Archive for the ‘Natural Resources’ category

Peru, the Potato and Privatization

July 22, 2009

Among the more visible and globalized products of the Columbian Exchange is the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes and discovered by Westerners during Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, the potato is now a truly global crop. What would Irish and Polish food be without potatoes? Just try to imagine our world without french fries.

In 2005, six indigenous communities in Peru made a groundbreaking agreement with the International Potato Center in Cusco, which said that the potato was “patented” by these indigenous Peruvians (see story here). Spokesman Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES), said:

No, this does not mean that these communities will now procure patents over these varieties of potato. These indigenous people are against patents. They represent a model of property that does not fit into their worldview. Indigenous people are used to exchanging and sharing information in open ways. But this means a legal agreement that no one else can claim intellectual property rights over their knowledge.

What interests me about this is the indigenous groups’ collective enclosure of the potato. In order to protect the potato (as a biological entity) from the likes of Monsanto (who would quickly turn it into a commodity or technology), they enclosed it. Here, then, is another example of the complexities and subtleties of enclosure: these indigenous Peruvians used enclosure to fight privatization. They collectively privatized the potato so that no one (person or coporation) could individually privatize it.


Genetically Modified Crops: Building a Primer

July 21, 2009

Having set ourselves up with an extremely broad field of play on this site, we have so far tended (unsurprisingly) to stick with a couple of sub-topics where we have firmer footing: copyright on cultural works, ownership of consumer electronic technologies, and to a lesser extent the global water crisis.

In an attempt to open up some additional material for discussion, then, I want to start exploring a privatization issue we have not yet covered as of yet: genetically modified crops. Because I don’t have much background on the subject, I think our first step should be to build a blog post primer – an annotated link dump where we can start to piece together some information on this issue and figure out how it might fit in with our broader concerns. The comments section here would be a great place for helpful and knowledgeable readers to suggest further reading.

GMO-producing companies have claimed that their work will provide a wide array of benefits over traditional seeds. From the Wikipedia article:

Transgenic plants have been engineered to possess several desirable traits, including resistance to pests, herbicides or harsh environmental conditions, improved product shelflife, and increased nutritional value. Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants in 1996, they have been modified to be tolerant to the herbicides glufosinate and glyphosate, to be resistant to virus damage as in Ringspot virus resistant GM papaya, grown in Hawaii, and to produce the Bt toxin, a potent insecticide.

Genetically modified sweet potatoes have been enhanced with protein and other nutrients, while golden rice, developed by the International Rice Research Institute, has been discussed as a possible cure for Vitamin A deficiency. In reality, customers would have to eat twelve bowls of rice a day in order to meet the recommended levels of Vitamin A. In January 2008, scientists altered a carrot so that it would produce calcium and become a possible cure for osteoporosis; however, people would need to eat 1.5 kilograms of carrots per day to reach the required amount of calcium.

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists also disputes claims of increased crop yield through GMOs.

At the heart of the GM crop issue is agribusiness giant Monsanto. A 2008 piece in Vanity Fair outlines the dynamic between Monsanto and small farmers – to give you some indication, the piece’s title is “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.”

Among other things, Monsanto defines the specific uses to which its seeds – the product manifestations of its intellectual propery – can be used. Unauthorized use of these seeds, including using the crops produced to generate more seed for planting (“seed-saving”), violates Monsanto’s version of the End User License Agreement, called the Technology/Stewardship Agreement. By forbidding seed-saving, Monsanto intends to ensure that farmers must buy their seeds again every season in order to keep producing plants. This requirement seems to alter familiar understandings of ownership (i.e, once you purchase seeds, you own them and may do what you like with them) in the same way that EULA’s alter the legal ramifications of owning consumer electronics.

On officially-sanctioned Monsanto blog, Monsanto According to Monsanto, one of the company’s spokes-bloggers draws the comparison between seemusic piracy and the saving of patented seeds:

If you think about it, it’s pretty simple. The law is the law. When you sign an agreement, you must obey that agreement. Just like when I buy a CD of my favorite artist (which I do have quite the collection), I don’t burn it for friends. At the same time, I download quite a bit of songs to jam to on my iPod and I buy each and every one of those songs from iTunes.

Stilted tone aside, the argument shared by culture corporations and GM seed producers highlights the underlying issues of privatization that challenges traditional notions of ownership.

In an article for The African Executive, Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foundation argues that the requirement to regularly re-purchase seed undermines the humanitarian benefits (lowering the horizon for agricultural production in poor regions:

The implications of patented GM seeds for African farmers should not be underestimated. Saved seed is the one resource that the poorest depend upon to carry them through the year. If they are forbidden to save their seed and must pay up to triple the costs of buying new seed each season, the costs of growing food will become prohibitive. The claims of lowered production costs do not stand up to scrutiny. Neither are the yields of GM crops sufficient to recover the costs.

One enforcement mechanism (other than lawsuits, which Monsanto regularly undertakes) for preventing the unauthorized use of proprietary organisms is Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), which could be considered agribusiness’ answer to DRM. Wikipedia’s listing for GURT lists two principal methods for this sort of control.

V-GURT: This type of GURT produces sterile seeds [ed. often called “terminator seeds”] meaning that a farmer that had purchased seeds containing v-GURT technology could not save the seed from this crop for future planting. This would not have an immediate impact on the large number of primarily western farmers who use hybrid seeds, as they do not produce their own planting seeds, and instead buy specialized hybrid seeds from seed production companies. However, currently around 80 percent of farmers in both Brazil and Pakistan grow crops based on saved seeds from previous harvests.[2] Consequentially, resistance to the introduction of GURT technology into developing countries is strong.[2] The technology is restricted at the plant variety level – hence the term V-GURT. Manufacturers of genetically enhanced crops would use this technology to protect their products from unauthorised use.

T-GURT: A second type of GURT modifies a crop in such a way that the genetic enhancement engineered into the crop does not function until the crop plant is treated with a chemical that is sold by the biotechnology company. Farmers can save seeds for use each year. However, they do not get to use the enhanced trait in the crop unless they purchase the activator compound. The technology is restricted at the trait level – hence the term T-GURT.

So – seems as if we have plenty of common threads right from the start.

Greenwashing Synagro: Secretive Corporate Giant Has Got the Private Poop

July 17, 2009

following up on P’s recent post about privatizing sewage…

I live near Detroit, so this year has been a doozy. Not only is Detroit (and all of SE Michigan) hit hard by unemployment, foreclosure, restructuring of the automobile industry and long-standing poverty, neglect and racism, but it also recently lost its mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and city council woman Monica Conyers, both of them because of corruption. Beyond the blight, Detroit is dealing with regime change, corruption and political instability.

Conyers’ mistake was taking bribes from the Synagro corporation, the nation’s largest waste disposal company, who wanted a 25-year, $1 billion contract for handling Detroit’s municipal sewage. In what the local media have taken to calling the “sludge scandal” ( – go ahead, google it), Synagro tried to recruit allies on the Detroit city council through bribery. Conyers is the only one so far who has copped to bribery charges, but the palm-greasing probably also included a 2003 junket to Hawaii to see a boxing match with Kwame Kilpatrick (for more, see this story in Detroit Business Magazine Crain’s).

Watching the shit hit the fan in Michigan has been sobering. But its also sobering to learn that Synagro has been greasing politicians’ palms since 1992, and has spiraled downwards into a mire of sludge and PR which threatens government and corporate transparency, health and safety, the environment, our food supply, and effective environmental regulation.

The Backstory:

1988’s Ocean Dumping Act made New York City’s previous waste disposal proceedure (dumping into the Atlantic) illegal and obsolete. By 1993, the city had set up the world’s largest solid waste recycling program, the New York Organic Fertilizer Co., owned and operated by Synagro. Here the relevant palm to grease was Alfonse D’Amato’s. The NYOFC produces Class A organic fertilizer – carefully sanitized with heat to kill microorganisms. But even this highest grade of treated sludge in the land may contain undocumented levels of plastics, heavy metals and other industrial residues – not very well regulated by the EPA, freshly excoriated by the Bush Administration (see “Sludge and Scandal,” 2004).

In 2000, the Houston Business Journal noted that Synagro became one of the world’s largest waste management corporations. The SEC’s disclosure of all Synagro’s subsidiaries is pretty sobering. This Texas company now has subsidiaries in Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Canada and Iraq.

Everywhere Synagro goes, there is trouble from the locals.

In 1992, communities in Oklahoma and Alabama organized to reject New York City waste being used as fertilizer in their regions. As Joel Bliefuss wrote in his truly muckraking piece, “The Sludge Hits the Fan”:

In 1992, the Water Environment Federation, describing itself as a “not-for-profit technical and educational organization” whose “mission is to preserve and enhance the global water environment,” received a $300,000 grant from the EPA to “educate the public” about the “beneficial uses” of sludge. “The campaign will tie in with the Federation’s ongoing efforts to promote use of the term `biosolids,’ ” reported the Federation’s December 1992 newsletter.

“Beneficial use” is the industry euphemism for the practice of spreading sludge on farm fields. Even before the current push, sludge has been applied to soil for decades. Milwaukee’s sewage sludge has been dried and sold nationally for almost 70 years as “Milorganite,” a lawn and garden fertilizer. In 1982, the state of Maryland banned Milorganite after it was found to contain high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal. In recent years, other cities have followed Milwaukee’s example offering varieties such as “Nu-Earth” from Chicago, “Nitrohumus” from Los Angeles, and “Hou-actinite” from Houston.

Milorganite and other commercially-marketed sludge products usually carry labels warning that they should not be applied on food-producing soil. But most consumers and journalists are unaware that tens of thousands of acres, from Midwest dairy land to Florida citrus groves and California fruit orchards, are already routinely “fertilized” with byproducts of industrial and human sewage. In theory, this approach harkens back to the time-honored natural system of composting. Of course, the organic farmers of previous centuries didn’t have to worry that their “night soil” contained a synergistic soup of dioxins, asbestos, DDT and lead that could contaminate themselves, their groundwater, and their food.

It is, in other words, quite a difficult situation. Under cover of producing environmentally responsible recycled waste (a rather progressive, sophisticated organic composting program), Synagro helps cities and companies produce waste which is actually a mix of human waste, food waste, garbage, and industrial waste – whatever goes into the sewer. As Bleifuss points out, “The environmentally sound approach would have been to develop separate treatment systems for human and industrial waste” Yeah…but we didn’t do that. And so he highlights the non-organic, non-fertilizing parts of sludge for his readers:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs);
  • Chlorinated pesticides — DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, lindane, mirex, kepone, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D;
  • Chlorinated compounds such as dioxins;
  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury;
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasitic worms, fungi; and
  • Miscellaneous — asbestos, petroleum products, industrial solvents.

Do you want these in your food? I don’t. Do they maybe help account for all the cases of e-coli in packaged produce recently? Could be. In 2002, Synagro acquired Earthwise Organics and Earthwise Trucking, which most likely use Class A organic fertilizer like the stuff produced in New York City. So should we trust that what we’re getting from Earthwise Organics is really and purely organic?

Since the 1990s, communities in the Bronx have been organizing to protest the hazards and stench of the New York operation. In 2002 Synagro settled out of court with the family of Shayne Conner, a New Hampshire man who died in his sleep a month after the spread of such fertilizer on a neighboring field. In Riverside County, Calif., a Synagro plant closed Dec. 31, 2008 after years of complaints about what residents called headache-inducing, property-value-sucking smells, about 50 miles southwest of downtown LA.

In the Bush era, as the EPA eased up on regulation, Synagro captured a larger and larger share of national and international waste management markets. More and more businesses and municipalities contributed their waste. This waste was then quietly spirited away by Synagro. Synagro not only turns waste into fertilizer (a great idea), but also turns fertilizer into a hiding place for many mysterious industrial residues (a diabolical idea).

In 2007, Synagro was bought out by the giant holding company The Carlyle Group. Carlyle, it seems, recognized Synagro’s power to dispose of waste and keep it quiet at the same time. The buyout, they announced, would be accompanied by making Synagro a private company. In Dec. 2007 SEIU protested, challenging Carlyle to disclose information about potential health hazards of using treated sludge to fertilize crops (SEIU Press Release). SEIU convincingly argued that taking the company private would be an excuse for tight-lipped Cheney-esque non-disclosure. They worried that the terrible secrets in sludge might never be revealed.

Because the EPA and Synagro aren’t too concerned about whether treated sludge is safe, very justified public outcry has set back the long-term prospects of convincing Americans of the safety of organic waste recycling. The public is scared of sludge now, and with good reason – but they should not fear eating food fertilized by their own waste. The key for everyone’s own food safety is to know the difference between Class B and Class A Fertilizers, and to know the difference between organic and conventional produce.

As Bliefuss wrote,

Currently, “certified organic” farmers are prohibited from using sludge on their crops, but the sludge industry is pushing for acceptance by organic farming organizations, and this will be a battleground for industry PR in the future. The amount of farm acreage dedicated to organic farming is currently very small. However, said Brian Baker of California Certified Organic Farmers, “imagine what great PR it would be for the sewage sludge promoters to say that sludge is so clean it can even be certified organic — what a way to `greenwash’ sewage sludge!”

And there you have it! Greenwashing: the insidious PR move of hiding potential environmental waste under the mantle of organic sustainability.

Synagro helps us see all of the different things that can be privatized: it privatized its annual statements in 2007, it privatized the waste disposal business, on the vanguard of de-regulation, it privatized waste itself, it privatized information or knowledge about the chemical contents of that waste. Almost anything can be commodified and privatized – invent a new market out of thin air and someone will usually enclose it, quick.

Worst of all, the poorest people are usually the ones who suffer, albeit in various ways. In the Bronx, the poorest New Yorkers are afflicted with stench and mysterious questions about heath and safety. In south-west Detroit, the people are afflicted by the incinerators that Synagro would have replaced, had the dirty contract with the city gone through. In New York, the people suffer because Synagro is “working hard” (whatever that means), while in Detroit, they suffer because Synagro is “hardly working.”

Privitization of the Sewer Monster

July 7, 2009

The sci fi blog io9 recently posted about a mysterious slime creature found in a sewer in the area of Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow the link to see the revolting video clip.

Initially, a Raleigh public utilities rep issued a statement tentatively identifying the glop and noting that the municipal sewage treatement system would take care of any water that touched it. Later, however, the following retraction was issued:

The video was taken in a private sewer system by a private contractor working for them. It does not belong to the City of Raleigh nor will it reach the Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is the response from our director: “The video is of the private sanitary sewer in the Cameron Village and was taken by a private contractor working for them and not taken by our staff. The blob has been identified by others as worms.”

Notes io9:

I love how the privatization of the sewer system under this particular town has led to a terrible situation where the city’s public utilities commission has no ability to guarantee that the situation will be dealt with in a reasonable way.

This presents an interesting twist on the dilemma of privatization and accountability. In many cases, we have noted that privatization often goes hand in hand with secrecy and a lack of accountability on the part of the private resource holder. In this case, however, privatization is used by the state as an excuse to recuse itself from responsibility for containing a possible public health hazard.

A Response: The Future of File Sharing

June 8, 2009

At the IP Watch blog, Bruce Gain has published a post entitled The Future of File Sharing, in which he explores three new models for digital content distribution that may have some potential to stem the tide of illegal file sharing where industry lawsuits and HADOPI are currently failing. He poses the question this way:

[W]hat alternatives exist that can appease those with royalty interests as well as meet the demand of consumers, especially those who actively engage in sharing copyright-protected media files?

What’s especially interesting about his list is that it offers at two starkly different visions of the future of intellectual property when it comes to digital media.

The first and third of these options – free media supported by ads and global licensing – work on the assumption that p2p is an open Pandora’s box. Rather than keeping at the Sisyphean task of constructing ever tighter systems of DRM in response to the ever more sophisticated, widespread, and user-friendly methods of breaking DRM, copyright holders refocus their efforts in finding alternative revenue streams to support free-range content. In the former case, it’s revenue from advertisements attached to the media distribution platform. In the latter, it’s a blanket point-of-entry fee that covers the entire universe of content that a given user might access for free, distributed by some means to the “owners” of that content.

Gain’s second option, on the other hand, seeks to radically raise the horizon of access to p2p by further privatizing the undergirding technology. Rather than continuing to produce personal computers as open systems that run any compatible applications regardless of origin and allow connectivity to any other computer (given the proper software, etc.), computers of the future could be closed systems – more like video game consoles – where only official applications, peripheral hardware, and networks will be compatible.

The article runs down a variety of logistical problems with each of these three options, which I won’t rehash here, but I do think it’s important to note that all of Gain’s considerations seem to address the first half of his goal (appeasing royalties-seekers) rather than the second (appeasing consumers). I don’t think this imbalance is necessarily a result of any pro-IP bias on the author’s part. Rather, I think it reveals a quality of the current digital distribution system that Gain leaves unspoken; namely, that for those consumers with a baseline of technological know-how, it already fullfils demand almost perfectly. Cultural resources are already available nearly immediately, and in most cases for free over the greynet.

If we are to be honest about what it means to seek out new content distribution systems that “appease everybody” (i.e., producers, sellers, and consumers), we must recognize that we are inherrently talking about finding ways to restore a measure of profitability to the privatized culture industry in the digital age.

Def.: Envirotech

May 21, 2009

I wanted to introduce this term as a shorthand for expressing the relationship between nature and technology discussed in the two previous posts. The term was invented by a work-group of scholars in the history of technology and environmental history, see “what is envirotech?” here.

Intersection of Nature and Technology, again, from Walter Benjamin to Virtual Water

May 20, 2009

Your previous post was so inspiring that I had to respond in a fuller form than the comments.

On the one hand, there are several recent trends that point in the direction Arthur is talking about – e.g. all the recent news about switching our medical records over to all-digital, “paperless” billing for telelphone, cable, bank and utilities customers, etc. There is a sense in which, at least informationally, we are moving more and more to an all-digital environment, where the digital version feels like “the original” and all physical, analogue manifestations like a printout feel like copies. It’s worthwhile, even if his ecological argument is worthless, to reflect on some of the historical trends he identifies.

On the other hand, your critique based on the very analog energy and natural resource costs required to operate the ever-expanding global network of digital (i.e. electronic) devices hits Arthur’s argument where it hurts. This really gets me interested as a historian of technology. I’m very inspired by the idea, once expressed by Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, that although “the mastery of nature is, so the imperialists teach, the purpose of all technology…technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (Reflections, p. 93).

Science and Technology: these two words describe the relationship between humans and our natural environment – what do we know about that environment? how do we use, manipulate and impact that environment? Every human production requires consumption. Producing mechanical or electrical power, for example, always requires the use of some preexisting natural material or force–sun, water, wind, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Technological systems like our electric power grid never function – cannot function – without appropriate inputs of human effort (work, use, maintenance) and inputs of natural forces or resources. Science (broadly, the production of knowledge about nature) works the same way. This formula (human-tech-nature) works equally well for describing the water mill grinding grain, Pasteur observing bacteria under the microscope, or a network of cellphones spreading over the globe like Starbucks (or propagating like rabbits, if you like).

You found this little nugget of Benjaminian wisdom lurking behind Arthur’s argument. It can be found hiding in almost any pat techno-determinist narrative like Arthur’s. And it’s going to be an important nugget to keep in mind as we try to make even stronger ties between our analysis of natural resources and technological resources.

When we think about technological and cultural resources, we need to seek the hidden natural resources behind them. So for example, John Allan of King’s College London, an expert on the water economy of the Middle East, coined the term “virtual water” (AKA embedded water, embodied water or hidden water) to mean the amount of water required to produce any given good or service. In this same vein, we could ask: how much virtual coal do we burn in each blog post? As you argued, this is what Arthur misses.