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Biopiracy: Who Owns the Genes of the Developing World?
by Rebecca Roberts
December 4, 2000


Proponents 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.


In 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.

Rifkin: 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.'

Rifkin 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.

Kimbrell: 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.

Developing 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.

Leisinger: 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.

Leisinger 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.

Kimbrell: Communities should control their own biodiversity. That biodiversity should not be open game for first world corporations to find and patent.

Rifkin: My position is they're both wrong.

Again, Jeremy Rifkin.

Rifkin: 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.

There 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.

Rifkin: 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.

There 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.


copyright Exploratorium 2001