Patents to kill competition
1971, Mohan Chakravarty, an Indian-American, and his
employer, General Electric, applied for the patenting of a
genetically-engineered “oil-eating” bacterium.
He took genes from three
kinds of bacteria and transplanted them into a fourth to do
whatever he wanted it to do.
The Patent Office rejected
their application because it was understood that living
organisms could not be patented, although the UK where
they’d also applied, granted it.
They went to court and the
US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals overturned the Patent
In Chakrabarty’s favour,
stating, incredibly, “the fact that micro-organisms are
alive is without legal significance for the purposes of
It was amazing that respect for the miracle of life had
already starting ebbing — at least in some judicial minds,
they no longer held ‘legal significance’.
The Patents Office wasn’t happy and appealed to the Supreme
Court. It didn’t help either.
The Supreme Court, in wisdom seemingly alienated from
nature, granted Chakraborty the patent on the questionable
grounds that: “A live, human-made micro-organism is
patentable subject matter,” simply because he “produced a
new bacterium with markedly different characteristics than
any found in nature.”
However, it was not a new, unique creation: it had merely
been recombined from parts of existing living material that
was common heritage.
The fact that the patent
barely scraped through with a 5-4 decision, never catalyzed
the question that the modified micro-organism was not
human-made, only human modified.
As Chakraborty’s himself said, “I simply shuffled genes,
changing bacteria that already existed.” He never claimed he
created a new form of life.
The ongoing controversy over Bt cotton in Pakistan, a
variety into which a soil bacterium has been incorporated to
render the entire plant poisonous to pests (while
inadvertently poisoning soil and people too), has lost sight
of the woods because of the trees. The broader context
covers all seeds and crops, GM or not.
It is one thing to grant patents for unique works of the
mind and/or heart such as a novel or in-depth research, a
painting or score of music, a useful machine or
manufacturing process, so that creators can rightfully enjoy
for their lifetime the material benefits that accrue.
It’s quite another to patent any part of living nature which
no human has created from scratch, that occurred long before
humans appeared on earth, and that all humanity depends on
for survival itself and therefore has natural rights to.
Not that concerned urbanites including scientists and judges
weren’t aware, given that everything they ate, wore and
used, came from nature and agriculture.
For thousands of years,
peasants have modified plants through crossbreeding,
constantly developing new varieties incorporating desirable
traits from near and distant relatives of the same species –
which, by the way, could have evolved on their own anyway
over hundreds of years if they weren’t manually speeded up
in a few by humans.
Peasants have always freely exchanged seeds because they
learned long ago — even without understanding why – that
biodiversity was key to continuity and plant health. In
fact, monopolizing a new strain developed for exclusive use
is self-defeating. Consequent inbreeding rapidly weakens it
and brings about its own demise. – As is happening with GM
Paradoxically, corporations dependent on fresh genes from
the wild to create new varieties – since GM strains don’t
last beyond a few years — are themselves killing off the
necessary biodiversity through their contaminating and
For the past 15 years, GM crops with their unwanted
gene-jumping trait, have caused so much havoc, carrying
contamination globally through trade, causing organic
exports to be rejected, even the US Department of
Agriculture was finally forced to admit that environmental
and health risks are huge.
So how come self-anointed plant experts in lab coats, never
working in real-life farms but greenhouses or sterile labs,
assume they’ve created superior plants through ‘superior’
seeds? Just because a few misguided or biologically and
ecologically uninformed legal minds said so?
Some governments, including ours, have still not absorbed
the reality of how hybrid and GM monoculture have mutilated
and compromised nature itself.
Modern agriculture, far from feeding the world, has simply
become a tool for investors and speculators, leading to land
acquisition and concentration through mass displacement of
farmers, depriving a couple of billion people of food safe
havens and livelihoods.
Because, after a few years of hyper-production, the
defective GM system finally collapses like a drug addict
whose opiates no longer work; the toxic chemical inputs
leaving behind dead soils where nothing grows any longer.
As farmers’ traditional saved seeds began to be appropriated
for corporate commercialism without so much as a
by-your-leave that amounted to theft, farmers needed
government to protect their threatened seed sovereignty.
Instead, multinational chemical-seed corporations sought to
push through Plant Breeders Rights so as to patent
indigenous seeds after cosmetic modification.
The focus now is instead on legal and public approval of
unproven Bt cotton varieties already allowed to spread
legally and illegally. Who will get rights to produce and
market Bt seeds? Multinationals ‘in partnership’ with local
private enterprises (like Mahyco in India), or government
institutions as public-interest eyewash? Monsanto, of
course, for starters.
They’ve not been hanging around in Pakistan for over a
decade on extended vacation. But whether it’s through patent
or monopoly or cartel, it’ll come to the same thing. How 80
percent of all cotton acreage became GM/Bt in a few years is
There are other motives for Monsanto’s stubborn presence in
less developed countries. They and their kind are no longer
welcome in Europe, Russia, China, or India – alone
accounting for half the world’s population and markets, plus
others and for good reason. Not only because they are
patented and prohibitively priced, but because they are
They ultimately kill, not regenerate, nature. How many know
that human-engineered Bt cotton produces several thousand
times more persistent toxin than the short-life Bt toxin
occurring naturally in the soil? Small wonder it’s lethal.
Should products and processes that are inherently
death-dealing, even be allowed patenting to hold entire
agriculture sectors captive? Patents leave no choice when
the competition is bought up or muscled out. Natural seeds
users are being driven to extinction.
Key Dismukes of the Committee on Vision of the National
Academy of Sciences in USA, had said bluntly : “Anand
Chakravarty did not create a new form of life; he merely
intervened in the normal processes by which strains of
bacteria exchange genetic information, to produce a new
strain... ‘His’ bacterium lives and reproduces itself under
the forces that guide all cellular life…The argument that
the bacterium is Chakravorty’s handiwork wildly exaggerates
human power and displays the same ignorance of biology that
have had such a devastating impact on the ecology of our
The patenting of seeds, genes, and related processes, is
therefore not merely a commercial matter. It is a serious
social, cultural and human rights issue because patents
interfere with and are destructive of beneficial social
norms (such as sharing, the seed as future food security,
the right to food, livelihoods and life itself), and the
spiritual or democratic beliefs that have been built on
When patents have already demonstrated the destruction of
livelihoods and thereby entire economies and societies,
denied people the right of choice, the right to reject, in
preference to one’s own proven traditional knowledge, whose
side are our lawmakers going to take?
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of
The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and