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PATENTING LIFE

 

If the US and its corporate bosses lost the hormone round, they won the patent round. On July 16 the European Parliament voted to adopt a report that would make the patenting of just about everything - including life - legal. The following report was sent by Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN):

Dear Friends,

Today we lost the vote in the European Parliament on the patenting of life forms. At midday the Parliament adopted the report presented by the Parliament's Legal Affairs committee, which - if adopted by the Council of Ministers - legalises the patenting of animals, plants and human genes, cells and other parts of the human body in Europe. About a two thirds majority of Euro-parliamentarians voted in favour of the patent proposal, and against the amendments that intended to put limits on life patents or totally outlaw them. Unless the Council of Ministers changes the proposed directive from the Parliament later this year, the patenting of life forms will become legalised in the European Union.

In the final vote, 378 Parliamentarians voted for the Biotech Patent Directive, 113 voted against and 19 abstained. Apart from a few minor changes, the "Rothley Report" from the Legal Affairs Committee was accepted in its entirety.

The Biotech Patent Directive allows for the patenting of genes, plants, animals as well as human materials and body parts as long as they are 'isolated from the human body'. The only living organisms the Directive specifically excludes from patenting are whole humans and human embryos.

This is bad news not only for us in Europe, but for everybody - anywhere in the world - struggling for the sustainable and equitable conservation and use of biodiversity by local communities and indigenous peoples. The new legislation would allow biotechnology companies to go into the Third World's fields and forests, come back home with valuable genetic resources and patent them in Europe.

We won the small concession that plant and animal patent applications have to specify the geographical origin and show that "the material was used in accordance with the legal access and export provisions in force in the place of origin". In the case of human materials the name and address of the person in question has to be given and the voluntary and informed consent of the person from whom the material is taken has to be proved. We also achieved that farmers in the European Union are allowed to replant patented seed, but only the smallest farmers are exempted from payment of royalties for this act.

But that is about it. For the rest, the European Union is heading for a full- fledged life patent system on a par with what the biotech companies and the US government have been asking for.

There is still a possibility that some EU governments and corporations will not be satisfied, and that therefore the directive will return for discussion to the European Parliament. Also, there is also still a lot of debate to be expected at the national level since domestic legislation will have to be modified. But today's vote is clearly a major step back for those of us fighting the privatisation of life.

But then, not all is bad news. If anything positive can be transmitted from Europe today, it is the impressive opposition that has been put up by civil society in and outside Europe against all of this. Never before, have we witnessed here such a strong and wide-spread voice against the patenting of life forms. We - and if we talk about "we" we mean all people and organisations working together in this struggle - managed to convey the message that there is a serious problem here. We sincerely believe that in the past months we have sown the seeds for more active resistance against the further privatisation of life, at least here in Europe. We may have lost this one battle, but we are just at the beginning of a long and crucial fight. This fight, which will ultimately be won through resistance of civil society at the local level, must continue.

"This is a grim day for democracy", said Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, geneticist and spokesperson for the Women's Environmental Network. "Our MEPs sold out to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry... There is something utterly wrong with our democratic process when only those who spend millions of pounds on lobbying are heard."

 

 

Copyright 1997. Ram's Horn


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