Patents and "Exotic" Plant Genes


Scratch below the surface of corporate crop varieties and you may find African, South American, or other farmers' plants. Magically transformed into "inventions" by the bureaucratic wizards at the US Patent and Trademark Office, these proprietary products sold by agrochemical companies earn their true inventors nothing.

 

Although the Plant Treaty theoretically addressed many fairness issues when farmers' varieties are used to develop commercial seed, problems still remain. Some of the biggest are in the United States, which hasn't ratified the treaty. American universities and companies continue to freely avail themselves of other peoples' plants without permission or sharing any benefits.

 

I am interested in finding the people that are patenting other peoples' germplasm and holding the feet of these thieves to the fire.



The Abolition of Intellectual Property

 

I once accepted the idea of that exclusive rights over ideas and associated things is a natural state of affairs. I believed the canard that without patents, people wouldn't innovate, we'd all die of preventable diseases, the economy would crumble, no new song would ever be written, and human progress would grind to a halt. Life would be like that depressing Cormac McCarthy novel.

 

Bull. How many artists do you know that decided to become creative for the money? It is easy to see that human beings have always created useful and beautiful things for reasons more compelling than money. It took me longer than I like to admit to fully understand this. I was first confronted with the idea of getting rid of patents and other intellectual property nearly 20 years ago. It's taken about that long to really cleanse my mind of the intellectual property dogma that pervades society.

 

I am now thoroughly convinced that the world would be better place if intellectual property were abolished and alternative, non-exclusive incentives were created to reward the creative. Misguided patent-think has profoundly corrupted our educational institutions, shrouded artistic and scientific creativity behind iron curtains of greed, and played a big role in helping to create an anaemic US that is incapable and unwilling make the products it consumes.

 

The time for intellectual property to die is coming, and I hope to hasten its departure.



Infectious Disease Politics

 

In recent years, I have closely worked on two infectious disease issues - the destruction of smallpox virus stocks and the terms of international sharing of influenza viruses.

 

For smallpox, the issue is to help to create the conditions necessary to convince the governments of the US and Russia to destroy the last remaining live samples of smallpox virus. This is a promise both countries made; but have never implemented. It is a difficult fight that invokes Cold War hangovers and geopolitics of a high order, all disguised as a public health issue. Nevertheless, some small progress is being made.

 

For influenza, the issue is reforming a corrupt international system of virus sharing wherein developing countries were cajoled - through the offices of WHO - to provide flu viruses for free to US and European companies who, in turn, may patent those viruses (or pieces thereof), and try to sell them back to developing countries as vaccines. If, that is, there was any vaccine left over for developing countries at all.

 

The private sector's role in flu vaccine production should be that of a contractor that produces a good for governments to distribute to people. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to become the victims of an inefficient private sector that is a demonstrable failure in ensuring the availability of vaccine for most of the world's population.



Outing Biopirates

 

I may be one of the only people that enjoys reading patent applications. I was introduced to the biopiracy issue working first with indigenous people in Peru and later at RAFI (now called the ETC Group). I have always enjoyed picking apart patents on plants and genes to try to discover instances where medicinal plants and other biological and cultural resources have been stolen.

 

Over the course of other occupations, I've maintained my interest in biopiracy, and in the 2000s wrote under the pseudonym Jay McGown. More recently, I've reverted to my real name.