Human Traffic

Just as predicted, new laws have allowed corporations to seize our genes

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 28th October 1999.

If today’s intellectual property laws had been in force during the 15th Century, British researchers have pointed out, Colombus could have patented America. The explorers racing to discover the 21st Century’s new continent of knowledge, the uncharted inner kingdom of the human genome, have their eyes on riches which the old pirate navigators could only have dreamt of: they can obtain a legal monopoly on everything they encounter.

In 1995, MEPs defied the European Commission by rejecting its Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions. Doctors, researchers and patient groups had argued that patenting genes would make the diagnosis and treatment of disease more expensive, laboratories more secretive and scientists less adventurous: they would be disinclined to look for new cures if someone else owned the genes on which they based.

Labour members of the UK parliament signed an early day motion supporting the European Parliament’s decision and urging “the European Commission to reassess its policy on biotechnology and genetic engineering to ensure proper respect for human life”. Thirteen of these MPs have since become ministers.

In 1997, the Commission re-submitted its directive. The new draft proposed that “An element isolated from the human body … including the sequence or partial sequence of a gene, may constitute a patentable invention, even if the structure of that element is identical to that of a natural element.”

The directive was supported by a massive corporate lobby and several European governments. Britain’s was by far the most aggressive. It argued that companies would be able to use the new law to patent the technologies surrounding genetic engineering, but not the genes themselves. Without “a favourable climate for investment, based on the security of a firm legal framework”, British-based companies, it warned, would flee Europe for the United States and Japan.

The directive would ensure that EU patent provisions were “harmonised” with those of the United States, as a step towards the global regime for which the big biotech companies had been lobbying. None of the ministers who opposed the bill in opposition raised a squeak of protest. One of them, Kim Howells, became responsible for ensuring that British law was compatible with the directive. The bill’s critics, the government maintained, were “scare-mongering” and “hysterical”.

At length, the European Parliament succumbed to the multi-million pound assault on its intellect, and passed the re-drafted directive. On September 1st this year, the bill became European law. The rest of the story hardly needs relating. An American company, Celera Genetics, has done precisely what the bill’s opponents predicted, and staked a claim to a great chunk of the human genome. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have begged Celera to re-consider its application, and Celera has chosen to ignore them. The blueprints of human life will become its private property.

It will, if the British and American governments have their way, be able to pursue its claims throughout the world. By January 1st 2000, the signatories to the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade must implement its “Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS) provisions. TRIPS came about, according to James Enyart, a senior employee at Monsanto, after “industry identified a major problem for international trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete proposal, and sold it to our own and other governments”.

Both India and the Organisation of African Unity have decided to oppose the TRIPS provisions granting patents on life, on the basis that they legalise the theft of their biological resources. They are demanding that the legislation is re-negotiated. They will fight corporate attempts to force the rest of the world into line with Europe and America by extending global property rights to the human genome during the world trade talks starting in Seattle next month. India and the OAU will be opposed at every turn by the two countries, Britain and America, which claim to be contesting corporate attempts to monopolise humanity.

In the past, governments sought to protect their fleets from piracy. Today they arm the pirates and offer them legal protection, arguing that if they failed to do so the buccanners would sail away and the native cut-throats would lose their jobs. None of this, in the age of corporate government, should be surprising. What does astonish me is that Blair and Clinton should profess themselves nonplussed when the pirates use the weapons they have been given to open fire.