April 23, 2014 Najma Sadeque
In 1971, Mohan Chakravarty, an Indian-American, and his employer, General Electric, applied for the patenting of a genetically-engineered “oil-eating” bacterium. He took genes from three kinds of bacteria and transplanted them into a fourth to do whatever he wanted it to do.
The Patent Office rejected their application because it was understood that living organisms could not be patented, although the UK where they’d also applied, granted it. They went to court and the US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals overturned the Patent Office’s decision in Chakrabarty’s favour, stating, incredibly, “the fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for the purposes of patent law.” It was amazing that respect for the miracle of life had already starting ebbing — at least in some judicial minds, they no longer held ‘legal significance’.
The Patents Office wasn’t happy and appealed to the Supreme Court. It didn’t help either. The Supreme Court, in wisdom seemingly alienated from nature, granted Chakraborty the patent on the questionable grounds that: “A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter,” simply because he “produced a new bacterium with markedly different characteristics than any found in nature.”
However, it was not a new, unique creation: it had merely been recombined from parts of existing living material that was common heritage.
The fact that the patent barely scraped through with a 5-4 decision, never catalyzed the question that the modified micro-organism was not human-made, only human modified. As Chakraborty’s himself said, “I simply shuffled genes, changing bacteria that already existed.” He never claimed he created a new form of life.
The ongoing controversy over Bt cotton in Pakistan, a variety into which a soil bacterium has been incorporated to render the entire plant poisonous to pests (while inadvertently poisoning soil and people too), has lost sight of the woods because of the trees. The broader context covers all seeds and crops, GM or not.
It is one thing to grant patents for unique works of the mind and/or heart such as a novel or in-depth research, a painting or score of music, a useful machine or manufacturing process, so that creators can rightfully enjoy for their lifetime the material benefits that accrue. It’s quite another to patent any part of living nature which no human has created from scratch, that occurred long before humans appeared on earth, and that all humanity depends on for survival itself and therefore has natural rights to.
Not that concerned urbanites including scientists and judges weren’t aware, given that everything they ate, wore and used, came from nature and agriculture. For thousands of years, peasants have modified plants through crossbreeding, constantly developing new varieties incorporating desirable traits from near and distant relatives of the same species – which, by the way, could have evolved on their own anyway over hundreds of years if they weren’t manually speeded up in a few by humans.
Peasants have always freely exchanged seeds because they learned long ago — even without understanding why – that biodiversity was key to continuity and plant health. In fact, monopolizing a new strain developed for exclusive use is self-defeating. Consequent inbreeding rapidly weakens it and brings about its own demise. – As is happening with GM crops today.
Paradoxically, corporations dependent on fresh genes from the wild to create new varieties – since GM strains don’t last beyond a few years — are themselves killing off the necessary biodiversity through their contaminating and chemically-dependant varieties.
For the past 15 years, GM crops with their unwanted gene-jumping trait, have caused so much havoc, carrying contamination globally through trade, causing organic exports to be rejected, even the US Department of Agriculture was finally forced to admit that environmental and health risks are huge.
So how come self-anointed plant experts in lab coats, never working in real-life farms but greenhouses or sterile labs, assume they’ve created superior plants through ‘superior’ seeds? Just because a few misguided or biologically and ecologically uninformed legal minds said so?
Some governments, including ours, have still not absorbed the reality of how hybrid and GM monoculture have mutilated and compromised nature itself. Modern agriculture, far from feeding the world, has simply become a tool for investors and speculators, leading to land acquisition and concentration through mass displacement of farmers, depriving a couple of billion people of food safe havens and livelihoods. Because, after a few years of hyper-production, the defective GM system finally collapses like a drug addict whose opiates no longer work; the toxic chemical inputs leaving behind dead soils where nothing grows any longer.
As farmers’ traditional saved seeds began to be appropriated for corporate commercialism without so much as a by-your-leave that amounted to theft, farmers needed government to protect their threatened seed sovereignty. Instead, multinational chemical-seed corporations sought to push through Plant Breeders Rights so as to patent indigenous seeds after cosmetic modification.
The focus now is instead on legal and public approval of unproven Bt cotton varieties already allowed to spread legally and illegally. Who will get rights to produce and market Bt seeds? Multinationals ‘in partnership’ with local private enterprises (like Mahyco in India), or government institutions as public-interest eyewash? Monsanto, of course, for starters. They’ve not been hanging around in Pakistan for over a decade on extended vacation. But whether it’s through patent or monopoly or cartel, it’ll come to the same thing. How 80 percent of all cotton acreage became GM/Bt in a few years is anyone’s guess.
There are other motives for Monsanto’s stubborn presence in less developed countries. They and their kind are no longer welcome in Europe, Russia, China, or India – alone accounting for half the world’s population and markets, plus others and for good reason. Not only because they are patented and prohibitively priced, but because they are patented poisons. They ultimately kill, not regenerate, nature. How many know that human-engineered Bt cotton produces several thousand times more persistent toxin than the short-life Bt toxin occurring naturally in the soil? Small wonder it’s lethal.
Should products and processes that are inherently death-dealing, even be allowed patenting to hold entire agriculture sectors captive? Patents leave no choice when the competition is bought up or muscled out. Natural seeds users are being driven to extinction.
Key Dismukes of the Committee on Vision of the National Academy of Sciences in USA, had said bluntly : “Anand Chakravarty did not create a new form of life; he merely intervened in the normal processes by which strains of bacteria exchange genetic information, to produce a new strain... ‘His’ bacterium lives and reproduces itself under the forces that guide all cellular life…The argument that the bacterium is Chakravorty’s handiwork wildly exaggerates human power and displays the same ignorance of biology that have had such a devastating impact on the ecology of our planet.”
The patenting of seeds, genes, and related processes, is therefore not merely a commercial matter. It is a serious social, cultural and human rights issue because patents interfere with and are destructive of beneficial social norms (such as sharing, the seed as future food security, the right to food, livelihoods and life itself), and the spiritual or democratic beliefs that have been built on them.
When patents have already demonstrated the destruction of livelihoods and thereby entire economies and societies, denied people the right of choice, the right to reject, in preference to one’s own proven traditional knowledge, whose side are our lawmakers going to take?
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.