A purely serendipitous visit to Toronto by one of Europe's most senior food researchers tipped me off to the ominously anti-serendipitous appointment of Marshall Rothstein to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Geoff Tansey, founding editor of the English journal Food Policy, receives support from the Quaker movement to work with poor countries and citizen orgs. His focus is on challenging the Goldfingerish global corporations that seek ownership and control over the means of reproducing life.
As chance would have it, Tansey was invited to speak at a World Bank seminar in (where else) Washington, DC. Quakers here sprang for his flight north, and U of T professor Harriet Friedmann, hearing that a scholar of his eminence was coming to town, booked him to speak to Food for Talk, a network of local food analysts.
This is precisely the kind of living chaos, unpredictability and sheer inventiveness despised by the largely unknown drug and chemical companies - we're not talking the household name brands here - who manoeuvre on the dark side of the food industry.
These firms find they can't control, own or sell the spontaneous, fortuitous, ingenious process of developing new food recipes, products or production techniques any more than they can control, own or sell the weather or consumer tastes.
They don't like being squeezed out of the play, Tansey argued in his March 3 talk at a boardroom of the city's public health department on Victoria. So the companies try to patent and put a corporate lock on the seminal side of food production, previously the realm of gods, nature and the common room of all the world's people.
They're putting a big push on this right now, Tansey said.
A big push, I thought to myself while Tansey spoke, such as the Canadian government's moves at the January 27 (that would be shortly after the federal election) United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in Spain. There had been an international consensus that "terminator seeds," designed to be sterile so farmers can't save and plant them as they have for millennia, should be banned and kept in the genie's bottle. The idea was that these seeds would be forbidden until thoughtful and proactive laws could be developed.
But at the January UN meet, Canada supported Australia and New Zealand and won an end to this consensus for a temporary ban. The new ruling they promoted gives a green light to corporate efforts to try out their terminator seeds in the real world.
As I stood up to thank Tansey for speaking, my mind flipped to the latest addition to the Supremes. Do not digress, I pleaded with myself privately. Do not refer to aging lawyers, in their youth members of a profession universally despised for its ungodly lack of ethics and common sense, suddenly elevated to the stature and godly judgment-giving powers of supreme beings. Don't rant, I grimaced to myself, about such judges being placed beyond criticism by lowlifes and how they're appointed from on high by prime ministers pretending to be statesmen.
But I couldn't help but use my public thank-you to Tansey to note a strange coincidence. At this very moment when, as Tansey says and the recent UN experience confirms, there's a push for the corporate patenting of life, Canada gets this particular new Supreme being.
When he was a Manitoba Appeals judge in 2000, Rothstein ruled that a U.S. corporation (Harvard University) had the right to patent and own higher life forms in Canada, as is done in the United States. No elected official got to ask Hizoner about that. Nor (may I be spared a contempt of Supremes charge) did anyone get to ask why a prime minister who said he was looking for judges who didn't have activist leanings chose a judge who was an activist on behalf of property rights.
Hizoner gave no fewer than 12 public speeches on his Harvard mouse decision. He even had the cheek to give a talk in Britain dismissing the logic of the Supreme Court judges who in 2002 overruled his decision by a 5-4 vote - which is now about to become a 5-4 vote the other way, thanks to a new Supreme who can't be asked rude questions by elected officials.
Harvard researchers developed the genetically altered mouse that roared into the history of biotechnology so they could use it to test carcinogens. To sell the rights to use such mice in cancer experiments, Harvard needed to patent its "invention."
Canadian patent officials turned Harvard down, saying, as all humans used to assume until the last 30 years, that no one can own higher life forms (life above the level of yeasts, germs and cells used to make cheese or beer, for example). Harvard appealed to the federal Court of Appeals, where Judge Rothstein ruled in Harvard's favour.
Hizoner referred to the Harvard mouse as a "new and useful composition of matter," a chilling definition of an animal with an inserted gene change. He ruled that there was no case for distinguishing between lower and higher life forms.
Shortly afterward, in a speech in Alberta, he stated starkly that the "distinction between what is and is not patentable should not be between animate and inanimate things." Hope you "things" out there are catching the language used in such circles to frame such discussions.
In case anyone was concerned about the human and medical applicability of patents, or thought any application to humans patently absurd, Rothstein concluded that "I do not say human genes or products or processes at the genetic level involving human beings may not be patentable." "Are you a man or a mouse?" is not a question that entertains the newest Supreme.
As if he were the kind of activist judge that Conservative prime ministers are sworn to oppose, Hizoner said clearly in his ruling that it's the job of legislatures to be clear about prohibiting such patenting. But if they aren't, "the Patent Act should be broadly applied." "Broadly applied" is precisely the kind of "judicial temperament" Conservatives say they abhor when it applies to the rights of gays.
Ah, the inconsistencies of life - which is exactly the point Tansey is trying to make in his campaign against the corporate patenting of seeds and livestock, where chance and variety have been the spice of life.