Saturday, March 9, 2013

And In Breaking News

Self replicating little parcels of carrots ready to be planted.

There is a case that has been heard by the US Supreme Court, Bowman vs. Monsanto and we are awaiting their decision. I, for one, am not hopeful that they will take the correct stance, which, of course would be to eviscerate the patent on seeds altogether. The patent on seeds is immoral and unethical and sets a horrid precedent: the forces in favor of patents on seeds have no idea of the line they have crossed in this matter.

In fact, neither do the Supreme Court Justices and most of the American public, but it is clear to those of us whose life's work is with seeds, this is a horrible transgression onto the patenting of life. In fact, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked,"Why in the world, would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?" leaving me to hope he was just having a momentary loss of memory and doesn't really believe that people did exactly that since agriculture began!

I had the opportunity to be with Vandana Shiva this last week and hear her cogent answers, marveling at her ability to synthesize answers that not only answered the question, but enlightened the listener to points they had not yet considered in the question. She told us about the 200,000 varieties of rice in India – all bred by peasants, different rice varieties for different fields for example. But an observant rice farmer, peasant or not, sees a lot of rice and a keen observer will find different varieties – in fact, it was Luther Burbank's keen eye (not magical genius) that gave the world the Burbank Potato, still the most popular baking potato in the world today over 100 years later. He spotted one potato plant with some flowers that produced some seeds (not a common thing, potatoes are almost always propagated by cutting the tubers into chunks and planting them, rarely by seed). He harvested the seeds and a seedling from those seeds became the famous potato that keeps Idaho on the map.

Prior to the 1950's, almost all plant breeding in the US was done by farmers – with the expectation that they would profit very little from the improvement of seed except by better crops. The idea of patenting life was abhorrent to them, even if they wished to make more profit on their new line of seeds. The lack of patents did not slow down the process of finding new and better plants - and this is an important point the bio-tech corporations wish to ignore - we never needed patents before them and their derelict technology!

But business empires are not built on 'what we used to do,' so once the chemical company decided it wanted to control the food supply, they moved aggressively to get our government to protect their seed varieties with patents. This is the genesis of our current situation. It wasn't enough that chemical companies wanted to make money, they wanted guarantees that they could make money on a scale not seen in agriculture since the beginning of agriculture. The old saw, “How do you make a million dollars farming? Start with two million,” could be amended to, “How do you make a million dollars farming? Start as a chemical company and buy yourself a government.”

Even intelligent people argue for patent enforcement because if they let replication occur in seeds, then what happens to software, recording and so on. This is not a valid question and the questioner is not thinking the thing through. Rolling the law back on seed patenting would not in any way be applicable to these other patents – the difference is obvious. The question really should be, if we allow patents on seed, does this mean that a man should patent his own sperm and a woman her eggs before a bio-tech company does it? Sperm and eggs are more closely similar to a seed than a recording! A seed is LIFE. A recording is NOT. Software is NOT.

In fact, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a case about patenting human genetic material April 5th. Now I can see scenarios happening that just a few years ago would have been seen as crazy. What if I am given a genetically modified cure for Alzheimer’s. Is my body now a bio-tech company property? What if I have children and they, of course, inherit the cure? Are they owned by the bio-tech company? Do they have to buy a license? After all, like seeds, people are self-replicating!

Let us be clear: a life cannot be patented regardless if that has a deleterious effect on commerce. It does not matter.

Mind you, only those who do not see the difference between a baby and a recording or a seed and a software program imagine that one has anything to do with another.

Patenting life – any life – is a line we should NEVER have crossed. Now that we've done it, we need to undo it as quickly as possible. It is morally offensive and moves us towards re-establishing human slavery.

You'll never get that with software or a recording.