Patents are monopoly rights. In theory, they secure temporary monopolies for their owners. Human rights activists are raising the issue of “biopiracy”: it is a legal scandal that patents are now be issued on living organisms, genes, and breeding or processing techniques. If a mouse can be bred to carry a gene that guarantees cancer, the ethical implications should be fairly obvious.
But the criticism of patents on plants and animals extends beyond the concern about animal rights. Seeds are the subject of tightening rules about ownership and patent procedures. These patents are jeopardizing biodiversity, increase world hunger, and could spell doom for small-scale agriculture that is still practiced around the world.
Man-made crops and grains
Our crops have a long history that is intimately connected to human activity. Over the course of centuries and millennia, our ancestors traded their crops and seeds and influenced their evolution. It is hard to justify how a company that adds another feature to a corn plant through genetic modification should now be granted far-reaching monopoly rights. The patent protection extends to future generations of seeds as well. A farmer would thus not be allowed to keep grains from the fall harvest to plant again in the spring.
Patents also have the effect of aggravating the tendency towards homogeneity in agriculture. Large companies can finance research and patents, have hired their own legal experts, and prevent experimentation and modifications by others through restrictive enforcement of their monopolies. No middle-class company or farmer can compete with that. For years, multinational corporations have been forcing competitors out of the market – and their seeds and grains as well. Through political lobbying, they try to influence the future of agriculture. In the 1980s, an industrial alliance that included Pfizer, Dupont and IBM succeeded in pushing for the inclusion of patent rights in the rules of the World Trade Organization. Today, virtually no country can ignore the demands from patents owners or question the validity and legitimacy of their monopolies.
The importance of biodiversity
From an economic perspective it makes sense to utilize the patent as much as possible and sell seeds and grains under the monopoly umbrella to as many people as possible. Biodiversity is lost in the process. In India, Monsanto has bought out all competitors for cotton seeds. Farmers have no option but to buy the patented and genetically manipulated products offered by Monsanto. But the seeds are susceptible to bugs. For some time, farmers have reported fungi in their seeds and have suffered from significant harvest declines. The Irish potato famine has been traced to a similar phenomenon: because virtually all farmers used the same type of potato, a disease could spread quickly and eradicate much of the harvest for four consecutive years. Despite the abundance of seeds, patents and agricultural monopolies are thus making famines more likely today.
We have the option of developing an agriculture (and a medical industry as well) that protects and increases diversity, utilizes existing and collective knowledge and is based on cooperation rather than isolation. The existing framework of patent rights is taking us in the wrong direction.