Biotech is Godzilla

geneticsClones! Everywhere! Clones! Yes, it’s time to panic. Last week we learned a new simple way to clone mice from skin cells has been perfected. Mouse-life no longer depends on sexual reproduction.

The scientific community cheered. Male mice looked sad. So did female mice, actually. But there was a shadow over the discovery’s news. No, not the spectre of human cloning, silly. Something a little more immediate.

The head of a biotechnology company, commenting on the victory in the clone wars, said: ‘My company has already filed patents on this, as well as for its use in agriculture.’ And it hit me: while many people worry about the ethics of human cloning (an important question, to be sure), there are companies operating right now whose business it is to ‘patent‘ and therefore ‘own’ genomes and forms of life.


from -check em out

from -check 'em out

Many of the scientific successes we are asked to herald as new dawns of hope for humanity are actually the intellectual property of biotech companies, who will protect these ‘patents’ just as any patent owner might. This is not just limited to genetically engineered ‘new’ species. Naturally-occurring chemical codes and cellular substances – like genes or hormones, can also be patented. And they have been.

What does this mean?

Well, for one thing, it means we do not own the rights to all of our bodies. For instance, the American Bar Association Journal and American Civil Liberties Union pointed to a case several years ago in which a woman with cancer possessed a mutant gene that had been patented by a biotech company. If the woman had wanted to test whether the gene put her at risk for breast cancer, she would have had to pay the biotech company that owned the patent for any research done on that gene, because the company ‘owned’ the rights to ‘research over an entire body of knowledge’ relating to that mutated gene.

It means farmers using GM seed had better not save a few seeds or re-plant those did not germinate, as they could be in danger of infringing their ‘licence’ to use the seed. It means that indigenous communities who have been using a specific plant compound medically for thousands of years could be prosecuted for selling it if roving biotech companies decide to patent it in law.

This is the real dark side of GM. It’s not about the health risks. It’s not about being anti-science. It’s about whether it is right or appropriate for anyone to privately own knowledge of the building-blocks of life.

Some Christians find the idea of cloned life an abomination. I find the idea of deliberately designing seeds to break the God-given design of plants reproducing through seeds abominable. I find the idea of seeds that can only be used once, that purposely do not reproduce, all for the sake of maximised profits – I find this an abomination.

The privatisation of scientific knowledge is not just immoral in its outcomes, it is anti-scientific. ‘Knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world,’ said Louis Pasteur, who chose not to become rich off a patent on his most famous discovery. Science pursued with profit as its primary goal and limiting access to knowledge as its standard practice may produce some impressive results. But, then, so do theft, piracy and slavery. To me they are morally equivalent.

(Here’s a fascinating piece about Penicillin and how its patent history has been distorted to mak e biotech companies look good)

And here is a video exploring this stuff:

And here’s the full (and slightly smarter) clip from The Corporation.


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