On Owning Nature: Part I

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , ,

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it—if it were not the earth where the same flowers came up every spring…the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows, the same redbreasts that we used to call ‘God’s birds’ because they did no harm to the precious crops…These familiar flowers, these well remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows—such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind – George Eliot

This isn’t a story about political rhetoric.  It isn’t a tale about the revolving door between industry and the U.S. government.  This isn’t a cost benefit analysis on biotechnology.  It’s not even about the merits of globalized free trade providing us the luxury of fresh tomatoes year-round and lamb in the spring.
This is simply a brief investigation into the way science is wielded in modern day regulatory decisions specifically around genetically modified organisms[1].  Genetically modified seeds are considered ‘intellectual property’ and have thus been able to acquire a monopoly on food protection by maintaining patent rights on seeds.  Many of the critics of large seed corporations, such as Monsanto, say it used this ‘platform monopoly’ to crush competition.  Chris Holman, a patent lawyer cited on NPR’s 2010 reporting of Monsanto and the seed war, likens Monsanto to Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system.
Laws around intellectual property rights invoke questions concerning what constitutes many intangibles such as how to account for creativity?  Or, what makes something a patentable invention?  Can genetics be subject to corporate ownership? In chapter V of John Locke’s Second Treatise he makes a distinction between human beings and the earth saying that “though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself.  The labour of his body, and work of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (111).
In the United States, the rise of conservatism came with an idea about “what was ‘natural’ and therefore right.  In their [conservatives’] view, people had a God-given natural right to take as much as possible from the Earth, which had more resources and was more resilient than environmentalists allowed” (Friege 424).  This type of thinking ideologically marks the beginning of the U.S. turn to more industry-protective measures, and a direct ambivalence to government regulation.  Over the years, the U.S. has loosened its regulatory regime while the European Union has adopted much tighter approaches to genetically modified seeds.
In 2000, there had been only fourteen approvals of GMOs to the market for the EU in comparison to “nearly one hundred genetically modified products allowed for ‘general release'” (Endres, 470) in the United States, Japan and Canada.  In contrast to the EU regulatory regime, “the U.S. and several other major agricultural exporters have moved much faster than the EU in adopting GMOs, with the result that an increasing share of their maize, soybean and other agricultural output use these new technologies.  The more restrictive regulatory regime in the EU therefore became a market access concern” (Hoekman and Kostecki, 255).  This has led to the EU’s ruling on health and safety standards to be a hotly contested issue in the international trade disputes.
So why has the regulatory regime with regard to environmental safety in U.S. become less strict as EU regulations have become stricter?
Stay tuned for further ruminations…


Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Vol.IX. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1917. Print.

Endres, A. B. (2000). “GMO:” Genetically modified organism or gigantic monetary obligation? The liability schemes for GMO damage in the United States and the European Union. Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review, 22 (4). 453-505.

Fiege, Mark. The Republic of Nature. 1. 1. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 1-584. Print.
Hoekman, Bernard M. and Michael M. Kostecki. The Political Economy of the World Trading System: The WTO and Beyond. 3.1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 1-740.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Yale University, 2003. 100-209. Print.
Photograph by Stephanie Kearley Mueller

[1] For more information, watch Vandana Shiva discuss the consequences of genetically modified seeds.  There are also some entertaining documentaries out there lambasting corporate seed monopolies, most infamously, Monsanto.