The Society of St Columban, a Catholic Missionary Society with HQ in Ireland, has launched an international campaign against the patenting of life, specifically against Article 27.3(b) of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), a World Trade Organization agreement.
I have a chapter on the patenting of life taken from a forthcoming book on genetic engineering by Sean McDonagh which I will send to anyone who wants it. It is in English and is in Microsoft Word format. The Japanese version will be published this month in a book by Amagasa Keisuke (and others) on genetic engineering, with an abbreviated version published as a booklet.
IS IT ETHICAL TO PATENT LIFE?
CAN A CORPORATION OWN LIFE?
Some Questions Raised by the Patenting of Life
Life, once considered sacred and a gift from God in almost all religions and cultures, is now treated as a human invention. Life is now a collection of chemicals and genes that can be engineered and bought and sold. The corporate mentality sees living organisms as commodities to be exploited for profit. The diversity of life is under threat as never before. Vital human needs, such as food and medecine, are increasingly under the control of a few corporations which are rushing to patent the genes of seeds and genes that cause disease. If a corporation can isolate the genes that cause diseases like AIDS, for example, and then develop a treatment for the disease, the corporation stands to make lots of money. The patenting of living organisms raises new questions for people concerned about the environment, health, agriculture, North-South issues and biotechnology.
Genetically Modified Crops Will Contaminate Traditional Crops …
Percy Schmeizer is a Canadian canola farmer. Several years ago SchmeizerÕs neighbor planted a variety of canola that contained Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant gene. Schmeizer says some of the seed blew over to his 700-acre canola field and spread, contaminating with foreign genes seed he had been saving since he started producing the crop in 1947.
…. and the Farmer of Traditional Crops May Be Held Legally Responsible!
Moreover, Monsanto sued Schmeizer, claiming he was violating its intellectual property rights for growing a kind of rapeseed that contained its patented gene. A provincial court has ruled for the company, declaring that regardless of how the gene found its way onto his land, Canadian patent law provides that he is violating patent rights by growing it. (Schmeizer will be speaking in Japan late June-July, 2003.)
Seeds Will Belong to Corporations
The patenting of seeds will give enormous economic power to a small number of agribusiness corporations. They sell their wares on the global market and they will not be cheap. The insect-resistant maize hybrid produced by Pioneer Hi-Breed requires access to 38 different patents controlled by 16 different patent holders. In addition, farmers will be forced to pay royalties on succeeding generations of plants and animals that they buy or produce. It will be illegal to save seeds from the previous harvest without permission and payment. This will make farmers totally dependent on transnational agribusiness corporations. The impact on Third World countries will be devastating. It will institutionalise the dependence of Southern agriculture on Northern agribusiness corporations. As a result, instead of feeding the hungry in the South as the agribusiness corporations claim, the new situation could create food shortages and famine.
Stealing Genetic Resources from the Third World
In West Africa the brazzein berry is renowned for its sweetness. This berry is much sweeter than sugar and unlike other non-sugar sweeteners it does not lose its taste when it is heated. This makes it ideal for the sugar-free food industry which is worth about $100 billion a year. A U.S. researcher from the University of Wisconsin who saw people and animals eating the berry applied for a U.S. and European patent on the protein isolated from the berry. The drive to create a genetically engineered organism to produce brazzein is under way. This will eliminate the need to grow the berry in West Africa.
Most people would consider it totally bizarre for the University to claim that brazzein is an invention of a UW-Madison researcher. There are no plans to share any of the benefits of the discovery with the people of West Africa who nurtured this plant for generations. The knowledge, innovation and efforts of these people is neither acknowledged nor rewarded.
Stealing the DNA of Indigenous People
The Hagahai people of Papua New Guinea first made contact with the ‘outside’ world in 1984. They were exposed to many new diseases and decided to make contact with a foreign researcher who brought them vital inoculations which saved their lives. But at the same time he took samples of their DNA and shipped them to the USA. On establishing that the Hagahai seemed immune to leukaemia and some other diseases, US researchers took out a US patent on the genetic qualities of a Hagahai individual. The people from whom this blood was taken knew nothing about it. (This patent was later rescinded because of international criticism.)
Charging Exorbitant Fees for Medical Tests
An American company which has ‘patented’ two human genes for breast cancer screening demanded that publicly funded British laboratories pay the company royalties each time they perform a genetic test for these genes. The American company charges twice what the laboratories charge.
A poll of American laboratory directors found that a quarter of them had received letters from lawyers acting for biotechnology companies ordering them to stop carrying out clinical tests designed for Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer and an array of other disorders. A group of American doctors and scientists has issued a protest saying: “(t)he use of patents or exorbitant licensing fees to prevent physicians and clinical laboratories from performing genetic tests limits access to medical care, jeopardises the quality of medical care and unreasonably raises its costs.”
U.S. Imposing Its Patent System
The U.S., through the AGREEMENT ON TRADE-RELATED ASPECTS OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS (TRIPS) ? an agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ? especially Article 27.3(b), is trying to impose its patent system on the rest of the world. TRIPS needs to be rewritten in a way that protects human health, vulnerable subsistence farmers in the Third World, and also the environment. The main plank of such a review should be the affirmation that all living beings ought to be considered the common property of humanity and the Earth. The hypocrisy of the current TRIPS position is that it fails to protect the genetic resources of the South while at the same time facilitates the patenting of genetic resources which will benefit northern multinational corporations. This is not free-trade; rather, it is a ploy to create global monopolies.
For further information:
Paul McCartin at LIFE Japan
Kita-machi 9 – 11, Komagane, Nagano Prefecture 399 – 4111
Telephone 0265 – 82 – 6464
Fax 0265 – 81 – 0036