot themselves. Despite problems of energy and resource scarcity that confront some of these technologies, many of them are more efficient than older forms of production. And developments in cheap clean energy and recycling continue, despite political obstacles to their adoption.

Even if scarcity becomes a diminishing element of the human condition, it remains an essential condition for capitalism, both for its functioning and its cultural legitimacy. No one wants to buy something that can be gotten for free, which is why markets in namebrand air have failed to take off, and why great efforts in marketing are necessary to persuade people that bottled water is qualitatively different from the stuff that comes out of their taps. People generally accept the moral principle that they can’t just walk into the grocery store and take everything, on the grounds that this would be unfair to those who didn’t get any. When scarce goods need to be rationed, the price mechanism is the most efficient way to do so, if not always the most just. But things change when scarcity is transparently an imposition of the state rather than a fact of nature, as in the case of Bowman and his seeds.

Both business and government are eager to enforce artificial scarcity in agriculture; the Obama administration weighed in on the Bowman case in favor of Monsanto. The United States government regards intellectual property such as seed patents as a key to national economic competitiveness, and the Office of Management and Budget claims that 30 percent of all U.S. jobs are “directly or indirectly attributable to the IP-intensive industries.”

But these parties appear much less troubled by the other kind of scarcity that afflicts agriculture. For while the seeds may come from a lab, the soybeans still ultimately come from the earth. Agriculture is running up against ecological limits. In its efforts to create artificial scarcity, agribusiness threatens to return us to a scarcity of natural resources through climate catastrophe.

While it may not be apparent at the dinner table, modern commercial crops are, like plastic and gasoline, a petroleum product. Energy-related costs make up over 50 percent of operating expenses for many crops. The primary energy source is oil. The biggest driver of these costs is not the direct use of fuel for machinery or irrigation, but rather fertilizer, whose production is extremely energy-intensive. Overall, the food sector alone accounts for 30 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Add it all up and you need a lot of Texas tea: a factory raised cow uses up 284 gallons of oil over its lifetime. One way or another, oil supplies are strictly limited; even if we could find infinite reserves somewhere, continuing to burn them at our present pace would render the Earth an uninhabitable hothouse.

Then there is water; 70 percent of worldwide water usage is for agriculture. A hamburger uses 635 gallons, almost as much as the 700 gallons in your cotton T-shirt. It’s a myth that you need to drink eight glasses of water a day, but the food you consume uses about 800 gallons. Water shortages are already a serious problem in many parts of the world, including China and the southwestern United States.

Climate change, too, may render certain agricultural crops scarce or even extinct. As the climates in which various plants and animals evolved begin to change radically, their viability will be threatened. The United Nations Committee on World Food Security predicts large declines in yields for staple crops including corn, wheat, and soy.

Among the pessimistic ranks of deep ecologists and peak oilers, you’ll find doomsayers predicting inevitable starvation and die-offs as we exhaust our natural resources. But natural scarcity might be overcome—we just aren’t really trying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture organization describes the possibility of improving agriculture’s environmental sustainability by “doing more with less,” while simultaneously eliminating hunger and malnutrition. But achieving this vision would mean major changes to established ways of doing business.

Agribusiness makes money by not paying the full cost of the ecological damage it wreaks—the “externalities” in economic jargon. Deforestation produces more grazing land in the short run, more climate change in the long run. Pulling more fish from the sea leaves stocks permanently depleted. More than 10 percent of the food produced is wasted, much of it in the production and retailing stages before food reaches the consumer. Reining in this behavior imposes costs that entrenched interests are reluctant to pay. The problem is exacerbated by the collective-action issue posed by a global question that calls for cross-national solutions.

The most successful reforms to date strike at the class relations that govern agriculture in many poor countries, where large landowners employ landless peasants at very low wages. A report on “Land Reform and Sustainable Development” from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst describes how Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) improved the ecological impact of farming by securing land rights for peasants. They find that formerly landless peasants have moved in the direction of more sustainable practice, because “once they win secure land rights, the settlers have a powerful incentive to invest in ecological restoration.” Moreover, they explain that small farms are more productive per unit area because self-directed farm labor surpasses capitalist directed wage labor.

This is late capitalism’s inverted world, where business and government treat nature as infinite but strictly ration culture. Thus does capitalism, billed in every economics textbook as the supreme mechanism for allocating scarce resources, degenerate into a machine that introduces scarcity where it need not exist and blithely squanders the things that are in short supply.

Capitalism is itself a kind of social technology, one capable of organizing and managing a massive and complex division of labor without concentrating power over the system at any one point. But it is a technology that is much better suited to some tasks than others. When maximizing the output of commodities with the least input of human labor is posed as society’s main problem, capitalism’s defenders can point to it as an historically unsurpassed technology for this purpose.

If, however, the main problem is to maintain the ability of the Earth to support an advanced civilization, and to ensure that the bounty of that civilization is shared out equitably, then the situation looks quite different. Since the system responds only to price signals, internalizing the externalities of ecological degradation entails an unceasing campaign of enclosures and commodification, in which every aspect of the natural world must be parceled up into pieces of private property, from carbon credits to fishing rights. And this same reliance on prices ensures that legitimacy of a person’s desires will always be equated with the money at their disposal, and the machine will reproduce a world that caters to the whims of rich countries and rich people. This is ever more of a problem when wage work is still the normal way of making a living, and yet less and less labor is actually required in production.

There are, of course, patches for the bugs that have been uncovered in our wondrous machine. Putting a price on carbon emissions could curb the source of global warming, and perhaps we will even develop ways of removing carbon from the air. The scarcity of wage labor and the shortfall in demand could be countered by escalating redistribution, perhaps with a universal basic income. In the short run, such things are no doubt preferable to environmental catastrophe and widespread human misery. But perhaps it’s worth asking why we’re continuing to apply duct tape and bailing wire to a device that is long past the point of historical obsolescence.

If Vernon Bowman loses his case before the Court, we will continue toward a future in which all farmers are bound by the phantasmic scarcity of the patent system, paying neofeudal tribute to agribusiness for the right to sow seeds. Meanwhile, we will continue to suck oil and water out of the ground, and pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But an inverted world can only stand on its head for so long.