Patents Hurt the Poor. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (June 26th 2009)

In the preparatory document for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ Study Week many of the participants were at pains to emphasise that their motivation for promoting genetically modified crops (GMOs) is to help the poor.  In the introduction, Dr. Igno Potrykus writes that “plant biotechnology has a great potential to improve the lives of the poor.”[1] He goes on to claim that “the huge potential of plant biotechnology to produce more and more nutritive food for the poor will be lost if GMO-regulation is not changed from being driven by ‘extreme precaution’ principle to being driven by ‘science based’ principles.”[2]


Surely, he must understand that one of the things which will hurt poor people in the Majority World is paying patents on food to Minority World transnational corporations. None of the speakers including Anatole Krattiger who spoke on “Intellectual Property Rights: Problems and Solutions,” seemed to have grasped this simple point.


The current patenting regime has been vigorously opposed by people and groups from the Majority world.  Isidro Acosta, the president of the Guaymi General Congress in Panama, was shocked and outraged when he heard that the U.S. government attempted to take out a patent on a virus taken from the cell line of a twenty-six-year old Guaymi woman in Panama.  Acosta stated: “It is fundamentally immoral, contrary to the Guaymi view of nature …. and our place in it.  To patent human material, to take human DNA and patent its products … violates the integrity of life itself and our deepest sense of morality.” [3]


Peasant farmers in many parts of the world have expressed opposition to patenting.  Representatives from peasant organisations, indigenous people and environmental organisations met in Quito, Equador in January 1999 to review developments in biotechnology condemned patenting.  At the end of their deliberations, they published a document called The Latin American Declaration on Transgenic Organisms.  It states, “that genetic engineering is a technology driven by commercial interest. It is not necessary. It forces us to become dependent on the transnational corporations which control it, putting our autonomy to take decisions about production systems and food security in real danger.   In the field of agriculture there are traditional and alternative technologies which do not pose such risks and which are compatible with the conservation of biodiversity. “[4]


The South Asian Network on Food, Ecology and Culture (SANFEC) organised a workshop on patent in Tangil from February 22nd to 25th 1999. The Workshop was attended by participants from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines.  The following are extracts from the statement issued at the end of the meeting:

“South Asian communities are historically premised on the deep sense of moral, religious and cultural values. The region is inhabited by multi-ethnic, multi-religious and large indigenous communities. All trees, crops, animals, birds, organisms, and soils are an inalienable part of our worships, our rituals, our celebrations, our joys, our culture of sharing and our loving affinity to each other. Our region is replete with hundreds of thousands of sacred groves where trees and plants are worshipped by people. We have a long history of spiritual and political movements where Sufis, Saints and various bhakti traditions have fought to preserve the integrity of Nature in her multiple expressions, including the beauty of the life forms.

Such gifts must be cared for and respected and only then can we gain moral rights to use them for our livelihood needs. The human as omnipotent consumer, that owns, controls, mutates, displaces and destroys the environment, through privatizations, colonizations and now through intellectual property rights (IPRs) in life-forms, is totally against our cultures. The egocentric notion of rights that privatise and colonise natural resources is very alien to the deep sense of moral, spiritual and cultural values of our communities. Similarly, knowledge as an intellectual property of an individual or a corporation is a totally absurd proposition to our people. The Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that have inscribed such alien values are based on long colonial and racist histories of the world, and must be seen as a cultural and political issue, and not merely as elements of emerging legal discourse of new global order.“[5] For these people patenting life violates religious, moral and cultural values and ought to have no place in a world which is striving for equity and justice.  Patenting life is part of the corporate agenda and should not be promoted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.


[1] Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development,  Study,   page 3.

[2] Ibid page 3.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin,  The Biotech Century, Victor Gollancz, London, 1998, page 59.

[4] Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, page 200.

[5] SANFEC’s Statement of Position on TRIPs 27.3(b). (downloaded on June 26th 2009)


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