Who Owns You? / The Food Wars
The Guardian, 17 October 2009
Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes, by David Koepsell (Wiley-Blackwell, GBP14.99)
Despite the protester-friendly subtitle, this isn't exactly a gosh-wow exposé of the gene-patenting business, but a tersely polemical investigation of the philosophical, scientific and legal issues. Should biotech companies be able to patent genetic sequences taken from sick individuals and monopolise the profit from them? Can you be said to "own" your genes, and to what extent are they part of you as a person? Some companies have acquired patents on genes that we all share, prompting Koepsell to observe: "The only thing the inventor has done is to point out, as if on a map, where that gene lies in nature."
The author insists at moments on a slightly quirky general account of "natural law", but one doesn't need to buy that to appreciate his fruitful detours into discussions of copyright history or "open source". He finally returns to the analogy with land, arguing that ought to be our shared "commons", and that the patent-rush constitutes a new enclosure.
The Food Wars, by Walden Bello (Verso, GBP7.99)
Enclosure of the older kind makes an appearance here, as the author traces roots of the enormous global hike in food prices between 2006 and 2008. Bello, director of NGO Focus on the Global South, combines scholarly documentation with a slow burn of anger as he describes the imposition by the World Bank and the IMF during the 1980s and 90s of the euphemistically named "structural adjustment" programme on countries such as Mexico and the Philippines, slashing investment in agriculture and turning them into net food importers. As well as the "institutionalised stupidity" of this programme, Bello also points the finger at commodity speculators and the silly "agrofuel" bubble for the recent food-price inflation, and hopes for a more "sustainable" future in the global "food sovereignty" movement of smallholders and peasants. As you can tell from my scare quotes, the "food wars" comprise rhetorical as well as political battles.