Who You Calling|a Pirate?

     Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Monsanto can sue farmers to death for doing what farmers have done since before time began – save seeds to plant next spring – questions remain.
     The Supreme Court ruled on “genetically modified” crops – DNA tinkering in seeds from glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” plants. But farmers have been genetically modifying crops since women descended from the trees. Planting seeds from the biggest fruits and grains, year after year, is genetic modification.
     That’s how the Toltecs and Teotihuacanos turned a pathetic little grass called teosintle into corn. Five hundred years later, Luther Burbank invented the nectarine by grafting one tree onto another.
     Can we no longer mess around in the garden without paying someone?
     Organic farmers have sued Monsanto repeatedly for contaminating their crops with genetically modified pollen. A cursory search of the Courthouse News database turned up 12 such lawsuits, six of them class actions, the latest one filed Monday in Mississippi.
     Once crops are out in the fields, pollen blows on the wind. You can’t stop it. It’s what the world does.
     The organic plaintiffs who sued Monsanto say their customers don’t want to eat food contaminated by genetic modifications.
     So here’s a question: If Monsanto’s genetically modified pollen fertilizes an organic farm’s crops, and the organic farm incorporates a subsidiary to sell seeds from its accidentally fertilized, genetically modified wheat, who can sue whom?
     And why?
     And for what?
     For doing what farmers have done for 10,000 years?
     Who is the pirate here?
     Is it the organic farmer whose crops were contaminated by Monsanto?
     Is it Monsanto, seizing crops from downwind farmers, with the consent of the Supreme Court, and putting farmers out of business?
     Is it the Supreme Court – (technically, a corsair: a pirate backed by the state) – legitimizing state-backed piracy?
     Is the pirate the wind?
     Or the grains of pollen that fertilize pistils downwind?
     And who should pay damages for the wind?
     These questions are raised – not directly – by an excellent new book published by those radicals at the Harvard Business Review: “The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism.”
     The authors, business professors Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne, view piracy as a creative, inherently unstable force that – were business a living organism – we could say has been introducing and replicating its DNA into capitalism for hundreds of years.
     From the Golden Age of pirates, who preyed off the Dutch and British East India Companies, to Internet pirates today, pirates have formed organizations that because of their profits, their efficiency, their short-term superiority to what the professors call the milieu, have forced businesses and governments to adopt pirate models: to incorporate piracy into the system.
     Piracy today operates in the ether – the Internet – in microspace – at the level of DNA, such as the Monsanto patent – and soon will operate at the other end of the size spectrum, in outer space.
     One reason the Internet has been so productive is that governments couldn’t figure out how to regulate it until pirates were sailing the waters: just as governments were unable, for centuries, to figure out how to regulate the open sea, or capitalism.
     Durand and Vergne do not idolize pirates. Pirate organizations are unstable and short-lasting. Pirates cannot claim rights to property, since their business model is based upon challenging rights to property.
     The most interesting aspect of the professors’ short book – actually, all of it is interesting – is their insistence upon treating piracy as an organization.
     Pirates introduced labor reforms that forced governments to copy them: popular election of leaders, rejection of leadership inheritance through bloodline, admission of women to the workforce and to leadership, even social insurance: some pirate groups gave workers who lost an arm in the assault triple spoils.
     I’ll continue this pirate tale in another column.
     By the way, I bought a review copy of this book for $2, “used” but unread, at a little fruit stand on top of a mountain near the Vermont-Massachusetts border. I wonder how it got there?

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