This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On July 25, Future Tense will be hosting an event on agriculture’s role in climate change at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.
These days it’s hard not to despair when we look to the future of our food supply.
Headlines tell of soaring temperatures and supersized storms, of endless droughts and aquifers that sink by the day, of seas saturated with plastic and fisheries at or near collapse.
And yet most of us retain our faith in our power, as a society, to master the challenge of feeding the people of the world. Whatever comes our way, we believe, someone somewhere will think up a solution that allows us to survive, even thrive.
Nick Thompson captured this delicate balance recently in an otherwise doleful piece in The New Yorker. Musing on the “terrible news” that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently passed 400 parts per million, a level that augurs further rapid climate change, Thompson concluded that humans will ultimately have to “invent our way out” of the crisis.
Given humanity’s proven ability to master new technologies, such faith is not unreasonable. Over the last two centuries, we have harnessed electricity and nuclear power, revolutionized the speed at which we travel, entirely rethought how we share and manipulate information, and learned to engineer the basic materials of life.
The question we should be asking, however, is not whether we have the technical smarts to ensure we all have enough to eat. It’s whether we have the political smarts to protect those among us—the scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs—who will think up the better ideas and better ways and put them to use.
The fundamental danger we face is simple. In recent years a few private companies have captured almost complete control over many vital technological realms, and the managers of many of these firms increasingly have an incentive to manipulate technological advancement in a way that serves their private interests only. As a result we find our society directed down fewer and fewer technological pathways, hence toward fewer and fewer potential futures.
In the late 19th century, when Americans first came face to face with immense private monopoly, it was easy to see how giants could block alternative pathways to a market. When independent oil drillers in Pennsylvania tried to build a pipeline to the coast, for instance, Standard Oil bought up long strips of land—often called “dead lines”—to cut them off.
Nowadays most such battles take place in more virtual realms. In the pharmaceutical industry, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer routinely pay rivals not to manufacture generic versions of profitable drugs. In semiconductors, trustbusters in Europe, Japan, and South Korea all concluded in recent years that Intel was using secret arrangements to prevent its customers from buying from competitors. In software, the fashion today is simply to buy up one’s rivals; Oracle has purchased more than 70 competitors just since 2005.
Nowhere do we see so many “dead lines” cutting across our future than in agriculture and food.
By now most of us know the chemical company Monsanto dominates immense swaths of the seed business, with its genetic traits in some 90 percent of our soybean crop and 80 percent of our corn. Less well-known is that Monsanto buttresses this awesome control through cross-licensing arrangements that, as a Food & Water Watch report details, intimately interweave its interests with its “rivals,” as it did with DuPont last March. The practical result? Where many thousands of farmers, small seed companies, and university scientists once worked to develop stronger seeds, we see but a handful of giants. And because these firms now share the profits of most innovations, they have less real incentive on any given day to risk investing in what is new.
Much the same is true among the giant corporations that butcher and package our cows, hogs, and chickens. In the past Smithfield and other giant processors merely enjoyed power over the farmer and consumer. Now they also rule over the genetic material of the animals themselves, which they claim is a form of “intellectual property,” as they noted in congressional hearings earlier this month. Their power is so complete that the companies that trade in animals bred through traditional, open methods—like Niman Ranch—find it ever harder to survive.
The swelling power of the trading companies that collect the grains of the farmer and distribute food to the citizen further speed such technological pruning and intellectual simplification. When giant grain-trading companies buy up traditional transport and storage facilities, as ADM is now doing with GrainCorp, higher transport and storage fees can threaten smaller farmers, along with their accumulated knowledge of seed, soils, and climates. When Wal-Mart cuts what it pays its suppliers, those suppliers often respond, as Charles Fishman detailed in The Wal-Mart Effect, by cutting quality, variety, and what they invest in new and better products. They also often respond by merging with one another, which means both fewer pathways to the market and less competitive pressure to introduce and test new ideas.
The effects of such gigantism on technological advance can last a long time. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 famously wrote of how the fear of “potential competition” can keep even a complete monopolist on its toes. But in the real world, such “potential” is realized only rarely. Instead, we see processes and products that remain the same over very long periods of time, as the companies that control these systems choose to invest instead in buying up and blocking off what is new, even if better.