Who Owns the Genes of the Developing World?
December 4, 2000
of genetically modified food say its advantages are decreased use
of pesticides and herbicides, higher yields, and more uniform crops.
Detractors -- and there are many -- say the potential health and
environmental risks outweigh those benefits. But GM technology is
not just a debate about science. It's about money -- big money.
GM foods could be the cash cow that oil is for the companies that
succeed. And success in genetic modification means holding the patents
on the modified foods, which are considered new inventions. But
while the final product may be a new invention, the original plant
or animal the genes come from is not -- a blurry distinction that
gets stickier when international borders are crossed in the process.
In the final installment of our series on genetically modified food,
The World's Rebecca Roberts reports on what happens when indigenous
genetic material and intellectual property rights collide.
India, the neem tree has been revered for its antibacterial properties
for centuries. Millions of Indians use neem twigs as toothbrushes,
and the bark and leaves to treat infection. The chemical company
W.R. Grace noticed the neem's possibilities, and isolated azadirachtin,
the most potent ingredient in the neem seed. Then they tried to
patent it to make neem extract. It's not an uncommon story -- biotech
companies looking for potentially lucrative genetic material often
focus on the rich biodiversity in the earth's equatorial belt. And
most of that belt is made up of developing nations. In the case
of the neem tree, says Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Biotech Century,"
India cried bio-piracy.
They're saying, 'Look, these genes are our resources., just like
oil is for the Middle East. We ought to have compensation.' The
life sciences corporations are saying, 'Well, wait a minute, we're
putting in all this time and effort and research and development.
It's sophisticated. It's laborious. We should be able to be compensated
in the form of intellectual property protection.'
helped the Indian government challenge W.R. Grace's patent petition
for the production of neem extract in the United States. Indian
activists brought a similar challenge at the European Patenting
Office. Ultimately, those patents were cancelled. But the practice
decried as "bio-piracy" continues. In their effort to protect their
intellectual property, biotech companies have tried to patent plants
as common as turmeric and basmati rice. Andrew Kimbrell is the executive
director of the Washington-based International Center for Technology
Assessment, which filed legal challenges in the basmati rice case.
Patenting is the key to biopiracy. It is not sufficient obviously
to go around the world and find a valuable plant unless they can
go back and patent that and gain corporate ownership or government
ownership through the patent system of those cells, of those plants,
of those genes or that biological material.
countries fear that if biotech companies are granted these patents,
they'll use the genes to produce superior varieties of, say, basmati
rice, and then sell back the new product at much higher prices.
Klaus Leisinger is the executive director of the Novartis Foundation
for Sustainable Development in Geneva, which is funded by global
biotech giant Novartis. Leisinger agrees that people in the plant's
native country should be compensated.
This is a no brainer. If, for example, Ethiopian farmers have preserved
millet over three to four hundred years and this millet is resistant
against fungi. And if a company in America or in Europe can isolate
it and take it out of that Ethiopian millet and put it into, let's
say, a North American wheat. But somehow a fair compensation should
go back to the area of origin where this plant is coming from.
supports the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes
a provision for compensating the so-called "owners" of biodiversity.
The United States has not signed the Rio Convention, and no major
industrialized country has explained how they'll pay developing
nations for genetic material. In India, local communities have begun
protecting their own biodiversity. Andrew Kimbrell of the Center
for Technology Assessment applauds that effort.
Communities should control their own biodiversity. That biodiversity
should not be open game for first world corporations to find and
Rifkin: My position is they're both wrong.
The gene pool is not the political property of Brazil, nor is it
the intellectual property of Monsanto or Celera. The gene pool doesn't
know political boundaries. These nation states are the creatures
of a very short period in human history. To say that genes that
appear in a particular country belong to the political boundaries
of that artifact, that's bizarre -- it's as strange as saying they
belong to a company. Let's be honest about this.
is also the question of time limits. For instance, the modern potato
descends from a wild variety first found in Peru. Would all potato
research owe a payment to the Peruvian government? Klaus Leisinger
would solve the problem by having biotech companies underwrite agricultural
research in the country of origin. Jeremy Rifkin has a larger dream.
I believe that we should have a great debate in every parliament
in the world. And we should begin to craft a global treaty to make
the gene pool a commons, a shared trust, administered by treaty,
by every government in the world.
is a precedent for such an arrangement -- Antarctica. The nations
of the world agreed Antarctica should be a shared trust, owned and
controlled by no one. But the difference is that the only citizens
of Antarctica are penguins, who do not complain about exploitation
or unfair compensation. For the World, I'm Rebecca Roberts.