Patenting Crops Fr.Seán McDonagh, SSC

Proponents of GM crops fail to mention that almost all GM crops are patented. This was not possible until very recently. The decisive change came in the 1970s when corporations began a legal campaign to patent crops. Initially, requests to patent living organisms were rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PT0).  However, in a landmark case, Diamond vs Chakrabarty, in June of 1980, the US Supreme Court in a five-to-four majority, decided that life was patentable. The ruling stated that the “relevant distinction was not between living and inanimate things, but whether living    products could be seen as “human-inventions”.[1]

One cannot exaggerate the momentous nature of this decision.  It constitutes a break with the way most cultures have viewed life down through the ages. The philosophical, ethical and legal basis on which the decision was reached is at variance with most of the cultural, moral and religious traditions of the planet. Most cultures and ethical traditions make a clear distinction between living and inanimate things. The Harvard biologist, Edward O Wilson, would go much further. In his book, Biophilia (The Love of Life), he argues that during our evolutionary development we were hard-wired genetically to bond with other species in the living world.  In the Prologue he uses a telling metaphor to illustrate the powerful attraction of other life forms, “we learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move towards it like moths to the poach light. [2] Nothing, and certainly not the commercial demands of transnational corporations, should be allowed to blur or eliminate the vital distinction between life and non-life.

Furthermore, patents are derived from concepts of individual innovation and ownership which are foreign to many cultures where sharing of community resources or knowledge are promoted as crucial values.  The concept of individual property rights to either resources or knowledge is alien to many indigenous people. It certainly was not practices among the T’boli people in Mindanao, where I worked for many years. In a patent-dominated world, it is easy to forget that European and US agriculture was developed from plants and genetic resources from others countries such as potatoes, tomatoes and maize.  The countries of origin of these plants, such as Peru or Mexico should now be demanding that Europe and the US repay the “genetic debt” to them.

The simple fact is that the scientist, Chakrabarty did not create ‘his’ bacterium. As Key Dismukes, a former director of the Committee on Vision of the National Academy of Science in the US observed, “he merely intervened in the normal processes by which strains of bacteria exchange genetic information to produce a new strain with an altered metabolic pattern. His bacterium lives and reproduces itself under the forces what guide all cellular life. [3]

The patenting frenzy of the past decade has proved Kimbrell correct.  Patenting now includes human genes and cell-lines In fact, more than one fifth of the genes of every human being are now owned by corporations and universities. The lawyer, Andrew Kimbrell believes that the US Supreme Court’s decision has “transformed the status if the biotic (life ) community from a common heritage of the earth to the private preserve of researchers and industry”.  He points out that the ruling has set the stage for increasing competition among multinationals, as they vie for ownership and control of the planet’s gene pool, patenting everything that lives, breathes and moves. [4]

According to Michael Crichton writing in the New York Times, on February 13, 2007, gene patents in the US are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from patients and doctors.  Crichton points out that the patenting of genes has raised the costs of both diagnostic tests and treatment.  A breast cancer test which should cost $ 1,000 now costs $3,000.

This is not the first time that the judiciary in the US put the interests of corporations ahead of those of ordinary citizens.  The historian Morton Horwitz, wrote that “from the beginning of the 19th century, the legal profession and the judiciary in America, bonded with the entrepreneurs and their commercial ventures, even at this early period, against the ordinary citizens, the workers and the farmers… by the middle of the 19th century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of the men of commerce and industry at the expense of  farmers, workers, consumers and other less powerful groups with society”. [5] Next week I will examine the religious and moral implications of patenting life.


[1] Andrew Kimbrell, The Body Shop, Harper, San Francisco, 1993,  page 193

[2] Edward O. Wilson, 1984, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

[3] Quoted in Jeremy Rifkin’s , The Biotech Century, Victor Gallancz London 1998, page 46.

[4] Kimbrell, op.cit. p. 200.

[5] Morton J. Horowitz, 1995, The Transformation of American Law: 1780 -1860, Oxford University Press, New York, pages 253-254.

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