When Democracy becomes moot


The whole GMO thing has gotten me thinking about where we’re headed as a democracy.

Technically, the democracy thing means that the general populace has a strong say in their local/regional/national governance. And when it was first created, it seems like it must have been pretty okay. When the only things you really needed to legislate about were things like going to war and collecting taxes or building a road, the issues and the impacts were probably clear enough to provide a decent debate and a relatively fair democratic resolution (Yes, yes, sure there are caveats but still, bear with me here).

But highly complex industrialized societies have so many issues that the government must oversee and which are so complex that whatever opinions the general mass of people may have, they are probably either poorly informed or misinformed or left out of the loop entirely. Also, in many cases, a government policy about an issue may have such a localized effect that the few who are impacted cannot muster an effective voice (read: enough votes) to protest or alter a policy being passed at the national level.

This is true in cases like the EPA being explicitly prevented from regulating frac’ing fluids under the Clean Water Act. This is a situatin where where the implications are complex, and the affected areas lack political clout (Who really gives a damn about the Piceance Basin or the San Juan Basin or Sublette County? Not nearly enough people. In fact, unless you follow western natural gas drilling issues, the chances are that you haven’t even heard of the locations or the jargon I cite. Here’s an article from High Country News about the topic and about various problems inside the EPA. (Full Disclosure: I work at HCN, in addition to writing sf).

Democracy is for those who show up. The problem is that in many cases only the most informed and most interested will show up to deal with arcana of natural gas frac’ing fluids — ie the folks who stand to make money. By the time the rest of us know about the situation — and can muster an effective voice — it’s too late. Which brings me, by roundabout way, to the GMO topic again. Here’s the link to the classy folks at Science Creative Quarterly. The whole article on GMO’s is worth a close read, but here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

In the case of GM plants, the engineered trait can easily escape out of the company’s control through a variety of mechanism such as seeds inadvertently spreading out in neighbouring fields or through cross-pollination with non-GM plants of the same species or not. This creates the potential for numerous liability issues. For instance, the wide use of transgenic canola in western Canada has made it practically impossible for organic farmers to propose certified GM-free canola. The market losses resulting form this are estimated to $100,000 to $200,000 a year, without taking into account potential growth of the market resulting from growing consumer concerns about GM food [8]. In this respect, two organic farmers had filed a lawsuit on the behalf of all Saskatchewan certified organic farmers against the biotech giants Monsanto and Aventis for the damage caused by the release of transgenic canola. In the same manner, the European Union had recently banned Canadian honey from its imports because of the inability of the producers to guarantee that it does not contain pollen from GM plants not yet approved in Europe [8]. (emphasis my own)

So, you have a company like Monsanto, that either avoids or guides government regulation for their advantage, and by the time anyone else (for example you, the consumer) find out about the issue, it’s already moot because the seedstock has already spread everywhere.

Monsanto gets a vote; you don’t.