Opinion: Pirates of the Caribbean

By Stan Cox, Prairie Writers Circle

September 2, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary: Members of the World Trade Organization worry that their Sept. 10-14 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, might turn into a rerun of the tumultuous Seattle gathering in 1999.

To defuse one of several high-profile controversies, the United States has agreed, after much haggling, to relax pharmaceutical patents so poor countries can produce or import inexpensive generic drugs during public health emergencies.

South Africa's representative to the WTO claimed the compromise agreement would save millions of lives. But some other nations and independent aid groups said the new rules on packaging, licensing and export of generic drugs would make them too expensive for most poor patients.

"Today's deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and the Western pharmaceutical industry," said a representative of the relief agency Doctors Without Borders. "Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines."

Earlier this year, Congress connected patented drugs with patented corn and soybeans by passing President Bush’s Global AIDS Initiative. Somewhat jarringly, the new program links medical assistance for AIDS-stricken countries to their acceptance of food aid produced from genetically engineered crops.

Seed and pharmaceutical companies, which are intertwined in what they like to call the "life sciences" industry, sell many products that can be reproduced cheaply and on a huge scale. They share this problem with the software and entertainment businesses. Without governments and international bodies like the WTO to back up their patents, all of these industries could say goodbye to their hefty profits.

The stormier the world economy, the more big business insists on claiming information -- both humanity’s and nature’s -- as its own property. The fewer tangible goods that corporations are able to sell abroad, the more they depend on the sale of ideas, words, symbols, knowledge and brands. And once price tags are attached to these intangibles, sharing them is redefined as piracy.

Every year, we Americans import and consume more of the kinds of goods you can actually lay your hands on, like clothes and appliances -- and, of course, oil. Our annual balance-of-trade deficit has swollen alarmingly in the past decade to around $400 billion -- the equivalent of importing the entire economy of India every twelve months.

That deficit would be a lot bigger without the continued broadening of intellectual property rights. In the words of Michael Perelman of California State University, Chico, "Intellectual property rights have become the financial counterweight to deindustrialization (in the United States), because the revenues they generate help to balance the massive imports of material goods."

When cracking down on pirated DVDs and shoes marked with a stolen "swoosh" becomes a cornerstone of our global economic strategy, we're in trouble. And it’s downright embarrassing when the world’s only superpower tries to pay for its bloated consumption by extracting seed and medicine royalties from some of the world’s hungriest and sickest people.

The uninhibited flow of information is a long human tradition It has been crucial to seed, drug and computer companies, among others. They didn’t pull their ideas and data out of thin air. The information they call private property has its roots in taxpayer-funded research. University and government researchers, in turn, draw on centuries of ideas hatched by others. The information that nature encoded in patented genes is far more ancient.

The Constitution views patents as a way to spur creativity, not block access to the basics of life. And that distinction is becoming more crucial. The Earth’s inhabitants will face serious scarcities in the decades to come. Because of these limits on matter and energy, we must let information follow its natural tendency to move and multiply freely. To keep the planet livable, we’ll need to draw on the entire pool of human knowledge, as well as the plant, animal and microbial gene pools that, until recently, were our common inheritance.

People risk being hunted down as pirates when they share music files, save seed from patented crops or bring back a suitcase full of medicines from Mexico. But, whatever their legal status, these are strictly small-time activities. You'll find the big-time pirates operating openly starting Sept. 10 along the coast at Cancun.

Stan Cox is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. From 1984 to 1996, he was a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Recent news and research

404 Not Found
bluehost Affordable, Reliable
Web Hosting Solutions.

404 Error File Not Found

The page you are looking for might have been removed,
had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

Web Hosting provided by Bluehost.com

Stay Up-to-Date –
Sign up for our Newsletter

NewFarm.org changes daily! Don't miss out on the latest interactive features, columns and news. Sign up now for our monthly e-newsletter and stay connected.

ACTION ALERTS

•Free the meat markets! End packer ownership and stop closed-door deals

• Support Saskatchewan farmers in efforts to block GM wheat

• Stop budget cuts to conservation programs--the one's that help you pay for environmentally sound farming practices!

Share Your Stories

Are you a farmer? A consumer? Whatever story you have to tell, let it be an inspiration to others.
Share it with us now...

T H E    N E W    F A R M – R E G E N E R A T I V E    A G R I C U L T U R E    W O R L D W I D E