New Internationalist

The Facts.

Issue 293

the facts-
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Biotechnology - the techniques of molecular biology - is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. By altering genetic make-up and moving genes between species it has the power to change the shape of our world. It is a heavily contested area, dominated by Northern corporations and governments who want to gain a foothold in a profitable industry. This is often at the expense of the peoples and the environments of the South.

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All the largest biotechnology corporations are based in the US, Europe and Japan. They are increasing in size as the industry becomes more competitive. They buy each other up and also take over the smaller companies where the cutting-edge science goes on. In 1995 more than $70 billion changed hands in just three mergers, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. The largest occurred in 1996 when Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy merged to form Novartis ­ a $27 billion union.2

Agrochemical Corporations

Genes mean moneycartoon by Paul Vernon

Biotech is big business - and big money. The same big corporations often have a stake in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, seeds and animal health. They wield power mightier than some nation-states.

Stealing the genes

From plants....

The rich world has plundered the poor one of its genetic resources and turned them into profit. The countries and peoples from which the original plant material came see few of the benefits - or the cash - derived from its use. These generally go to big corporations in the North, which can take out patents on parts and processes of plants, animals - and even humans. Estimates place an annual value of $32 million on medicinal plants from the South used by the North's pharmaceutical industry.4

[image, unknown] * California's $160-million barley crops are being protected from the lethal yellow dwarf virus by a gene plundered from Ethiopia5 - a country which in 1993 had a GNP of just $100 per person.6

* The sugar content of tomatoes in the North has been increased, producing a $5 - 8 million-a year rise in the crop's commercial value5 - thanks to a wild tomato strain found in Peru, a country which in 1993 could afford to spend a mere $28 on health per person.6

* The sugarcane industry in the south-eastern US has been saved from collapse thanks to a disease-resistant gene from a wild Asian strain of sugarcane.5


Animals...

Animals too can be patented. In 1988 the US Patent and Trademark Office issued the world's first patent on a mammal, a transgenic mouse known as the 'oncomouse' because a breast-cancer gene had been spliced into its genetic-makeup. Despite the suffering inflicted on the animal, the European Patent Office granted this patent in 1993, although it is still being challenged by non-governmental organizations. Today there are over 300 European patent applications filed on animals, though only three have so far been granted.7

And people too... [image, unknown]

Since a landmark decision in the US in the 1980s, human material too is patentable. Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable as their genes have been relatively isolated and therefore are more likely to have 'useful' properties. The Human Genome Diversity Project is a multi-million dollar scheme which aims to 'harvest' the genes of indigenous peoples.

*In 1991 cells were taken from a Guaymi woman from Panama who had leukaemia. Without her consent, the US Government filed a patent on her cell-line in 1993, effectively acquiring rights over part of her body to be used for commercial purposes.

*In 1995 the US Government filed a patent on a human cell-line of a Hagahai person from Papua New Guinea. The cell-line is potentially useful in treating adult leukaemia. It also filed patents on the cell-lines of two people from the Solomon Islands with a potential for producing vaccines. The people from whom this blood was taken knew nothing about it.

Although the above patents have now been withdrawn after huge opposition, more are in the pipeline.

How does your garden grow?

Corporations need to conduct field tests in order to check out how their new genetically engineered crops grow. This involves potential risks to local populations and to the surrounding environment, as all these tests are experiments. Thousands of such tests have been taking place since 1987, mainly in the US and Britain, sometimes in great secrecy. They have also taken place in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Thailand, where there are fewer controls.

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Foot notes:1 RAFI Communique, The Life Industry, September 1996. 2Nature Biotedchnology, Vol 14, May 1996. 3 Ricarda Steinbrecher, 'From Green to Gene Revolution', The Ecologist, Vol 26 No 6. 4 RAFI Communiqué, Biopiracy Update: A Global Pandemic, Sept/Oct 1996. 5 Mark J Plotkin, Biodiversity, National Academy Press 1988. 6 UNDP, Human Development Report, 1996. 7 Ruth McNally and Peter Wheale, 'Biopatenting and Biodiversity', The Ecologist, Vol 26 No 5 Sept/Oct 1996.

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