Cosmic Capitalism

There is a point in every corner of human life when things are clearly taken too far. There is no better example in the realm of capitalist agriculture than that revolving around the release of the Cosmic Crisp TM apple.

Facts: (to date)

over 12 million trees have been planted

  • only Washington state growers are legally allowed to plant and grow them
  • restrictions to Washington only grown : 10 years, & possible 10 yr extension
  • growers must be licensed to grow the apples
  • farmers must pay royalties to the developers for each apple sold

This is not the first time a developer has opted for a system that pays them a piece of every crop dollar, and in the apple business it really is the new trend. The University of Minnesota’s Sweet Tango TM is an example. In this case, however, orchards in Minnesota, New York, and Washington were allowed to grow the fruit.

The understandable benefit in intense control like this, is just that, control. It is much easier to have quality control of the product, so that the branding stays strong. Like McDonalds, or similar franchises, there is a mechanism to maintain not only quality standards, but consistency. Particular growers can be selected, policing can occur, and thus the “brand” remains strong.

The collateral damage of course may wind up being more widespread. First, since it limits access to the product (in this case farmer access to plants), a company can control which states, farmer, regions, etc. it is a particular company that controls that part of the food system. If we were to play this out, then legally any state, region or farmers group could limit access to a part of the food system. Whereas this may be sound in a business sense, it seems less sound in both a cultural sense and a food security one.

In reality, what is happening in the current agricultural climate is that an industry is emerging that has incredible power in marketing and distribution. It overshadows all other smaller players, in the way that Amazon can crush every mom and pop business in the world. This means far less diversity as more and more market share transfers from heirloom and regional favorites to the next sexy, cutesy named fruit variety. This is similar to the “get big or get out” mentality of Earl Butz ag policy, only here it is grow the next new thing (and pay royalties) or get out.

Is the industry out to get us? Of course not, but it will have effect. As in every business there are good and bad (motives and people) and agriculture is no different. But let’s look at a likely scenario. Let’s say a small family orchard sells 5000 bushels of fruit a year, all from any mix of the many (thousands) of apple varieties in circulation. They sell at a wholesale rate of a buck a pound to bring in 210,000. After expenses they bring home 50,000 for a family of 4. Enough to get by. Along comes agricultural “improvement”, marketing all new fancified varieties and an ultra powerful marketing campaign. In most cases, the newly marketed product will gobble up the market share, not necessarily increase the pool of customers. This means that small farm has to compete with the new product. So, that little farm just pulls up their britches and competes- business Darwinism right? But wait, that farm has to re-graft or completely replant to this new variety, which is likely unaffordable. But wait again, that farm isn’t legally allowed to plant at all. If they are lucky enough to be able to grow that variety and have the resources to replant the orchard, they will still have to pay royalties to the developers. Payments previously they did not have.

Now, paying for services rendered (royalites to a genetic developer) is perfectly sound. But an industry that is poised to make life more difficult for most small (and some large) existing farms is questionable.