Editor's note: The writer is an internationally known professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has long been concerned with developing science and technology for human liberation rather than for profit.
The same articles reporting the production of Dolly the sheep outside of normal sexual reproduction also reported that a small British pharmaceutical firm had already applied for patents on the cloning process and the animals created through it. The growing contradiction between technological advances and private exploitation is beginning to be recognizable.
Though the cloning of mammals and the possibility of cloning humans has grabbed the headlines, the underlying motion is the conversion of living creatures into corporate property. Since the medieval period, individuals and corporations have owned herds of cattle, flocks of poultry and fields of wheat. But they have never owned the species cow, or chicken, or wheat, never been able to prevent others from raising cows, poultry or wheat.
The mechanism of this transformation has been the extension of the patent laws to cover living creatures, their components and their genes or blueprints. Such patents provide a 20-year practical monopoly, since patents enable one to prevent other individuals, corporations or groups from utilizing the subject of the patent.
The U.S. patent laws, written by Thomas Jefferson, historically excluded living creatures. With the development of genetic engineering technology, a product of 40 years of public investment in basic biomedical research, it became possible to modify the genes -- the blueprints -- that control the cells of all organisms. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Chakrabarty case that genetically modified microorganisms could be patented. This opened up the floodgates, and since then thousands of patents on genes, cells, and even entire organisms have been granted by the patent office.
The transformation of the organisms that have evolved over millions of years into corporate property represents a qualitative leap in the concept and character of corporate private property. It represents a potential theft equivalent to having our water and atmosphere become private property, for sale to the highest bidder.
The development of biomedical technology continues to open up possibilities for the alleviation of disease, the repair of damaged limbs and tissues, the development of new crop plants, and the remediation of hundreds of years of overexploiting the environment. But these potentials cannot be realized, or are being severely distorted, as biomedical innovation is privatized.
Consider the implications for our food supply. The W. R. Grace Co. holds patents on genetically modified cotton and soybeans. The patents mean that they control the use and growth of these plant varieties. A farmer purchasing the plants cannot take the seeds and plant them again, or give them to a neighbor. At present, this does not seem serious, since there are a large number of varieties of soybeans which are not patented.
But the long-term strategy of the industry involves the replacement of the natural strains by the patented, genetically engineered strains. This is easy if, for example, the patented strains are resistant to some pest or pesticide. Either the fear of these threats or their actuality leads to the widespread replacement of the natural strains by the engineered strains. The long-term result is the development of corporate control not just of the distribution of food, but of primary production. These are the conditions needed to sharply increase the price of food, creating superprofits for the corporations and hunger for millions.
A related process drives the pharmaceutical industry. Insulin for diabetics has been produced for decades by cutting the pancreas out of the carcasses of cattle and hogs, dicing them up, and extracting the insulin. With the advent of genetic engineering, the gene for insulin was spliced into bacteria. Now a single Eli Lilly factory in Indianapolis produces enough human insulin to provide for all diabetics needing it in the United States.
The bacteria synthesizing the insulin are grown in giant tanks, like those used to make beer. It is produced at very low cost, but sold at high prices. This ability to extract superprofits comes from the extension of the patent system to organisms and their components. The patents enable Lilly to prevent other institutions, including non-profits, from producing insulin. If the production was publicly owned, insulin would be available at a far lower cost.
Even more important, the profit extracted from the sale of insulin depends upon millions of people getting sick from diabetes. As long as the profit system drives therapy, powerful forces are at work to keep modern biomedical science from discovering or revealing the true causes of the disease, which would allow us to prevent diabetes.
The discovery that mutations in the two recently identified "breast cancer" genes increase susceptibility to cancer might have led to a sharply increased effort to identify the carcinogens in the human ecosystem that are causing these mutations. But the monopoly profits available through the extension of the patent systems to genes depends on selling people the patented product. Myriad Pharmaceutical, which owns the patents on the "breast cancer" genes, is marketing a screening test for $2,400 that provides a limited amount of information of limited use to women as to whether some damage has already accumulated in these genes.
The generation of an adult sheep from one cell of another adult opens up the specter of human cloning: producing individuals not from the union of the egg and sperm, but from transplanting an adult cell into an egg lacking the egg's original instructions. If the manipulated egg grew into a full human, it would be genetically identical to the donor of the cell. Such cloning transforms humans into commodities, and devalues the relationship of humans to each other and their culture.
To be human is not the simple summation of genetic, biochemical or physiological processes. Consciousness and knowledge do not exist in our genes; they emerge out of the interaction between individuals and human society. Humanity has left behind the stage in social development -- chattel slavery -- in which humans were treated as commodities.
The corporate pressure to patent life forms needs to be reversed. In Europe, India and South America, significant social movements have slowed the process. Tens of thousands of Indian farmers demonstrated against the granting of patents on the Neem tree, an important local food source, to W. R. Grace Co. The European Parliament has resisted pressure to accept gene patents. Here in the United States, a small but significant campaign is developing to call upon Congress to return to the original sense of the patent laws, and exclude living creatures, their parts and components.
Jonathan King is available to speak through the People's Tribune Speakers Bureau -- email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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