RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Shut that Barn Door


To folks with an eye on the food system, the most incredible news from Iraq is that, for the first time ever, Iraqi farmers are forbidden from planting seeds that have been part of their heritage for centuries. Instead, they will have to buy seeds this year from American patent holders. As reported by Al Krebs in The Agribusiness Examiner in November, the US-led "agricultural reconstruction" requires farmers to plant "protected crop varieties brought into Iraq by transnational corporations."

For farmers in the once-fertile crescent, who invented agriculture and have saved seeds for thousands of years, this is incomprehensible. But Iraq is succumbing to the same patent system as farmers in the US.

This means that Iraqi farmers will soon enjoy the dubious rights that plague American farmers: the right to have detectives sneak on your land and steal plants, then claim that you have stolen their genetic possessions; the right to be taken to court by a multinational corporation and sued as a gene thief; the right to settle out of court for enough money to bankrupt you. Don't believe it? Look at to read the stories of many innocent farmers that have been screwed by the patent system.

The patent system, invented by American corporations, claims that if corporate scientists can describe a seed, their corporations can own the genetic sequence and claim a royalty.

Don't believe it? I can't blame you. Check it out: On Dec. 10, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in the case of J.E.M. AG Supply v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l that plants -- any plants -- can be patented. The ruling, urged onto the Supreme Court by John Ashcroft and written by Clarence Thomas, protects rich patent holders like Ashcroft's home-state Monsanto. Before the ruling, the status of plant patents was undetermined. Patents, after all, were designed to protect inventions -- human creativity -- not to claim living things.

Given this climate, it is absolutely wonderful that any US small farm owners manage to stay in business. Supported by loyal customers who refuse to let corporations take over their personal food supplies, farmers who sell directly to the public through farmers' markets, local delivery systems or local groceries somehow manage.

While their income is small, these farmers are rewarded by their own sense of accomplishment, enjoyment of rural life and the gratitude they reap from their customers. And as this system takes hold, farmers, consumers and observers realize that the whole business is more about community and relationships than about money.

In fact, as I scan around small farms in mid-Missouri, I can predict fairly accurately who's going to stay and who's going to leave on the basis of how their support systems are going rather than how much money they're getting. If our small farm owners are taken for granted and marginalized, we will lose them. Even if they are making money, they won't stay if the community doesn't embrace and speak out for them.

The alternative to local foods is corporate intrusion on our food system and in our lives. It means that the only choice is food from the big-box stores and harvested by corporations from faraway lands -- China, Brazil, Ghana.

In one way, increasing imports looks like we're increasing choices. After all, we now have 14 types of olives on the salad bar, from as far away as Greece, Italy and Turkey. But check it out -- the small brands that make up the variety are increasingly owned by the giants.

And we have no clue about how food is raised for us in these lands, what chemicals are used, what rain forests clear cut, what labor exploited, what rivers polluted, how the food is processed. Add to this the fact that importing our food means using increasing amounts of transportation to bring it here. So, to the foodie, the war for oil means a war for imported food.

And in a desperate attempt to balance the cost of imported food plus the cost of the burgeoning deficit for war and for steel and plastic crap from the big-box store, we export more and more industrially-raised US grains and meats -- the products that take most expensive toll on our environment and our resources.

The news gets worse: In spite of the efforts to balance food trade and despite record-breaking harvests, the US ran a food deficit in 2004 for the first time since 1986. That year, you'll remember, the Farm Belt was in depression due to some other government policies. Why can't these guys get it right?

So now the only export surplus we could count on is gone. In 1996, farm surplus trade reached $27.31 billion; today we borrow to pay for food. The next question is, what do we do when we reach our credit limit?

It is desperately urgent that we rebuild the local system and our local food security. To meet farmers who sell directly to their community, find your local farmers' markets and locker plants or check out the Web sites for Slow Foods or Local Harvest.

If you are lucky enough to live near Kansas City, the KC Food Circle sponsors two farmers' expos. Mark your calendar: Saturday, March 26 at the Shawnee Civic Centre in Shawnee, Kan., from 9 am to 3 pm, and Saturday, April 2 at St. Pius X High School, in Kansas City North from 9 am to 3 pm.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, MO. Email

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