A Raisin In The Sun
Whose Dreams Are We Deferring When We Patent Plants And Animals?
One of the least understood injustices arising from globalization is the extension of the United States' patent system to other countries via the World Trade Organization. The WTO's trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement privatizes the ownership of plants and seed, giving the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries monopoly rights over elements of nature.
In early October, the multinational seed company Pioneer (now owned by DuPont) took a small Iowa seed and agricultural supply company, JEM Ag Supply, before the Supreme Court charging that JEM had resold Pioneer's patented seed corn without authorization. The smaller company claims the patents were invalid because Congress never intended "products of nature" to be patented.
Historically, Congress has rejected the application of patents to new varieties of plants grown from seed. But in 1985, the US Patent and Trademark Office decided to grant such patent rights. Since then, companies holding plant patents have exercised their monopoly rights to build an immensely valuable portfolio of proprietary seed. Bigger companies have gobbled up smaller companies, at times simply to acquire access to the restricted patented plants.
In 1995, of 1,500 seed companies worldwide, 24 held a combined market share of more than 50 percent. By 2000, after years of merger-mania, the top 10 companies controlled 33 percent of the $23 billion seed market and 90 percent of the $31 billion agrochemical market.
The Supreme Court's decision in the case of JEM Ag Supply v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International could have a profound impact on global agriculture. The Court should decide to disallow the patenting of plants. This would benefit every country that depends upon agriculture for its economic base, including the United States and most third world nations, and force a public debate about whether patents should be given for any life form. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recent resolutions of a UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights have already found an "actual or potential conflict" between the World Trade Organization's intellectual property rights agreement and the rights to self-determination, food and health.
Intellectual property rights are intended to balance the interests of private inventors and society as a whole. The public needs access to useful innovations, while inventors need an incentive to innovate. Unfortunately, today's patent system does not help balance the industry's gain with public welfare. To the contrary, more and more researchers are reporting that the drive to be first in line at the patent office means their bosses tell them not to publish their work, and not to confer with fellow scientists trying to cure the same disease or to breed a more drought-resistant variety of wheat. Instead, if they keep their experimental data out of the public record, their company (or university) is more likely to get the full windfall when the research finally pays off.
Companies are now patenting plants, animals and even bacteria at a fever pitch. Thanks to industry lobbying during WTO negotiations, this highly profitable scheme to privatize plants and medicines now applies to much of the world. Not only does it ensure sick people and farmers pay top dollar for the opportunity to buy proprietary drugs and seeds, it also sends billions of dollars from the developing world to the pharma-agri-chemical companies.
In the case of basmati rice, for example, India stands to lose $500 million per year in exports due to the US Patent and Trademark Office's decision that a Texas company can retain patent rights to three basmati lines bred outside India. Not only is the Indian economy a loser, but so too are India's basmati farmers.
All over the world, farmers and farm organizations are seeking to reverse the WTO's intellectual property rights agreement and other free trade deals with TRIPS provisions in them, such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. At the WTO, African governments have proposed amending the agreement to add a ban on patents of all forms of life.
Perhaps Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, understood the conflict between intellectual property rights and the public good best. When asked decades ago by television commentator Edward R. Murrow who would control this new pharmaceutical, Dr. Salk replied, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
Dawkins is vice president of international programs at the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy.