Good Crop Bad Crop

cover of Good Crop Bad Crop

It’s Canada day here at Stuffed and Starved, not for any other reason than that, out of the blue, I’ve been deluged with Canadiana. Yesterday, the executive director at Meal Exchange got in touch, sharing this splendid wee public service announcement aimed at students:

Someone from York University in Toronto also dropped a line and, to top it off, I’ve just finished a lovely short book by Devlin Kuyek of Grain on Canadian seed politics. The book rejoices in the title “Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada”. And in just over a hundred pages, Devlin gives a detailed, thoughtful and thorough overview of the history and current battles around seed.

A paragraph that’s characteristic of his analytical and historical sensitivity comes when he’s discussing what needs to happen for private sector seed companies to flourish.

It is no secret to anyone in the seed business that private seed companies cannot make big profits when they have to compete with public varieties. Public varieties do not cost farmers as much, because the costs of research are generally paid through public funding rather than the price of the seed, and because farmers are free to save the seeds from year to year. J. A. Stewart of Alex M. Stewart and Sons, a small Ontario seed company, laid it out bluntly for the Canadian public and private plat breeders assembled at a conference in 1971: “[there must be] fewer public sector breeders and few public varieties, if seed companies are to survive.” But back then, hardly anyone involved in plant breeding serious entertained the idea of dismantling the public sector breeding programs…

What do you lose when you lose public research? A breeder at the University of Guelph suggests that

“it is important to keep public breeding progams in place because public programs pursue research that the private sector would not pursue. For example, crosses with wild soybean are extremely difficult to work with, but justified by the final aim. Companies focused on short-term results would not be able to carry this out.”

Through his discussion of the closing of the public purse to science, and its replacement with proprietary technology such as the ‘Terminator’ and Genetic Use Restriction Technologies, it’s hard not to get angry. When Devlin explains Terminator technology to his grandfather,

a retired Sasketchewan farmer who sold the family farm in the early 1980s, he face tuned from a blank look of incomprehension to one of anger. He couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing to seeds and how such a basic part of farming that every farmer took for granted [ -the saving of seed -] could be undermined in such a short time.

After reading it, one knows not only how it happened, but how hard it will be to win the battle for the reinstatement of public seed, a deeper gene pool, and farmers’ rights. If one’s looking for an easy metaphor, it’s easy to see private seed companies as weeds, only able to thrive with attacks on public science, and while public science is slashed, the private sector blots out any possibility of a public sector renaissance.

This is a book with a bounty of information, from the story of Percy Schmeiser with acute and insightful analysis to the conditions facing people of colour as migrant labourers. If you’re interested in genetic diversity, seed politics and corporate power in the Global North, Devlin’s book is well worth getting your hands on. Get your copy at your local bookstore, or through Bookfinder.com.