At a family dinner several years ago, the men at the table were droning on about corn and soybean yields when my sister-in-law banged a casserole dish on the table and shouted, “Why do you guys always have to take some ordinary thing, ramp it up and take over the world?”
She had been sitting in a truck all week waiting in line at the elevators while her husband’s machines circled the fields. It was the end of a growing season in which every conceivable task had been mechanized except stone-picking. Guess who got to walk the fields picking stones and then come home to put supper on the table? The woman, of course.
The answer to her question was quite simple. The largest fortunes in agriculture are created when someone discovers how to put a ‘lock’ on a plant or an animal or a machine. You figure out some way to make your customer come back to you over and over again for your product or service. Then you ramp up production, take over the world and make yourself incredibly rich. This is just how the world rolls.
Donald Shaver, a tank commander during WWII, returned to his farm in Galt, Ontario in 1946 to find that his chicken barn had burned with the loss of all of his breeding stock. He rebuilt with new genetics and started crossbreeding using a cage system for his hens so that he could keep meticulous records of how many eggs they laid. Within 10 years he had developed a hybrid white egg layer that could produce 288 eggs a year. Nobody but Shaver knew how to make this hen. It produced for a season or two and then you had to come back to him to get a fresh batch. The Shaver Starcross 288 hen quickly took over a third of North American egg production. A later edition, the Starcross 300 took over the rest of the market and found its way to 97 different countries. Shaver’s genetics are now in the hands of Aviagen, an international company that supplies the breeding stock for most of the hybrid laying hens in the world. One company.
The history of the broiler chicken is very similar. Chickens that used to take six months to mature are now ready for Swiss Chalet in 29 days. The foundation stock has been a closely guarded secret for half a century. Two companies control the genetics for most of the broiler chickens in the world. The combined net worth of the egg and broiler genetics industry rivals that of Exxon Mobil.
The rule holds for more than just chickens. My asthma inhaler delivers a pinch of steroid medication that costs the pharmaceutical company about thirty cents. I’ve been waiting 20 years for the generic version to appear, but my pharmacist tells me the company holds a patent on the plastic inhaler itself. Drug patents expire but inhaler patents do not. So they can keep selling it to me for $110 forever.
Last week my wife bought a five-year-old iPhone from her niece for 75 bucks and tried to fire it up with her old Sim card. Didn’t work. She called Apple to get the phone unlocked and after an hour on the phone with someone in the Philippines she discovered that while the phone could be unlocked, Apple did not support that phone anymore and couldn’t transfer her data without imposing a crippling fee. The phone was garbage.
Except, it isn’t. The world is always quietly pushing back at planned obsolescence, biological locks and every other attempt to monopolize and restrain markets. History tells us that monopolies breed pirates. Repair Cafes are springing up across the country where volunteers will restore your old microwave or toaster to health. They don’t do phones or tablets because of the vigilantism of the companies. But if you go to the back of the new shawarma house in town my friend Mohammed is an absolute genius at hacking stuff back into service. It’s deeply ironic that a guy from the country that assembled these gadgets for pittance wages can now make real money repairing them here.
All the companies have elegant arguments and about nine trillion dollars of market capitalization to help make the case to politicians and consumers that these matters should be left to the experts, thank you very much.
But in the U.S. elections last fall, a right to repair resolution passed in the state of Massachusetts by a whopping majority of 75%. Twenty other states are following suit and the idea is creeping into Canada. Europe, as usual, is ahead of everyone.
The revolution is coming, comrades. In the meantime, it’s a pirate’s life for me.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca