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  • Open Source Foodways:Agricultural Commons and Participatory Art
  • Allison Carruth (bio)

In The Consequences of Modernity, anthony giddens suggests that a central attribute of postindustrialism is the political power and material wealth accrued by those who possess intellectual property.1 Since the Second World War, industrialized agriculture and the nexus of institutions, technologies, and corporations organized under the sign of agribusiness (a term coined in 1956) have ushered in a food system that is postindustrial in this sense and whose epicenter has been the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what the consulting firm Context calls the proprietary seed market, a $40 billion worldwide market whose scale and structure signal the decline of agricultural commons.2 Both for the corporations that Context addresses and for environmental activists who oppose them, “proprietary” has come to signify, above all, patented transgenic seeds (i.e., GMOs): seeds engineered to contain gene sequences from other species as a means to achieve pesticide tolerance, insect resistance, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or other ends.3 Anti-GMO movements have mobilized against these biotechnologies via [End Page 95] moral arguments about the profits their patenting garners for corporations,4 the environmental and health risks they might pose, and their origins in research that seems to “play god in the garden.”5 Whether we view the market in patented GMOs from the perspective of agribusiness boosters or environmentalists, transgenic seeds have come to embody a radical break in the technologies and economics of food production.

Triumphant or portentous in delivery, this GMO rhetoric overstates both the technical and sociocultural novelty of GMOs. The engineering and privatizing of seeds has unfolded over a long timeline that runs from the enclosure of grazing lands in eighteenth-century England through the growth of the commercial seed industry in the United States after the First World War. The latter development is a crucial point of origin for the contemporary enclosure of seed commons that corporations such as Monsanto have helped to realize. This history dates to the 1920s, when hundreds of companies formed in the U.S. to act as commercial seed developers and distributors.6 Prior to this point, plant breeders working in public land-grant universities developed open-pollinated seeds that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributed for free to farmers, who could in turn save those seeds from future harvests and replant them.7 The arrival of hybrid seed technology promised to increase yields, but because hybridized seeds do not breed true, farmers were newly compelled each year to purchase seed packets that eventually came with legally binding use licenses.8 With the 1930 Plant Protection Act and subsequent 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act, first the cuttings of asexual plants and then sexually reproducible seeds became eligible for intellectual property protection. These laws laid the foundation for 1980 and 2001 Supreme Court rulings that eroded farmers’ seed saving rights by affirming the constitutionality of corporate patents on biological compositions (like seeds) and individual genetic traits (like vegetable pigmentation).9 The outcomes of this legal history have been several: plant breeding has been redefined as a branch of engineering; software has become an increasingly pervasive metaphor for seeds; and the balance between public and private with respect to American agriculture has dramatically shifted.10 Today’s proprietary seed market is thus best understood as the apotheosis of a slow-and-steady movement within the U.S. food system—and the food systems of other top GMO producers—away from the commons. [End Page 96]

What constitutes a more radical break with the past than the rise of GMOs per se is an emerging set of activist and art communities who reimagine seeds as agents of public knowledge, exchange, and cultivation. These communities activate what I term open source foodways:11 a model of ecologically-attuned food production that adapts the lexicon of a digital commons to agricultural projects that mix environmental science, amateur knowledge, and, most importantly for this essay, socially engaged participatory art as defined by Grant Kester and others.12 By comparison, agribusiness boosters and anti-GMO groups both advance a vision of twenty-first-century food production that pits the power of...


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