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Teosinte and Monsanto: A Tale of Civilization

August 26, 2013

It has been established that the wild grass teosinte, which is native to the Mesoamerican region (Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua), is the genetic ancestor of corn. Like corn, teosinte has ears with kernels, however the ears are much smaller and look a lot different than corn. Sometime around 9,000 years ago, it is estimated, when the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica were beginning to experiment with agriculture, teosinte kernels were chosen selectively for planting.

The theory is that over hundreds and hundreds of years, by means of selective breeding done by humans (also known as artificial selection, as opposed to natural selection), teosinte slowly evolved into corn. Teosinte and corn have most of the same genes in common, and it is possible to breed them together to make hybrid plants, which has been done in the modern era. It is entirely possible that if it were not for human beings corn may not exist.

For millennia now corn has been a central pillar in the building of civilization: from the Maya in Mesoamerica 4,000 years ago all the way to the present day United States, but it is only now, in the age of ruthless, globalized corporate capitalism, that the ecological commons of our world are under perilous threat by private interests (debating the merits, discontents, and sustainability of civilization is definitely fair game, just not in this article).

You may have heard of Monsanto, the transnational seed and chemical corporation. Monsanto has developed a number of genetically engineered (or genetically modified) crops—corn is one of them—which they alone have patent rights to. At a fundamental level, what this means is that Monsanto, through genetic engineering, has gained intellectual property rights over nature. If you somehow obtain Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, not from them, they can sue you. Genetic engineering is done by inserting new genes into the DNA of an organism, or by removing genes. The goals of such engineering can vary, but one example of why Monsanto has done it is to create crops that are resistant to the particular herbicides and pesticides that they also manufacture. So if you have their seed, you also need their herbicides and pesticides.

Now, there are a whole slew of issues I take with Monsanto. Essentially, they are the epitome of our unsustainable, oil and pesticide dependent, mono-cropping, industrial food system—a system that is not just horrible for the environment and doomed to fail in the long run, but also leads to many of the health problems that we have in this country. Or, to put it differently, Monsanto is the antithesis of local, dignified, healthy, natural food and food systems. But I started this article by highlighting the history of how teosinte became corn, and the integral role that humans have played in this process, and I want to tie it all together.

After teosinte eventually evolved into corn the process of saving seeds and selective breeding did not stop there. For thousands of years, all the way until this very moment, as I sit staring at a beautiful ear of Native American red corn that I grew in my garden this year, human agriculturalists have continued the process of evolving corn.

So, for a moment, I want you to ponder the essence of the creativity, ingenuity, and hard work of the millions of people over thousands of years that have all played a part in the selective breeding and development of corn, from the first agriculturalists of Mesoamerica that decided to replant teosinte seeds and on down the ages. The rise of corn has been a mind-bogglingly incredible human project that has been a crucial part in the development of civilization.

And Monsanto, in the present day United States of America, thinks that by simply altering a few genes in the DNA of corn that they can all of a sudden secure intellectual property rights to it? Nine thousand years of collective human effort and brilliance, and a scheming, vicious, profit-driven corporation—mind you, the same corporation that invented Agent Orange in the Vietnam War era—assumes private ownership of something that is not theirs and never was theirs. That is the mindset of a colonizer. In my humble opinion, the natural world is not something that can be privately owned and patented. Corn, like all other living organisms on this planet, humans included, are members of the ecological commons—nature simply exists, we all exist.


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