Privatizing The World's Natural Heritage
Publisher's note -- this article dances all around the just solution to the problems caused by patents, but does the author really get it? You be the judge. And thank goodness this is being discussed at all.
Biopiracy or Bioprivateering?
by Richard StallmanFor decades, new drugs have often been found in exotic animals and plants. Nowadays, genes from rare species and subspecies are also useful in genetic engineering of new breeds for agriculture. The drugs, and now the new breeds as well, are typically patented. This causes trouble for developing countries that could use them.
Patent monopolies on plant and animal varieties, on genes, and on new medicines, threaten to harm developing countries in three ways. First, by raising prices so far that most citizens have no access to these new developments; second, by blocking local production when the patent owner so chooses; third, for agricultural varieties, by forbidding farmers to continue breeding them as has been done for thousands of years.
Just as the United States, a developing country in the 1800s, refused to recognize patents from advanced Britain, today's developing countries need to protect their citizens' interest by shielding them from such patents. To prevent the problems of monopolies, don't establish monopolies. What could be simpler?
But developing countries need support from world opinion in order to do this. It means going against a view that companies strongly advocate: that biotech company investors are entitled to monopolies, regardless of how they affect anyone else.
To challenge an idea which is backed by so much money is not easy. So some have proposed the concept of "biopiracy" as an alternative approach. Instead of opposing the existence of biological monopolies, this approach aims to give the rest of the world a share in the profits from them. The claim is that biotechnology companies are committing "biopiracy" when they base their work on natural varieties, or human genes, found in developing countries or among indigenous peoples--and therefore they ought to be required to pay "royalties" for this.
"Biopiracy" is appealing at first glance, because it takes advantage of the current trend towards more and bigger monopoly powers. It goes with the flow, not against. But it will not solve the problem.
The reason is that useful varieties and genes are not found everywhere or with even distribution. Some developing countries and indigenous peoples will be lucky, and receive substantial funds from such a system, at least for the twenty years that a patent lasts; a few may become so rich as to cause cultural dislocation, with a second episode to follow when the riches run out. Meanwhile, most of these countries and peoples will get little or nothing from this system. Biopiracy royalties, like the patent system itself, will amount to a kind of lottery.
The biopiracy concept presupposes that natural plant and animal varieties, and human genes, have an owner as a matter of natural right. Once that assumption is granted, it is hard to question the idea that an artificial variety, gene or drug is property of the biotechnology company by natural right, and thus hard to deny the investors' demand for total and world-wide power over using it.
The idea of "biopiracy" offers the multinationals, and the governments that work for them, an easy way to cement forever the regime of monopolies. With a show of magnanimity, they can concede a small part of their income to a few lucky indigenous peoples; from then on, when anyone questions whether biological patents are a good idea, they can cite these indigenous peoples along with the fabled "starving genius inventor" to paint such questioning as plundering the downtrodden.
What people outside the developed world really need, for their agriculture and medecine, is to be exempt from all such monopolies. They need to be free to manufacture medicine without paying royalties to multinationals. They need to be free to grow and breed all sorts of plants and animals for agriculture; and if they are interested in using genetic engineering, they should be free to commission the genetic modifications that suit their needs. A lottery ticket for a share of royalties from some varieties and genes is no compensation for losing these freedoms.
It is indeed wrong for biotech companies to convert the world's natural genetic resources into private monopolies--but the wrong is not a matter of taking someone else's rightful property, it is privatizing what ought to be public. These companies are not biopirates. They are bioprivateers.
The source for this article is the Grassroots News Network.
What's the solution here, and what words do you prefer to use in describing the situation?
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