Biopiracy and Intellectual Property Rights

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things ... They willingly traded everything they owned. ... They do not bear arms ... They would make fine servants ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. -- Christopher Columbus

What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. -- Howard Zinn

For all the gold and silver stolen and shipped to Spain did not make the Spanish people richer. It gave their kings an edge in the balance of power for a time, a chance to hire more mercenary soldiers for their wars. They ended up losing those wars anyway, and all what was left was a deadly inflation, a starving population, the rich richer, the poor poorer, and a ruined peasant class. -- Hans Koning

If there is a concern for our demise, then help us survive on our terms. -- Chief Leon Shenandoah, the Onondaga Council of Chiefs

Industrialized society has lost all sense of the proper place of human beings in the scheme of things to the point where it believes that it is right to own, control and fundamentally change life itself. We have lost all sense of our appropriate place in nature. -- President, Guaymi General Congress

Apart from certain highly specific medical applications, do we have the right to experiment with, and commercialize, the building blocks of life? -- Prince Charles

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. -- Aldo Leopold

Wilderness is the bank on which all checks are drawn. -- John Aspinall

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of King's bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly. -- Jean Henri Fabre

	Whether with particles of heavenly fire,
	The God of Nature did his soul inspire;
	Or earth, but new divided from the sky,
	And, pliant, still retain'd th'ethereal energy:
	Which wise Prometheus temper'd into paste,
	And, mix't with living streams, the godlike image cast ...
	From such rude principles our form began;
	And earth was metamorphosed into man.
						-- Ovid, Metamorphosis

The ripping-off of the Third World started when Columbus 'discovered the New World'. On landing he found a peaceful, gentle people, in his journal he noted 'They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest', and in a letter to a patron he wrote 'They exhibit great love to all others in preference to themselves'. Thus Columbus entered in his journal that they were ideal slave material. Cortez continued in the same vein in Mexico, slaughtering the Aztec nation. The plunder of the New World started a new era in European exploitation. Until then the European countries had plundered each other (which continued) with the occasional cooperative foray into the Middle East.

Plunder of the Third World did not end with the end of Colonialism. Britain as it pulled out ensured with the aid of the US and suitably fat Swiss bank accounts that the incoming administrations would allow the plunder to continue. For the West, independence was a great boon, they were able to extract greater wealth without the costs of a colonial administration and it was the local despots who got the blame for the exploitation.

The second wave of exploitation was the Green Revolution. Third World countries were persuaded to buy and plant high yielding varieties. Soon these would take over large areas of the countryside, displacing traditional varieties and the rural poor. The high yielding varieties had a snag, they only produced their high yields when dowsed in agrochemicals, purchased, as with the seeds, from Western global corporations. Other disadvantages were that the seeds were often sterile F1-hybrids, requiring the purchase of fresh seeds each season. The crops were not sustenance crops, but cash crops for the West, for which the West gave a guaranteed low price. Farmers and countries alike found themselves drawn ever deeper into debt.

We are now embarking on a third wave of exploitation, that of biopiracy, aided and consolidated by intellectual property rights.

Global corporations are scouring the world, extracting genetic material, then patenting these finds as 'their discoveries'. Whilst the West is not immune from this practice (a man undergoing surgery had the genetic contents of his removed spleen patented without his knowledge or permission) the Third world is targeted as it has the richest genetic diversity.

Historically patents have served to protect the lone inventor from being ripped-off by big business, though whether he can afford to establish his right in law is another matter. Patents, intellectual property rights, exist to award intellectual endeavour 'any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or or any new and useful improvement thereof' they were never meant to award mere discovery. On the basis of the current granting of patents Newton could have patented the Laws of Gravity, Einstein the Theory of Relativity, the elements could have been patented, new planets could be patented a royalty charged for anyone who chose to look at them etc.

Endangered indigenous people are having their genes sampled and stored in gene banks against the day when their race becomes extinct. If they are lucky they receive a token payment. UNESCO's international bioethics committee has endorsed the criticisms raised by indigenous peoples.

No intellectual endeavour is involved in the automated (or soon to be) cataloguing of genes. In Cambridge a bank of automated DNA sequencers are busy sequencing human DNA as part of the Human Genome Project. But even if intellectual effort were involved, it is not intellectual invention, it is basic research, the results of which have always been shared to the benefit of all. The discovery of genetic links to diseases are being patented. This means that anyone offering a diagnosis or cure based upon the patent will be obliged to pay royalties.

Gardeners and farmers traditionally buy in seed, save from previous crops or swap and share with their neighbours. The saving of seed, sharing of seed, has helped to promote genetic diversity. In the past if farmers or growers bought in seed they were free to do as they wished with their harvested seed. Now, with patented seeds, they will be obliged to pay a royalty, or forbidden to save seeds. Monsanto, as part of a package, forces farmers to buy seed and agrochemicals, they cannot source agrochemicals elsewhere, cannot save seed. If they do either, they are in breach of contract and Monsanto demands a penalty payment (100 times the value of the seeds). To enforce the contract, farmers have to agree to inspections by Monsanto agents at any time.

The Terminator Technology is the ultimate weapon to ensure that farmers do not reuse seed as they will no longer be able to. The Terminator Technology, to which Monsanto own the patent rights following their $1.6 billion buy-out of Delta & Pine Land, is the ultimate biological weapon. It introduces a 'suicide gene' into plants, turning off their ability to produce viable genes. Monsanto see this as a Trojan horse into the Third World, bypassing weak patent laws. The farmer will have no choice other than to purchase fresh seed each season. Farmers will pay a heavy price, communities will pay a price in loss of biodiversity, but the ultimate price will be when the 'terminator gene' escapes, causing failure of the world's food crops. Monsanto are proposing to wage nothing less than biological warfare. Terminator Technology should be banned under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxic Weapons, and on Their Destruction (1972). At a time when the US and UK are prepared to wage war against Iraq over weapons factories that several years of inspections have yet to uncover, why are we allowing Monsanto to wage biological warfare from the US's own backyard? Rural Advancement Foundation International has launched a worldwide campaign to Stop the Terminator.

Growers of seed potatoes in Scotland are being hit hard by the extortionate royalties demanded by plant breeders. They are also being told what varieties they may grow. Of the 150 varieties of potatoes available in Britain, 10 varieties account for more than 70% of the acreage, more than 50% is planted with controlled varieties.

In Iceland a furious row has broken out following the claim by a corporation that it has the patent rights to all Icelandic human DNA sequences.

Thailand is very rich in genetic resources. The Thai government is demanding that Portsmouth University (England) returns more than 200 strains of marine fungi taken from mangrove and coastal areas. The fear is that Portsmouth University will attempt to patent the fungal strains, many of which are known to have medicinal uses.

Several hundred Thai farmers held a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Bangkok to protest at what they saw as the theft of genetic material by US companies. RiceTech Inc, in what is seen as an act of biopiracy, has been granted patents for two varieties of rice, Jasmati and Basmati, traditional varieties that have been grown in Thailand for thousands of years.

The neem tree is widely revered in India. Its seeds have medicinal properties. A US corporation has patented the seeds and is demanding payments for its use.

The US is using bully-boy tactics to force Third World countries to sign up for TRIPs and WTO trade agreements. If they refuse trade sanctions are imposed, soft loans and grant aid withdrawn. India has refused to bow to US imperialism and as a result research grants and 130 joint research ventures have been put at risk. Kristin Dawkins has drawn up an open letter to Madeline Albright, co-signed by many NGOs, highly critical of US interference in the internal legislative affairs of other countries.

In 1976, a leukaemia patient John Moore had surgery at the University of California to remove a cancerous spleen. The University was later granted a patent for a cell line called Mo, removed from the spleen, which could be used for producing valuable proteins. The long term commercial value of the cell line has been estimated at over $1 billion. Permission had not been sought of John Moore for the use of his body parts. Moore demanded the return of the cells and control over his body parts, but the California Supreme Court ruled that he had no entitlement to any rights to his own cells after they had been removed from his body.

The Human Genome Diversity Project aims to collect blood, hair and cell samples from up to 700 indigenous peoples throughout the world. The stated goal is to gather genetic information from 'vanishing' indigenous communities before these people disappear as a result of increasing industrialisation and political repression.

Many of the basic food plants grown in the West, potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, wheat, rye and barley, have their origins in developing countries. The source countries have not patented these food crops, are not demanding royalty payments (though maybe they should). These basic crops are regarded as a common good for all mankind. The Indians of the Americas had learnt how to cultivate maize long before they felt the sharp cut of the European sword, they also developed a variety of other crops including peanuts, rubber, chocolate, tobacco and coca.

Bowing to pressure from biotech and agrochemical companies, the US Department of Agriculture attempted to redefine organic. The new standard would have allowed nuclear irradiation, pesticides and other agrochemicals, toxic sewage sludge, genetic engineering, intensive animal farming and other unacceptable practices. USDA received an unprecedented 220,000 comments, 99% of which were negative. These moves by the USDA has prompted the formation of the Organic Consumers Association, which is likely to result in an increase in the move towards organic, a market already growing at 20% per annum.

Biocyte has been granted patents in the US and Europe that give it rights to the blood cells extracted from the umbilical cords of new-born babies.

One of the most repugnant patents ever granted is for the oncomouse. Mice do not usually have cancer, it is difficult to induce cancer. This causes problems for cancer researchers. Instead of recognising that animals are flawed models, that is if a mouse does not usually get cancer, then what validity are the results for a cure, genetic engineers have developed a mouse that is prone to cancer, the oncomouse.

Patents on life are not only a gross abuse of the patent system, they are ethically and morally wrong as they treat life as nothing more than a commodity, people and animals no more than machines.

The Council for Responsible Genetics has organised a No Patents on Life petition, Mae-Wan Ho (leading critic of the biotech industry and author of the widely acclaimed Genetic Engineering) and colleagues have organised a similar petition calling for No Patents on Life and a Moratorium on Genetic Engineering.

Trade Related Property Rights (TRIPs) and world trade (so-called 'free trade') are closely related. Free trade as embodied by GATT, and its successor WTO, is the freedom of global corporations to rape, pillage and exploit. Globalisation is leading to instability not only in the narrow economic sphere, it is also destabilising the planetary control mechanisms of Gaia.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a quasi-world government with legislative, executive and judicial powers. It was established without public consultation, no referendums. It is run by and on behalf of global corporations with the help of US Imperialism. WTO can declare any issue 'trade related', then immediately assume the right to interfere in a sovereign country's internal affairs. WTO rigorously enforces corporate rights (cf weak enforcement of human rights). In testimony to the US Congress, Ralph Nader referred to the rules of WTO as 'a Corporate Bill of Rights'. Should a dispute arise between countries it is settled by a WTO panel of trade experts (other considerations, health, environment, labour rights, are not considered). The dispute proceedings are conducted in secret and cannot be published, the findings are binding, the penalties enforced are unlimited. The WTO has instructed India to amend its patent laws (forbidding the patenting of medicines, plants, seeds) to comply with TRIPs.

The US Economic Espionage Act (1996) authorises the FBI to use wiretaps and to aggressively pursue violators of intellectual property rights (taxpayers money used to safeguard corporate profits). Maximum penalties are $10 million fine and 15 year's imprisonment on each count.

TRIPs was drawn up in the dying days of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) by the Intellectual Property Committee whose membership was a who's who of Fortune 500 companies.

The US-EU Banana War illustrates the operations of WTO. Due to historical links, Europe grants preferential treatment to Caribbean banana farmers. These are small farmers who if they were not growing bananas would be producing drugs. The US has intervened on behalf of Latin American banana growers. The US has no interest in Latin banana growers or even the countries themselves, it does have an interest in US corporations who own and run the banana plantations. The US threatened to impose 100% import tariff on hundreds of European imports.

The US has threatened New Zealand with trade sanctions were it to bar genetically modified organisms and materials. The fear was that it would establish a precedent that Europe would follow.

One of the roles of WTO is to enforce TRIPs (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), the other is to tackle non-tariff barriers to trade. Two examples of the latter are Europe's refusal to import BST contaminated beef on health grounds and the probable ban of the import of GM-food, crops and seed on health and environmental grounds.

All developing countries have to comply with TRIPs, that is amend their own national patent laws to allow the patenting of their own indigenous genes by global corporations, by the year 2000 (least-developed countries by the year 2005). The US, WTO and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) are applying intense pressure to ensure full compliance.

Ecosystems are being destroyed at an alarming rate, 100 species per day face extinction, and the rate is accelerating, global warming, pollution, rainforest destruction, soil erosion, these are but some of the signs of unsustainable development. The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, was agreed as an international legally-binding commitment to stop the destruction and secure the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. At the heart of CBD is the recognition that local communities are highly dependent upon biodiversity and that the collective rights of the community over biodiversity offers the best form of protection. TRIPs, with its emphasis on private intellectual property rights and the protection it confers on biopiracy and bioprospecting, is in direct conflict with the Convention on Biological Diversity. Intellectual property rights should promote not run counter to the objectives of the Convention. The agenda of TRIPs is to privatise, not protect, biodiversity. Biodiversity, and ultimately our own survival, depends upon the protection, conservation and free availability of our natural resources, not on their privatisation by global corporations.

Genetic engineering, biopiracy and intellectual property rights are closely related. Without plundered genetic material and the protection conferred by patents on life the biotech industry would be severely limited in its ability to force its unwelcome products onto the world.

If the only function of life is to generate corporate profits, then all life forms that fail the market place will be destined for extinction.

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Gaia index ~ Genetic Engineering ~ Globalisation ~ WTO
(c) Keith Parkins 1998-1999 -- December 1999 rev 8