John Vidal manages to miss why we use the market system

John Vidal, over in The Guardian, wants to tell us all how appalling it is that large businesses get on with the design, growing and provision of seeds to the world's farmers. Better, by far, would be a more traditional system:

 Instead, it is coming from the likes of Debal Deb, an Indian plant researcher who grows forgotten crops and is the antithesis of Bayer and Monsanto. While they concentrate on developing a small number of blockbuster staple crops, Deb grows as many crops as he can and gives the seeds away.

This year he is cultivating an astonishing 1,340 traditional varieties of Indian “folk” rice on land donated to him in West Bengal. More than 7,000 farmers in six states will be given the seeds, on the condition that they also grow them and give some away.

This seed-sharing of “landraces”, or local varieties, is not philanthropy but the extension of an age-old system of mutualised farming that has provided social stability and dietary diversity for millions of people. By continually selecting, crossbreeding and then exchanging their seeds, farmers have developed varieties for their aroma, taste, colour, medicinal properties and resistance to pests, drought and flood.

That's the system which didn't produce the Green Revolution, the large scale and centralised seed selection and provision being the one that did. But instead of our cavilling about reality, let us take Vidal's argument seriously for a moment:

Instead of working in a well-funded research institute, as might be expected of a Fulbright biotech scholar, Deb is now part of the worldwide farmers’ movement to limit corporate control and to redefine what knowledge is, and who owns it. Like many others, he has found that the best way to save traditional agricultural knowledge is to grow seeds and give them away. He believes that’s the future. Pray that he’s right.

Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. The point being that we don't know whether it is or not. We can adopt an argument from evolution itself if we like. It's the changing environment that selects for fitness so, as time unfolds and the environment changes perhaps we will find that the capitalist and centralised system works better, perhaps that mutual and low tech one will. So, what is it that we should do here?

Obviously, we should use markets. The root of which is to just leave people to get on with things as they wish. We'll find out which works better by observing which works better. It's precisely because of the disagreement about, uncertainty over, which works better that we should not be planning the matter but leaving peoples' behaviour alone. 

Another way to put this is that markets are where differences of opinion do battle with each other. As we've such a difference here we've got to use markets, don't we?