By now, it has become something of a media cliché to watch “fringe” protesters jumping up and down from the edges of G-8 conferences held at ever more remote locations. But the degree to which market ideals have gained supremacy in all spheres, from crime to health insurance to family relations, should be of greater social interest. This shift has resulted in the privatizing of some traditionally public functions without regard for art or idealism, custom or sentimentality, culture or locale.
When we contract out military operations, misbehavior of the subcontractor technically shifts from state action to transaction cost. When states “outsource” the prison industry, local oversight is sacrificed as prisoners in one state end up farmed out to more cost-efficient facilities in another. When unions sue for better working conditions or gender equality, manufacturers relocate. Private companies, after all, are not responsible for upholding civic virtue or community values. The primary duty of any profit-seeking entity is toward shareholders–the bottom line rather than the common good.
Consider the tension between government and corporate control of licenses, patents and usages when the commodity is information–whether words or images or genetic patterns. In an era of biotechnology–to say nothing of bioterrorism–this arena portends battles for control that may be as unsettling as anything the oil wars have unleashed. Everywhere there are debates about our ability to alter the environment or the gene pool in dramatic, irreversible ways. Some companies want to farm fish genetically engineered to grow 200 to 300 percent faster than the norm. How do we govern the potential consequences of such giant specimens interbreeding with their indigenous cousins? This is not merely an issue of how to regulate industrial impact on the environment. It is also one of whether and how to limit corporate ownership of the environment. A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada has sent tremors through the legal community for precisely such revolutionary implications. In Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, the justices set a global precedent by granting broad proprietary rights in a living organism–and its progeny.
Percy Schmeiser is a canola farmer in Saskatchewan. In 1997 he sprayed a common weedkiller called Roundup on three acres of his property. He noticed that some of the canola plants were resistant to the herbicide. He collected the seeds of those plants and used them to plant 1,000 more acres. It turns out that the Roundup-resistant plants were derived from a genetically altered strain developed and patented by Monsanto. Under the terms of Monsanto’s license, farmers who purchase the seeds are not permitted to collect and replant seeds from what they grow. Rather, they must repurchase seeds each season so as to more effectively permit Monsanto to recover its enormous research and development costs. Schmeiser, however, had never purchased seeds from Monsanto; he simply found the plants growing on his land, either because the seed had blown in from neighboring farms or been dropped by passing trucks. Nevertheless, the court upheld Monsanto’s claims of patent infringement and required Schmeiser to pay a licensing fee and hand over any remaining seeds in his possession. “The patented genes and cells are not merely a ‘part’ of the plant,” ruled the court, but extend to the “entire physical structure” including subsequent generations of the plant.