The Patented Way of Life

21 Oct 2001

In past few days, the European court of justice has rebuffed the recourse presented by Holland – and sustained by Italy and Norway – for the annulment of a European community directive nicknamed the ‘patentability of life’ directive. This directive judicially protects biotechnological inventions. Two of the three major Italian newspapers dedicated short articles to this news, the brevity of their coverage is comprehensible given that newspaper space is in short supply now, but it would be unjust to not give this news greater prominence at least in this venue.
In substance, the directive enables the biotechnology industry – a few very powerful multinationals that are in a position to make their high-level economic and scientific resources felt – to patent the fruits of their research in the field of biotechnology. We are speaking, obviously, about genetically modified organisms – but the directive also applies to all of the hybrid species and the cross-bred organisms created by moving species and gene segments from one corner of the earth to another.

My motivations for not accepting this fate – and for seeing this future as a step backward in the conservation and respect for natural biodiversity – are varied. Above all, I respond ethically to the issue: it would be it would be really interesting to know what the honest public opinion is to the ethical issues of genetic patents. What do the common farmer and the stereotypical housewife from Des Moines think about the fact that you can judicially hold a living being to the standard used for any mechanical contraption? What do they think of the idea that you can define plants on the drawing board, control them by law, and patent the property of the genetic heritage of a plant or an animal (or only a part of it). I am almost certain that in the face of an explanation exhaustive of the justification, without clouding the issue with vague discourses about GM foods or with scientific expressions that are difficult to understand, or even worse, making these decisions in complete silence, the average European citizen would be scandalized and opposed to the idea. Doesn’t this all seem a bit fishy to you? Doesn’t it smell of arbitrary and commercial decisions encouraged by highly interested parties? I am certain that the idea to ask for the permission to patent the tomato plant that grows in your backyard garden would not occur to any normal person.
In addition, all of this is ethically flawed because it starkly contrasts with the Rio Convention on Biodiversity, signed by all of the European States, that guarantees the rights of each country to their respective genetic patrimonies. In order to make concessions to a few large industrial groups, these rights are abused to give further power to individuals who do not probably need yet another legislative advantage. These are companies that are gaining ever-more power with respect to the states that harbor them, it seems more just to officially call them super-nationals instead of multinationals.

In sum, it is not just, and that’s without even calling into question all the grave environmental arguments: the threat to existing species, the homogenization of agricultural production at a global level, and the leveled road of GM production. I want you to think about those countries, like Costa Rica – one of the world’s treasure troves of biodiversity – that are losing their genetic heritage. Or Mexico, where a large part of the over 1,000 types of native corn species are patented in the United States. Or India – where the genes of vegetable species are not even bought – they are stolen by patent-owners who forbid cultivation of some crops by the very same villagers who have cultivated those crops for centuries. It is called bio-piracy. If the ethical reasons are not enough to convince you of the negative aspect of the patentability of life, here you have a few convincing stories of planet-wide injustice to add to the discussion.
In the upcoming weeks, the Parliament and the Council of the European Union will begin to discuss the issues of food safety, food hygiene, and the traceability and labeling of genetically-modified human food and animal feed. Foods. They should be making some important decisions. We hope – although our faith that they are truly an autonomous and body not under the sway of commercial interests is faint – that they will be wise and work for the good of consumers and farmers alike. In every case, we will be watching them and we will not hesitate to let them know that to continue down this road is unacceptable and morally wrong.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 21/10/2001

(adapted by Anya Fernald)

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