Converting Third World biodiversity into First World intellectual property

The drive to patent living things began in France at the turn of the century when rose breeders wanted the same recognition as the inventors of steam engines and light bulbs. Their efforts led to a special international convention at the beginning of the 1960s when a meeting in Paris created the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). But ‘flower power’ really took hold in the late sixties and early seventies when most Western European countries, the USA, New Zealand and Japan adopted seed patenting (PBR or Plant Breeders’ Rights) legislation. By then, flowers were no longer the issue. Major companies were patenting cereals and vegetables. After all, God created life but we were allowed to name life. A rose by any other name could be wheat or rice. Once the technical and political concept of patenting flowers was acceptable, there was no intellectual basis for preventing the patenting of food plants. Once food was patentable under PBR, it only remained to patent the rest of life under stronger industrial monopolies.

Historically, biological products and processes have not been eligible for intellectual property protection. Current discussion within the European Communities, the OECD, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and, most significantly, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) are leading to a change in international conventions that would ‘industrialize’ biology and make manipulated genes and altered species patentable. In effect, the vast biological diversity of the Third World – whether discovered or adjusted – could be rendered the intellectual property of private interests. ‘Gene’ patents are already permitted in health and agriculture in the United States and similar moves are under way in Japan and Europe. The inevitable losers in this development will be the countries who have (or had) the biological diversity in the first place.

– ‘Cabbages to Kings? Patents, Politics and the Poor’, in The Laws of Life, Another Development and the New Biotechnologies, by Gary Fowler, Eva Lachkovics, Pat Mooney and Hope Shand, 1988