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Patenting Life: How Can Life Be Owned?
A reference to the work of Dr. Vandana Shiva
Layne Hartsell (prose)     Print Article 
Published 2008-11-03 10:50 (KST)   
There has been an ongoing debate related to the patenting of living things from bacteria all the way up to plants and animals. The practical debate began in the early 1980s and should become even more intense as people, worldwide, are demanding, sometimes violently, transparency from the biotech industry and governments over the labeling of GMO foods, the general manipulation of DNA and the production of pharmaceuticals in plants (called Pharming). Many of the developers of biotechnology have pushed aside science, nature and ethics and claimed that new life forms, developed in their laboratories, should be their property. Further, they expect that they have the right to flood the market with genetically altered products and to sell as much of them as they can. We might want to take up the question in a serious manner: Can we patent living things like we might patent a new computer program, a new shoe design or household appliance?

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Concerning the actual patent, the first and obvious question is whether a new and novel thing or process has been produced. To discover something does not necessarily mean that it is patentable, although we might win a Nobel Prize for our efforts and innovation. For GMO foods, and other GMOs, we should ask whether it is even possible to produce a new life form. In actuality, scientists have created the "new" organisms by manipulating the biochemical and cellular mechanisms that have already been in development by nature for an estimated 3.5 billion years.

I believe clearly the organism belongs to no one, even if it were new. If we look at what the biotechnology companies are saying, we find that they feel totally convinced that they are producing new organisms which can be patented. The trade commissions and regulatory agencies feel the same way. And, it is no wonder that the corporations can get the regulatory agencies to do what they want, since many past agribusiness personnel are employed in positions in the regulatory agencies. In fact, some personnel go to work for the FDA, USDA or other regulatory agency, and then, after some time, return to work for their previous corporation.

The patenting of life stems back to the 1980 US Supreme Court ruling in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty where genetically manipulated microorganisms could be patented. Later, in that decade, a patent was issued for a genetically engineered mouse. Why must life be patented? The answer is clearly stated in college textbooks. Young scientists are indoctrinated early on. It is for the commercialization of products derived from biotechnology. In other words, patenting life is for making money. The focus is to be incessant and obsessive on the marketplace for astronomical profits. The companies have aggressively set out to prove the originality of the products and to enforce their patents.

For originality the GMO, as mentioned, must be new and novel and significantly different. The industry says, for example, if they take fish genes and insert them into a plant, and the "new" plant exhibits the particular new characteristic from the fish (along with the fish's multitude of other characteristics), then it is called original and patentable. However, this denies the only thing that is really significant about this process - scientists are able to move genes across the natural boundaries set up by nature; and a new phenotypical characteristic is produced in the organism. Credible sources say that this is dangerous territory and there are better alternatives for the present time.

As a scientist, I do not mean to say that the ability to manipulate DNA is not interesting or important, and furthermore, I do not include biotech medications as GMOs. What I mean to say is that while scientific discovery might be important enough for public recognition of accomplishment, it is not appropriate to patent and rapidly commercialize all discoveries. In many cases, a technology is a great distance from being an applicable technology to be delivered on a large scale, and in increasing concentrations, to our bodies and to the ecosystems that we share.

Interestingly, while the biotech industry says that GMOs are new and novel organisms and thus patentable, companies remarkably change their story to the exact opposite when they try to promote these products through the regulatory agencies to the consumer. When submitting certain GMO products to the agencies, to avoid and to simply bypass the strict process of scientific testing, they say that there is no real difference between the genetically altered plant and its natural counterpart. If the reader is a bit confused at this point, it is simply because what we see here is an irrational process. In other words, if there is no real difference between the "new" plant and the natural one, then how can the new one be patentable? If there is no real difference, then why create the "new" product in the first place?

Furthermore, if there is a significant difference, then why was there not an immediate protocol for monitoring and testing in place in the US, such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety? The industry has created a double bind for itself. If the industry were to create a protocol for testing and monitoring, then it would prove by default that the release of GMOs would be a massive experiment on human populations. The policy would be experimental since the ability to manipulate DNA to cross species boundaries is a new technology and could not possibly have been fully tested for humans or the ecosystems if the first patents were given in the 1980s, as mentioned for bacteria, and the first products were on the market in the mid-1990s -- tomatoes. The first commercial product, in the public sphere, was the Flavor Sav[e]r tomato from Monsanto, which was a public relations disaster along with a scientific and commercial lemon. I only hope that most people know self-serving, greedy companies when they see them.

Concerning this tremendous issue, one name stands out -- Vandana Shiva, the 1993 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award. Currently, she is the director of the research institute that she founded called the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India. Dr. Shiva, a quantum physicist turned activist, has devoted her life to applying science in the service of humanity through dialogue, writing, direct action and in the personal practice of sustainability. She has challenged the neocolonial predatory actions of the corporate profit system and governments seeking patents on living organisms. In direct relation to GMOs, she has exposed the destruction of the natural environment and subsequently the cultures and peoples dependent on the local environment, in various regions of the world. On the issue of patents she is outspoken on the ownership of living things and on the protection of indigenous knowledge from the insidious practice of biopiracy by certain multinational corporations and governments.

Biopiracy is the practice of pirating, plundering and patenting indigenous plant knowledge that has been developed and passed down for hundreds, even thousands of years. Dr. Shiva challenges this practice on the basic grounds of intellectual knowledge rights and ownership, something that the corporations do not recognize for indigenous peoples. She continues to work to raise the awareness of the world community concerning the issue of genetic alteration and the patenting of life. Dr. Shiva is a beacon of light for reason combined with compassion, sound science and a sane perspective. She is a true inspiration.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Layne Hartsell

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