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
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
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
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.