BioPiracy and Other Myths

Saying "Yes Patents on Life"


Cancun—"No Patents on Life," is one the most frequently heard slogans among anti-globalization activists at the World Trade Organization's 5th Ministerial meeting. It is part of a fierce fight over intellectual property rights. Who has the right to make pharmaceuticals and who has the right to grow genetically enhanced crop plants are hotly in dispute at the WTO conference.

"Patenting of life forms must be prohibited in order to preserve biodiversity, food security and indigenous peoples' rights and protect them from corporate grip on genetic resources." declared a group of Green and Socialist parliamentarians at a press conference earlier today. Andrew Kimbrell, director of the US-based International Center for Technology Assessment, denounced biotechnology patents as "biocolonialism" and just a continuation of the "brutal history of oppression of colonialism."

But biotechnology patents are not the only intellectual property rights fight going on at the WTO. Tony Clarke, from the Canadian anti-free trade Polaris Institute, declared at the "teach-in" run by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), "Essential medicines should be available to the people!" Indian public health activist, Mira Shiva asked, "Why should the poor suffer and die if lifesaving medicines are available?"

But, before considering the objections being raised by anti-globalization activists to intellectual property rights, a short lesson in intellectual property rights: Property rights over things like land, houses and cars are easily understood by everyone. Fences protect land and locks protect houses and cars from being stolen or misused by others. But intellectual property by its nature cannot be protected by fences and locks. For example, once an inventor has devised, say, a recipe for a powerful new drug, another drug manufacturer who finds out that recipe can easily make it. That means that the inventor, who spent the time, effort and money, to bring the benefit of a new cure to humanity would not be compensated for his labor. Patents are designed to remedy that situation by providing strong incentives to inventors of beneficial products.

Patents are temporary monopolies, usually 20 years in duration, which aim to achieve two things. First, in order to receive a patent, an inventor must disclose how to make the product, so that someone else can do it once the patent has expired. Second, by awarding a temporary monopoly to inventors, intellectual property rights encourage inventors to seek new discoveries by allowing them to make money either by licensing their patents to others who must pay them or by giving them the exclusive right to make the product without competition for 20 years. Abraham Lincoln once described patents as "adding the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Simply glancing up, we can all easily see how much we have benefited by this system of encouraging inventors; nearly every product that we use in everyday life was once patented.

Under the WTO, intellectual property rights, including patents, fall under an agreement called, the "Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights"(TRIPS). The TRIPS Agreement requires that all WTO members recognize patents on products like pharmaceuticals and genetically enhanced crops. Without worldwide patent protection, a company in South Africa could manufacture a product based on a Brazilian patent and then ship the product back to Brazil, undercutting the Brazilian patentholder. Perhaps in the short run Brazilian consumers might be slightly better off because they could buy the cheaper South African version of the product, but in the long run they (and we) would be worse off because future inventors would have less incentive to make new inventions and to disclose their methods to the rest of us.

But what about the poor in place like Africa, Latin America and India, who are being ravaged by diseases like AIDS? After all, it only costs a few cents to make an anti-viral pill since the formula for it was devised several years ago by big drug companies in the United States and Europe. Again, the research costs to find and develop drugs that can successfully treat AIDS were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, yet once the right formulation is discovered, it costs only a few cents to produce each actual pill. Think of it this way: the first pill cost $500 million to make, the second pill cost 5 cents. Yet selling the second, third, and thousands more pills at 5 cents each will not recover the money spent on the research necessary to make the first pill.

If researchers can't recover their costs, they will stop doing research and we will all be worse off as the pipeline for powerful new medicines goes dry. During the last half century the vast majority of new drugs which have greatly improved the health of millions in both the developed and developing countries were produced by for-profit pharmaceutical companies. Without the discoveries of pharmaceutical companies, scores of millions of people across the world would have died before their time or lived diminished lives wracked with painful and crippling diseases.

Nevertheless, it is a tragedy that hundreds of millions of poor people in the developing world cannot afford modern treatments. How can their needs for medicines be met without destroying the system of intellectual property rights that has made miracle medicines possible in the first place?

WTO negotiators reached a compromise just before coming to Cancun which allows poor countries to import inexpensive generic versions of medicines that are still under patent in the developed world. It is not a perfect solution—it will require extra policing to make sure that generic versions don't undercut the patented versions being sold in developed countries. And even more problematically, this compromise will probably discourage pharmaceutical companies from investing in future research on diseases that disproportionately afflict poor people in the developing world. Why? Because the companies know that whatever they develop will be copied and sold cheaply before they can recoup their costs. So the poor may benefit from this compromise in the short run, but suffer in the long run as the development of new and better drugs aimed at diseases in the developing world slows. To answer Shiva's question: More of the poor may suffer and die because new and better drugs will not be available in the future.

Biotechnology patents, especially patents relating to crop biotechnology, also are under attack by anti-globalization activists. First, many experts acknowledge that many biotechnology patents are far too broad and vague and that the biotechnology patent system desperately needs refinement. However, that does not mean that the concept of biotechnology patents is wrong. Like any other area of research and discovery, biotechnology patents play a vital role in encouraging the development of superior new products.

Of course, genetically enhanced crops are one of the more contentious issues in world trade now because of the dispute between the United States and the European Union over the safety of foods made from them. Without revisiting that topic, suffice it to say that of the hundreds of millions of people who have eaten foods made from currently available biotech crops, there has not been a single documented case of a person who has suffered so much as a sniffle or a bellyache after consuming them.

"Biopiracy" is what particularly upsets activists like Andrew Kimbrell. He and other anti-globalization activists accuse transnational corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta of stealing genes nurtured by poor farmers of the world. The greedy corporations allegedly do this by patenting valuable genes found in local varieties of plants grown by traditional farmers. Then the companies try to sell the patented genes back to the poor farmers from which they took them. Sounds pretty unscrupulous, doesn't it?

What actually happens is that researchers at companies like Monsanto and Bayer screen a wide variety of plants seeking genes for things like disease resistance or particular nutrients. Say, hypothetically that the researchers find a gene in a local variety of rice in India that prevents a fungal disease endemic to India. Delighted, the corporate researchers have the technology to put the anti-fungus gene into a high yielding, but fungus prone, wheat variety. Farmers in India would have liked to grow the high yield wheat, but didn't do so because of its susceptibility to fungus.

Genes are resources the same way that something like, say, copper is a resource. If I had a rock containing copper ore, which is not much of a resource to me, perhaps I could use it as a paperweight. However, a copper rock is a much more valuable resource to someone who has the skill to mine, mill, refine, design, and market copper products, electrical wires, pots, and computer chips. Surely, it would be unreasonable for me to demand of the person who buys my copper rock and turns it into a pot that he give me the pot for free. The same goes for a beneficial gene, like the hypothetical anti-fungus gene that is inaccessible to Indian farmers because they have no way to get it from rice into wheat where it would be really helpful to them. Thanks to biotechnology, Indian farmers can now choose to grow (or not grow) the high yield wheat without fear that their crop will be devastated by fungus. BioPiracy is as much a fiction as CopperPiracy.

The anti-globalization activists get it almost exactly backward. Intellectual property rights, far from being harmful to the poor, are in fact the foundation upon which many technologies that will help them rise from poverty to prosperity will be built.