Patenting nature? Monsanto breaks new ground in laying claim to ownership of crossbred pig

No one can assert that they invented the pig, although claims not too far from that are now being made in certain quarters. Shortly before the end of last year, the Monsanto firm (which produces biotechnology, farm products and much else besides) submitted claims to the relevant European Union patent bureau in Munich regarding the ownership of a «new» pig (which it said it had created through crossbreeding) – and all of its descendants as well. The move is part of an effort by firms to extend the process of patenting to the plant and animal kingdom in order to acquire ownership rights and earn enormous profits by selling usage rights. Naturally this particular animal has much in common with ordinary pigs, but once Monsanto has secured its «ownership» – not only of the way it is produced but of the pigs themselves, and their offspring – it is likely to do so for all pigs bearing the same characteristics. According to the environmental organization Greenpeace, Monsanto has submitted 12 patents that include specific genetic characteristics that are common to most breeding pigs used in European livestock farms. Greenpeace examined these genetic characteristics on the basis of the genotypes of nine pigs of different breeds and found that half of them would end up belonging to Monsanto according to the patent’s criteria – that is, if it is approved. In practice, this means that if farmers want to breed pigs having these characteristics, they will have to pay Monsanto to do so. The pig breed in question is not even genetically modified; its genetic code contains nothing new or original. Nevertheless, in creating this new pig the firm has used crossbreeding and selection methods which it wants to patent. In fact, the firm has also submitted two claims to the International Patenting Organization in Geneva. Monsanto’s goal is to have exclusive patent rights to the pigs in over 160 countries, which would effectively give it global control of their reproduction. As Europe is in the process of promoting a Community Patenting Diploma and formulating European legislation, it remains unclear what stance the Munich bureau will take. According to Takis Vidalis, secretary of the Greek Bioethics Commission, the US has always included discoveries in the patents it issues, while Europe has restricted patents to inventions only. Still, great pressure is being brought to bear since patenting serves as recognition of research and naturally can result in huge profits. «Genetic research requires enormous sums that states are unable to afford and moreover entails a major likelihood of failure. If firms are to invest these funds in research they want to be able to exploit the results financially,» he said. So the dilemma arises of whether firms should «own» part of the natural world – thereby excluding the rest of the scientific community from using the material – or whether the research should peter out due to a lack of funds. The answer appears simple for those who think that no one should be allowed to claim ownership of the planet’s animal and plant species that have existed for thousands and millions of years. However, it appears that anything is possible in practice. In Third World countries, firms such as Monsanto have embarked on a campaign to patent plants that have specific therapeutic qualities and to use the genetic material to manufacture products, particularly pharmaceuticals. In that way these firms «steal» information in the public domain, which they then block for many years. Yet when that process is applied to animals and plants, the results are terrifying. The world’s food supply is then in the hands, and at the mercy, of a very few. Considering the huge profits to be made, patents are in high demand. During 2005, 100 patents were approved by the European bureau for plant elements, 40 that were related to animals and 200 more related to human genes – more than ever before in a single year.

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