The patenting of living organisms and their genes is an unprecedented revolution in values. It turns Life itself into a commodity.
In the United States, companies can apply for patents on living organisms, whether genetically modified or not, as well as on genes, including those of Man, without even having identified their function. The mere description of a gene is enough to claim ownership of it.
The European directive 98/44, despite the weasel words and certain restrictions on patent applications, also allows trading in genes, including human ones.
This is only a beginning : through agreements on intellectual property rights being negotiated at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the United States will attempt to impose its legislation on the rest of the world.
This new kind of patent, besides being shocking from the ethical point of view, will cause serious harm to public health, the environment, agriculture, and scientific research.
Regarding the latter, a report from the French Academy of Science recently observed : "Certain industrial groups and genomics companies consider that data on the genome should be rapidly released into the public domain, in order to allow research to advance normally, at worldwide level. Moreover, this attitude is strongly backed up by the International Charter on the genome whose adoption was supported by the UNESCO Bioethic Committee which considers that genes, as such, are not patentable as they belong to the common heritage of Mankind".
In the area of medical applications, and regardless of any reservations one may have about gene therapy or "predictive medicine" (especially the way it is being used by employers and insurance companies), one can already see the first effects of gene patenting. Several American laboratories, for example, have had to stop their work in connection with two human genes as Myriad Genetics holds a patent on them. In Great Britain, a dozen others are under threat.
Some have gone as far as to patent dangerous bacteria in order to get royalties on the vaccines that might be derived from them (1) !
The battle to control the logistics of this "new frontier" is raging. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has already granted more than 2000 gene patents and there are millions pending. Celera Genomics, a US company, has alone filed more than 6500 patent applications for human genes.
As regards agriculture, the question of patenting must be examined in a global context : throughout the world, seed companies are falling under the control of a very small number of agro-chemical firms. Now in a position to create scarcity of natural seeds, they seek to perfect the integration of their various activities into a single industrial logic. Their ultimate goal is to provide, more or less long term, transgenic seeds only, together with the insecticides, fertilizers and weedkillers that go with them.
But farmers and consumers have not been very enthusiastic about these genetically modified organisms (GMOs); the countries of the South perceive them as a threat to their agriculture and their ability to feed their populations (2).
However, to the Gene Industry they have the advantage of being patentable, which could give it a real monopoly and control over genetic resources.
To quote from the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, this plan for domination "aims at no less than to cut mankind off from all its basic resources once and for all, obstructing its access to the wealth provided by nature and developed throughout history, in order to sell a technical ersatz" (3).
In the eyes of the seed merchant, living things have the unfortunate characteristic of reproducing themselves. His secret dream has always been to force the farmer back to his shop for new seeds every year. "Terminator" or seed sterilization was this dream come true. However this revelation unleashed such a scandal around the world that this "repugnant technology" (term used by a Monsanto spokesman !) might be abandoned altogether. Nevertheless patents on plants will achieve the same goal : they will turn the farmer resowing his harvested grain into ... a "pirate" ! Moreover, this immemorial agricultural practice on which mankind's development is based is called "the farmer's privilege" in the seed business terminology!
To accept the patenting of seeds is in fact to accept the creation of an absurd privilege for a handful of transnational companies. This would be to say that they need protection from the competition of Nature which reproduces, free of charge, the seeds in the farmer's field. This would be tantamount, in terms of the now well known comparison, to oblige people to bolt their doors and windows in order to pander to candle merchants complaining of unfair competition from the sun!
At a time when the FAO (4) itself recommends organic agriculture as a model for sustainability and supports its development worldwide, it is surprising that most policies and regulations tend, on the contrary, to promote the industrialization of agriculture. Furthermore, they are aiding and abetting something that is purely and simply a planetary hold up on genetic resources.
The European taxpayer is paying for this industrialization of agriculture at many levels : through direct aid and through environmental and social costs (i.e. pollution and depletion of underground water, pesticide poisoning, degradation of public health, loss of rural employment...). As for public research, it is investing massively in GMOs, often in partnership with the firms that market them. We are also taking part in this denaturing of agriculture worldwide by dumping our subsidized agricultural surpluses on the countries of the South, thus ruining their farmers. Consequently, subsistence farming recedes while intensive export-driven mono-cultures take its place. Hunger increases in parallel.
These developments with their irreversible impact on the future of mankind must not be left to market forces. That is why, over and above the legal considerations , we, the signatories of this text, call for reflection on the need for society to have a real control over the applications to which scientific discoveries are put. By fully assuming its responsability, fundamental research will have a crucial role to play.
we are requesting :
An American company has applied to patent one of the bacteria that causes
meningitis. It could lead to royalties being paid on every treatment if
a new vaccine against the illness is found. Julia Warren of the Meningitis
Research Foundation said : "The idea that someone should try to patent
bacteria and then claim a royalty on our research if we find a vaccine
had never occurred to me. I am stunned. It could make treating children
prohibitively expensive. All our money goes on research : we cannot afford
royalties as well" (The Guardian, May 7, 1998)
(2) « We, the undersigned delegates of African countries participating in the 5th Extraordinary Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources, 8-12 June 1998, Rome, strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us [...] We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves. We invite European citizens to stand in solidarity with Africa in resisting these gene technologies so that our diverse and natural harvests can continue to grow ».
by all the African delegates (except South Africa) to FAO negotiations
on the international Undertaking for Plant Genetic Resources, June 1998.
sur l'agriculture génétiquement modifiée et la dégradation
des espèces, Éditions de l'Encyclopédie des Nuisances,
Paris, April 1999.
FAO : Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
To sign the appeal
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