|Life Industry: Biodiversity, People and Profits (WWF, 1996)|
|Part 3 - Which way now?|
A Vote for conscience over capital
On 1 March 1995, eight years of bitter squabbling and noisy protest finally came to an end when the European Parliament voted against a controversial directive on biotechnology patents. After heavy lobbying from groups opposed to the patenting of animals, plants and human genes, it resolved by 244 votes to 188 to abandon the directive. The directive's ousting was claimed as a major moral victory by those who had fought it, and was a big blow to industry.
The directive would have ironed out differences between national patent rules, so that a patent awarded in one member country would be accepted in the others. A setback for industry perhaps, but some representatives were relieved at the decision because the directive was a mess, reflecting the confusion among parliamentarians about the implications of the directive. Nick Scott-Ram of the Biolndustry Association is reported to have said that the final draft of the directive contained ambiguities that left some points of ethics open to more than one interpretation. This could have left patents vulnerable to challenge, thus holding up commercial development. The woolliest compromise, according to Scott-Ram, was the attempt to draw a moral distinction between human genes in the body which were deemed unpatentable - and synthetic versions of those genes produced in the laboratory- which the directive suggested could be patented. In industry's eyes, there is no question that they should all be patentable.
Throwing out the directive will have little direct impact on the awarding of patents, since this still remains under the jurisdiction of the European Patent Office, but it may have quite an impact indirectly, as it may indicate a change in the climate of opinion among parliamentarians. The following is the response of one NGO representative to the European Parliament's vote:
It was agony sitting in the semicircle of the European Parliament. MEPs spent two and a half hours voicing their final concerns about the directive, before passing to the resolve of action. The body was clearly divided, and the arguments were clearly split. Some said the directive meant 'white', while others insisted it meant 'black'. The power of science beckoning humanity's absolution through the directive was evident. The meaning of the law was confusing, while deciphering the ethical implications was the real challenge. And the Parliament's sense of fear grew.
The vote against the directive was historic and moving because it was an act of social responsibility not typical (unfortunately) of democratic institutions these days. The feelings were palpable as I cast my eyes across the room: these people, just for a moment, pushed all the talk of money away and acted as human beings. The interests of capital were momentarily cast aside and the primacy of conscience was allowed to guide and rule. For that alone, we have to salute the European Parliamentarians. They were fearful, but they were even more brave. The importance of this has to be recognized and honoured. In that final moment, what was scaring people most was the idea that this piece of legislation would not only:
o strengthen and harmonize intellectual property rights law in the European Union
o have a powerful normative function on the future of biotechnology R&D in Europe and elsewhere
o bear huge ethical implications, which are recognized by patent law but not embraced by it
but it would allow the patenting of human genetic material and bestow some form of legitimacy on to the permanent genetic alteration of humankind by humankind.
The directive would have provided financial returns to investors, on top of the numerous subsidies that public and private biotechnology researchers already receive from taxpayers. In addition, by seeking to determine what is patentable and what is not, the directive would have determined the parameters of what is economically-sanctioned research in the field of life sciences, keeping it in line with the needs of intellectual monopolies. What's more, this included human beings. But the Parliament said 'No thanks'.
We must salute that body for its courage. Money is intimidating. How could we powerless NGO folk forget the day back in 1991 when two of us walked into a Dutch MEP's office to talk to him about the issues raised by the patenting directive. He handed us a small card, 'Here is my lawyer'. Or, in other words, 'Pay up if you want to talk to me'. His ears - and his voting hand - were for hire, not for public duty. The Parliamentarians could easily have backed off from their moral disconcertedness and said, 'Okay, this legislation will promote research, which is good for industry and public health'. But they didn't. Dignity was the key word on people's lips. It was not to be sold off so easily.
The business press scoffed that the EP forgot the law of dollars and cents (= sense) and bowed to emotion instead. Why should we he intimidated? Why can people not ask questions and take brave decisions? What is politics if we are punished for being human? Why talk about democracy if all human rights are to be swept under the rug with derision?
For us NGO people who have been involved in the battle from the start trying to raise awareness, trying to promote broad public debate on the issue despite its seemingly abstract and technical nature the vote was a strong political statement to the world. It said, 'There are ethical problems with the way that biotechnology is being used in society and there is something very wrong with the idea of patenting life forms, especially human genes. We need to set rules for science and technology that are socially responsible'. For five seconds, industry's stronghold over politics was tempered by the politicians' attention to social values.
This is a unique awakening. In the 1980s we started 'greening' the world economy. The EP decision could be a signal that in the 1990s we arc starting to 'moralize' it. Of course people are scared; this is new; this is urgently needed. NGOs are only new clothing for what people have always done: fighting for liberation and justice.
On March 1, conscience, values, ethics, morality and dignity overrode the seduction of capital's greed and power. The fear was there at the final hour of the directive's fate. Let us not denigrate that fear: we should embrace it and help it metamorphose into understanding, strength and appropriate action this time - such as a total renegotiation of what innovation is, how we promote it and how we can protect people's rights in relation to it.
Europe's moratorium on BGH
Since 1986 farmers, consumers, animal welfare and environment organizations in the European Union have been demanding a ban on bovine growth hormone or rBGH (see p. 38) and products derived from its use. At the end of 1993 The European Commission recommended a ban on rBGH until the end of March 2000. The European Parliament voted for an unlimited ban on BGH. Nevertheless, the European Council of Agriculture Ministers decided to extend the existing moratorium for only one more year, until 31 December 1994.
It seemed that the Ministers wanted to keep their options open until they saw how BGH was received in the US, it having just been approved there. A year later the Council of Ministers agreed to extend the ban on rBGH for another 5 years, to the relief of the 300 groups that had campaigned against its introduction.
Monsanto, the manufacturer of rBGH, and US trade officials had previously warned the EU that a ban on US rBGH-derived milk, dairy and beef products might constitute, under new GATT regulations, an illegal 'restraint of trade'. But in a bluntly-worded letter sent to David Kessler, US FDA commissioner, Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, vicepresident of the EU Agriculture Committee, stated: 'Consumers in the European Union and their representatives in the European Parliament are apparently much more concerned about the unresolved human health issues related to rBGH than your agency was when it authorized the product.'
Graefe zu Baringdorf further warned the FDA that the only way to avoid a wholesale ban of US dairy exports to Europe would be to label genetically engineered meat and dairy products - a move that the Clinton administration and the biotechnology industry oppose. Polls indicate that if genetically engineered foods are labelled as such, consumers will not buy them.
The fate of rBGH in the US will be critical in determining whether rBGH is embraced or rejected altogether in Europe. NGOs are confident that as long as parliamentarians have access to reliable information, rather than industry propaganda, there is no likelihood of rBGH being approved. As Linda Bullard of the Greens in the European Parliament points out, 'There is clear resistance from both producers and consumers in the US. Where, for example, are the signposts showing that it is being enthusiastically welcomed? There are no reports of voluntary labels stating "brought to you with pride from cows treated with rBGH".'
A gene bank working with farmers
Ethiopia is one of the world's richest centres of crop genetic diversity. It is the original home of major world crops like sorghum and many millets, as well as coffee. All the coffee grown in Latin America can ultimately be traced back to a single cutting from a coffee bush in the Ethiopian Highlands. But Ethiopia is being hit hard by the plague of genetic erosion. Among the various factors contributing to the decline of its genetic heritage are the replacement of indigenous landraces (traditional varieties) by new, genetically uniform crop varieties, changes in agriculture and land use, the destruction of habitats and drought.
As new crops like corn, oats and imported varieties of wheat spread, old crops like teff, barley, and even sorghum have gone into decline. By the end of the 1970s, 37% of the wheat land was sown to 'improved' or 'high response' cultivars. The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s had many causes - overgrazing, water management problems, politics, and, of course, the drought itself. But unnoticed among those problems was the pressure imposed by outside 'experts' for Ethiopia to abandon its drought-tolerant crops in favour of Green Revolution varieties. The seeds may have been low yielding, hut they would germinate even after long periods of drought, and there would always he something to harvest at the end of the season.
Throughout the famine, staff from the Plant Genetic Resource Centre (PGRC/E) were being dispatched in jeeps and on donkeys almost every day to search the fields, bins and hills for the traditional seeds that might otherwise have become extinct. The circumstances of the famine had made them realize more acutely than ever that Ethiopia's food security may depend on the survival of the old landraces.
The PGRC/E was set up in 1976 with the aim of conserving Ethiopia's biological resources. By 1992, the centre's gene bank held more than 50 000 samples of some 100 crop species comprising indigenous landraces recovered from all over the country. It is a genebank with a difference. In addition to the standard refrigerators, computers and white coats, the genebank uses another great asset: farmers who have nurtured Ethiopia's genetic heritage and have made it the important and rich resource it still is, despite heavy losses. Throughout the country, farmers have established networks to facilitate seed supply, including the exchange of seed through local markets. This provides them with an assortment of crop types with a wide range of adaptability to cope with unpredictable conditions.
The on-farm conservation and enhancement of landraces has been an aspect of the PGRC/E's work since 1988, involving farmers, scientists and extension workers. Farmers are not only the beneficiaries of technical assistance in improving their crops, but they act as an important source of knowledge for the PGRC/E in the identification of useful plant material. In addition, their fields act as dynamic field gene banks. For example, in order to improve crop security, local varieties of coffee are planted by farmers along the edges of the fields that they sow with the more uniform lines distributed by the Government Coffee Improvement Project. These living gene banks are a tremendous boost to the Centre's efforts to maintain genetic resources in the field, especially as it is difficult to store coffee seed safely on a long-term basis. Farmers also participate in the collecting missions undertaken by the Centre, more than 115 of which were made in its first 14 years of existence.
Sources: Growing Diversity, IT Publications, London, 1992; The Threatened Gene, Lutterworth, 1990
The MASIPAG experience
The MASIPAG programme was born out of Filipino farmers' bittersweet experiences with the Green Revolution. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Philippine government heavily promoted the adoption of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) and high-input agricultural production systems. The CGIAR's International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) played a key role in researching and marketing the new rice varieties. By 1970, 78% of the country's ricelands were planted with HYVs and the initial results were encouraging as crop production soared. Problems began to emerge with the global oil crisis in 1974 when prices of imports exploded. The government continued to import the agricultural inputs on which it depended so heavily to sustain its food production campaigns. At the same time, it pursued foreign loans to build the massive irrigation systems needed to support the Green Revolution seed, and funded expensive promotional campaigns for the 'miracle' rice. While debt increased, forest reserves decreased and farmers began to lose faith in the miracle.
By the late 1970s many farmers were seriously disenchanted with the Green Revolution. The problems they faced included the rising cost of seed and fertilizers; the increasing concentrations of chemicals required to keep production up; deterioration of the seed; and increasing pest problems and environmental degradation. Over the next five years, a farmers' strategy emerged from various formal and informal consultations. The strategy proposed, amongst other things, the launch of an initiative to develop a national agricultural programme independent of foreign support; an agrarian reform programme to address the problems posed by large plantations of bananas, coconut and sugar cane; a review of the government/IRRI programme with options of nationalizing its management or stopping its operation; and building a truly Filipino institution to research rice.
When their proposals were ignored by government, the farmers took the initiatives forward themselves, which resulted in the formation of MASIPAG or the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development as it is known in English, in 1986. MASIPAG's activities centre on organic farming, the research and propagation of traditional rice varieties, alternative pest management and diversified farming systems integrating the production of rice, vegetables, livestock and aquaculture.
MASIPAG gives first priority to the needs, problems and aspirations of farmers since they know best what is good for them. Training focuses first on what farmers want to learn, and second, on what they need to know as perceived by MASIPAG's scientists and NGOs. By 1993 MASIPAG had the support of about 10 000 individual partners, spread among a variety of national and local NGOs and farmers' organizations. Between 1987 and 1993, MASIPAG trial farms were established in 28 locations in 16 provinces across the country.
Although seed collection was not seriously pursued, by 1993 MASIPAG had accumulated about 350 rice cultivars, which is about one tenth the number held by its big brother, IRRI. MASIPAG's seed collection contains traditional and improved varieties grown mostly on lowland irrigated and upland rain-fed areas. They exhibit diverse characters, productiveness and eating qualities, and offer a wide range of choice for farmers' use for commercial growing, home consumption and for varietal improvement work or breeding.
MASIPAG's breeding programme has demystified science for many farmers, who participate in practical programmes on the farm and at various centres. A thriving seed distribution network has also been set up. Monitoring and evaluation work demonstrated that between 1989 and 1992 traditional improved varieties and farmers' selections from MASIPAG farmers' fields outyielded IRRI's varieties, using lower levels of chemical fertilizer and biocides, in 22 regions. Farmers also reported a general decrease in quality of life during the 'IRRI years', followed by a sharp increase in the MASIPAG era. The quality of life in the MASIPAG years far exceeded that not only in the IRRI era, but in the pre-IRRI period.
Source: The MASIPAG programme: an Integrated Approach to Genetic Conservation and Use, Perfecto R. Vicente, MASIPAG, Philippines. In: Growing Diversity in Farmers' Fields, Proceedings of a Regional Seminar for Nordic Development Co-operation Agencies, Lidingo, Sweden, 1993.
The butterfly rises
It is appropriate that the title of the symposium referred to butterflies. The butterfly is the symbol of chaos theory, and chaos is exactly what we need to create in this world in its march towards uniformity.
Having spent the two days of the symposium talking about how terrible things are and how much worse they are going to get, it might seem difficult to be optimistic; but I am optimistic. The optimism comes from having been fighting this issue for so long, and seeing every year so many more people involved, with such a diversity of activities going on at the local level, the national level, and the international level. More and more people are fighting patents, saving seeds, struggling for indigenous rights and working together. There has been a tremendous change in the last few years and it gives me hope.
First of all, we must beware of the misleading language that is used in this arena, and see things as they really are. We've been talking about a 'genetic supply' industry. I think we should rename it the 'life' industry, because the same companies that are involved in pharmaceuticals are into pesticides, and those same companies are leading the biotechnology field it is a life industry and its corporations are turning into dinosaurs.
We also need to get the IP debate right. The world does not need IP: it needs a kind of intellectual integrity. We need to get back to celebrating innovation by communities, innovation as a collective social act, innovation where human beings work together towards a common goal, for the benefit of society, not for the purpose of profit. We need to re-evaluate the relationship between innovation and society and determine whether the social contract that was drawn up in Vienna when the IP system began almost 125 years ago needs to be rewritten. Because it is crazy; it is out of control. It is no longer IP, it is a kleptomonopoly. The rules of the game, once so clear and so strict, that were designed for dealing with microphones and sewing machines, are now grappling with the products, the processes, and even the formulae of life; and that cannot be allowed.
We need to get some of the broad international agreements set straight; it might seem impossible, but it is not. GATT is a multilateral agreement that wants to homogenize the world to adopt one common morality, one world view: a multilateral agreement to impose a unilateral ethic on all of us. When it is reviewed in a couple of years time, we need to be the ones to review it.
We need to get rid of this idea of 'bioprospecting'; there is no such thing. In the absence of a convincing global ethic, and in the absence of clear rules and systems of understanding between the poor of the world and the rich of the world, there is no bioprospecting; there is only biopiracy. There has to be a moratorium on collecting anything, unless the people themselves agree to it. We should be arguing for this until the rules are straight.
We need to look at the Biodiversity Convention. It is merely a multilateral umbrella imposing bilateral contracts between very large companies and very small countries and communities; this cannot be fair. As it was signed in 1992, it is a protocol for piracy, not the conservation of biodiversity. But it can be changed because it is a very hollow document. We can do it by talking to our governments and to our local communities. It is possible to restructure it to move towards a fairer global ethic.
We can work in a number of ways:
We can co-operate. We need co-operation, like butterflies do, to move between the local level and the global level - between the stratosphere and the biosphere of the realities. That means not just that those of us who travel internationally come down to earth occasionally, but that indigenous communities and farmers also work at the global level. We need to work laterally with each other - we have our differences but we also have commonalities: a common enemy and a common opportunity. We must also achieve a harmony between the citizens and the scientists. We need somehow to bring the two systems of innovation together - formal and informal.
William Blake said that anyone who talks about the common good is a fool. Art and science can only be conducted in minutely organized particulars and that is at the level of the community. Ultimately the strategies of science and politics must be to strengthen the community indigenous communities, rural communities, urban communities to give us all more independence and to bring the force of innovation back to the people.
We simply need to say 'no' to the patenting of life-forms; just plain 'no'; it is not acceptable; it can't be allowed; it is just immoral; life is not for sale. This is our most important task of all.
But, meanwhile, we can do some other things:
We can adapt the intellectual property system. In my view this should be in the form of the Michaelangelo computer virus of a few years ago that we can insert into what I see as a corrupt system. We need to say that there should be no IPR system unless it is open to everyone, and force the system to open up to incorporate indigenous rights, farmers' rights and so on. I don't think it will work, but the system will probably self-destruct in the process of trying to be honest and fair.
We can also suggest that intellectual property should be moved from civil law to criminal law, so that if someone steals the coloured cotton from the people of the Americas and takes it to the US, they can simply have the pirates thrown into jail. We should also create in our patent offices a post rather like an ombudsman, a 'plantsbudsman' who can represent the rights of those people who can't be there. We should also be looking at alternative systems of rights, such as traditional resource rights which stretch way beyond the boundaries set by intellectual property.
A few years ago, those of us who were campaigning on these issues could have met together in a telephone box. If all of us here now go away and apply ourselves to these issues at every level at which we live, we can be optimistic that in a few years time we will need to meet together in a conference hall much bigger than this, and there will be real hope of changing the way of the world.
After all, butterflies are what survive as the rest of the world collapses. When the volcano erupts, the butterflies stay around. We can keep on moving back and forth and we are very hard to catch. And we can survive. I like the concept of 'iron butterflies', the tough ones, the ones with muscles. NGOS are much more efficient than anyone else. We can beat our wings together and rise above the mire of patents and intellectual property rights. We can flap our wings and ... oops! there goes Cibasaurus Rex ... there goes GATT ....