Agricultural patents and bio-piracy

Genetic Engineering has emerged as a modern means of improving and altering life forms, accomplishing within a matter of moments in the laboratory what previously took farmers hundreds of years of selection and cross-breeding to achieve. Genetic scientists, through the manipulation of gene sequences or traits, have (arguably) improved plant varieties and seeds, and corporations have in turn slapped patents on the supposed ‘inventions’, restricting the use of the product or plant/seed by others. The patent process is used as a means of stimulating competition.

But what needs to be asked is this—is the rearranging and manipulating of gene sequences truly an ‘invention’ in the commonsense definition of the term, and therefore worthy of a patent?
Prior to the 1980s traditional intellectual property law restricted the patenting of “products of nature”. Corporate pressure acting on the perceived profitability of new biotechnological discoveries persuaded the US government to alter the law to include, firstly, genetically engineered microorganisms (1980), secondly plants (1985) and thirdly animals (1987). These alterations paved the way for the patentability of all living organisms including human genetic material. These developments also saw seed production and distribution shift from the hands of the farmer to large corporations.

Seed legislation and Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) have in turn restricted the ability of farmers to engage and partake in traditional methods of seed transfer and exchange. Popular environmentalist Vandana Shiva describes in her book Protect or Plunder? the struggle of a German organic farmer who had developed his own varieties of wheat as he was displeased with the commercially available options, and other organic farmers in the area made use of his seed. He had then been fined by the government for taking part in the trade of uncertified seed.

A well-known example of the restriction of IPRs is with Monsanto’s widely used Roundup Ready® patented crops that come with a Roundup Ready® Gene Agreement, which forbids the saving, distributing and selling of the seed or its produce to any other entity. Monsanto also has the ability to visit and check the farms, even in absence of the farmer, for three years after their agreement and will not be held liable for the failure of the crop or any consumer or ecological damage caused by the seed provided.

We should question the ability of a system to protect biodiversity and provide food security when a few corporations seek to own and control all processes and avoid all environmental responsibility, leaving farmers with no rights and little democratic input.

Why would farmers enter into any agreement with agribusinesses and corporations when the conditions appear so unjust? The tactic used by the corporations is in establishing dependency. Farmers are lured into agreements with the promise of improved crop yields and decrease in chemical inputs, along with providing farmers with cheap seed and agrochemical inputs initially until their traditional pest and seed management systems are destroyed. Prices are then raised to increase profitability and indebtedness shadows farmers. Dependency is also created in that many of the seed varieties are dependent on certain agrochemical inputs, which requires further purchasing. The corporations bear no environmental responsibility and the agrochemicals required may have detrimental environmental effects, as with the Roundup herbicide which is non-selective and, according to Monsanto, “destroys every weed, everywhere, economically”.

The notorious “Terminator” technology of Monsanto in seeds is another device used by corporations in creating the need for fresh seeds to be purchased annually, further destroying traditional seed collection. Seeds which are engineered to become sterile from the second generation are distributed to farmers, many already having lost traditional varieties, and farmers are trapped into a cycle of perpetual purchasing. A very serious concern raised over “Terminator” technology is the risk of its terminating function moving into surrounding open-pollinated crops, spreading the sterility of seeding plants.

Patents on plants not only allow for multiple claims on individual genes but even the characteristics of genes. For example, a biotechnology company in the US, Sungene, has been granted a patent not only for the genes of a characteristic but for the actual characteristic of a sunflower variety that has a very high oleic acid content. The company has informed the other sunflower breeders that the development of any other sunflower with a high oleic acid content will be considered as an infringement of its patents.

The issue of biopiracy has also been an avid concern of those sympathetic to Third World interests. Biopiracy refers to the patent claims over biodiversity and indigenous knowledge by industrialised countries that disregards Third World knowledge and innovation. Plants and other products of nature that have been developed and used for centuries in indigenous Third World cultures have been sought after and patented by First World corporations, without acknowledging the indigenous process in the creation of the product.

For instance, basmati rice has been a part of Indian heritage and culture for centuries and forms a major part of its export economy, and Indian farmers have improved the rice over the centuries through informal breeding methods. However the Texas-based RiceTec® Inc. was granted patents on basmati rice lines and grains that includes many of the genes previously developed by the farmers. The implications of this are dismaying: RiceTec Inc has the ability, if enforced, to demand royalties from the farmers—the same farmers whose ancestors developed the traditional long-grain aromatic rice.
This is reflective of the inequalities in global trade and knowledge, reinforcing perceptions of the global South as inferior—there to be plundered.

Another example of biopiracy by corporations is in the case of neem, used for over centuries in India for its insect and pest repellent properties. Small and medium scale Indian businesses have been using the properties of neem in the production of medicines, cosmetics and pesticides. The US multinational chemical corporation, W.R. Grace, acquired neem patents and undertook a local Indian firm and proceeded with mass production of neem seed. This has had unfortunate effects for local Indian populations—the price of neem is too high for the pockets of ordinary citizens and the company has also managed to purchase all seed collected that was previously available to indigenous farmers and practitioners. Poor people of India have now lost access to an essential resource that was previously easily obtainable. Neem was also patented without having been genetically engineered.

There has however been institutional development in opposition to these injustices. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—the international treaty signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992—promotes the conservation of and sustainable use of biodiversity and its components, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources.

Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), as the treaty for protecting international property, favours Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and has expanded patents to include life forms, and so countries that need to implement both these treaties find themselves at a dead end. Whilst the CBD promotes fair benefits from the utilisation of genetic resources, TRIPs advances patent monopolies at the expense of equitable benefit. The CBD protects the rights of indigenous communities and farmers whilst TRIPs does not recognise or enforce these rights. Therefore it promotes biopiracy.
TRIPs not only encourages privatisation and monopoly ownership of knowledge but is also dominated by the profit-motive—article 27.1 of TRIPs states that “patents shall be available for any inventions, whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step, and are capable of industrial application”.

This profit-centred approach recognises innovation only when it is of industrial usage, not for the social good or recognition of indigenous heritage. Many Third World countries have been obligated to accept TRIPs without proper insight being provided into the implications of its stance on the patenting of life.
The conflicting interests of TRIPs and the CBD is stifling growth and protection of Third World resources and peoples, the latter being undermined by the former.

Massive monopolistic corporations also make it very difficult for smaller enterprises to compete which has a major effect on the democratic accountability of these corporations. It is also argued that monopolies on patents have the ability to restrict innovation and discovery as opposed to promoting the latter. The tendency for the patent process to threaten food security is also a serious concern—no seed means no food, which in turn leads farmers to purchase what they had in previous decades acquired for free.

The rush to patent and profit from all forms of life is so very indicative of the capitalist environment in which we live where the profit motive and competition is pushed at the expense of community values and equality. As always the poor are the hardest hit although the patenting of life has implications for all us who, firstly, believe that “nature” should not be owned and controlled by a handful of greedy giants, and secondly, those of us who aim to respect indigenous knowledge and challenge this capitalist ethos which disregards the Third World and diminishes our planet to a shopping centre for the privileged. Those of us who acknowledge that it is not in our power to mould and own genetic material and are prepared to realise the intrinsic ethical dilemma and the signs—the suicide of over 500 farmers due to agricultural debt, for instance—should employ resistance. Others can stay blissfully ignorant.