The Immorality of Biopiracy Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (June 28, 2009

The theft of biological resources known as biopiracy is one of the worst outcomes of the patenting legislation which now has a global reach through the Trade Related Intellectual Properties (TRIPs 27.b) of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  In recent years, biotechnological companies have been collecting genetic material from the Majority world.  They have sought patents for this material in Minority World countries and in the process have made huge profits.


Patenting will intensify and exacerbate the plunder of the natural resources of the Majority world. Microorganisms, plants, animals and genes from indigenous people have been patented for the production of pharmaceuticals and other products.  It is simply larceny of the highest order to design an international patenting mechanism which will force Majority world countries to pay royalties to Minority world corporations for food or medical products derived from their own natural resources.


Most of the germ plasm for food crops is held in seed banks either in the Minority world or controlled by the Minority world if they are located in the Majority World. To appropriate this through patenting or Plant Variety Protection (PVP) legislation, constitutes a new form of colonialism. This time it is not merely the gold, silvers, precious stone or labour of people that is being colonised, but life itself.  Biotech scouts have used the knowledge that indigenous people have accumulated about their habitat over the centuries in their search for plants or animals which may have an agricultural or medicinal use. As we will see below, they then take out patents on these organisms.


The immorality of such behaviour is magnified even further when one remembers that the species and genetic diversity within crops such as rice, maize and potatoes is available to us because countless generations of peasant farmers and tribal people protected and propagated these vital crops. The Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva points out that:


“The common pool of knowledge has contributed immeasurably to the vast agricultural and medicinal plant diversity that exists today. Thus the concept of individual property rights to resources or to the knowledge, remains alien to the local community.  This undoubtedly, exacerbates the usurpation of the knowledge of indigenous people with serious consequences for them and for biodiversity conservation.” [1]


The patenting of the Neem (Azadirachta indica) tree which is found in India and all over the tropics illustrates what is happening. Because many parts of the tree have anti-microbial properties it is known as the “wonder” tree.   In ancient Sanskrit it is called  sarva roga nivarini meaning the curer of all illnesses. In Hindu mythology it is considered to be of divine origin, while for the Muslims of the subcontinent it is as shajar-e-mubarak or the blessed tree.


Numerous studies on the many beneficial properties of the tree had been conducted in India since World War II. However, no one ever thought of taking out a patent on the tree’s chemical composition because Indian Law did not allow patents on medical or agricultural products.  In 1971, US timber importer, Robert Larson, noticed the different uses of the neem during a visit to India. As a result, he began importing neem seed to his company headquarters in Wisconsin. Over the next decade he conducted safety and performance tests upon a neem extract called Margosan-O and in 1985 received clearance for the product from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Three years later he sold the patent to the multinational chemical corporation, W R Grace and Co. Since 1985, over a dozen US patents have been taken out by US and Japanese firms on formulae for stable neem-based solutions and emulsions and even for a neem-based toothpaste. As a result of holding the patent, the price of neem seeds rose dramatically. What had once been a free resource for people in Indian villages now has become a scarce commodity.


In 1994, the European Patent Office also granted a patent on a neem oil product. However, after a ten year battle the patent was revoked. The annulment was based on the fact that the fungicidal properties of the neem seed were known in India for generations. Therefore the patent did not comply with a basic requirement for patents that the innovation should be new.  While this was a significant victory for the anti-patent movement the legal action was costly. Acquiring a patent is relatively inexpensive for  corporations, while fighting them is expensive. The real goal of a campaign must be to revoke TRIPs 27.3 b and prohibit patents on living organisms.

[1] Vandana Shiva, “the Enclosure of the Commons,” Third World Resurgence, August 1997,  page 6.


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