Can democracy cope with biotechnology?

by GRAIN | 16 Jan 1999
TITLE: Can democracy cope with biotechnology? AUTHOR: Alan Simpson, Member of Parliament (UK) PUBLICATION: Splice, Vol 5, Issue 2 DATE: January 1999 SOURCE: The Genetics Forum, details below. URL:


by Alan Simpson Member of Parliament

Developments in biotechnology are raising many concerns - ecological, social, ethical - but what Alan Simpson MP sees as the most insidious result of this biotech age is it's threat to democracy.

The threat biotechnology poses to democracy may not be immediately apparent. Threats to democracy usually come in the form of out of favour dictators, not the test-tube. But I will argue that the threat is real.

However, it first needs to be seen in the wider context of an economic globalisation, already heading towards collapse. Fundamentally, the question is whether civic democracy is compatible with global deregulation, and whether the WTO's intellectual property rights' for biotechnology discoveries will take us all into an era of corporate feudalism.

The world is being spun around by big corporations who have an ability to produce more goods than the world can consume. And so, they focus their efforts on consuming each other, along with any smaller elements that get in the way. They do this with the approval of government policy, and international treaties, which are designed to create a world fit for the corporations to dominate. This is an unsustainable state of affairs, and it takes on an even more ominous dimension when you look at the world of biotechnology.

There are two separate aspects to consider:

1.The nature of scientific change, and 2.The ownership of that change.

First, there is no doubt that the rate of change is breathtaking. In itself, this distorts our view about the nature of the world. We are in real danger of believing industry claims about science as a world of magic cures; that, somehow, modified genes will end all illness; or modified crops will grow in any conditions, resistant to all blight. That is arrant nonsense. It is a fundamental aspect of life on earth, that nature has never given us the gift of infallibility.

Our ecosystem carries no guarantees of a world free from droughts, floods or crop failures. And by and large, the world is kept in balance by dint of this diversity. The strength of this diversity is that not all varieties of a crop get destroyed, and not all of a population succumbs to a particular illness. In general, nature also provides access to cures for the ills that it throws up.

Biotechnology is in danger of simply destroying our ability to apply this common sense to common science. And politicians are amongst the least able to grasp this. We are either invited into a knee-jerk reaction 'against' it, on almost anti-science terms; or towards an uncritical 'yes', as part of the thoroughly modern (and pliable) parliament that industry demands. In the past we always used to be guided by the precautionary principle, that if we were not clear about the consequences of a new drug or product, public safety would over-ride commercial exploitation as the guiding principle. Now we are being driven to accept change at a much faster rate. Not because it is safer, but because some of the corporations who own patents stand to make large sums of money if they can be in the arena before their competitors. This takes me on to the second point.

My contention is that the rush into biotechnology, through patents, is, in itself, anti-research, anti-science and anti-democratic. It breaks with the traditions of research being done in pursuit of a cure, not a fortune; of farmers saving seeds, propagating plants and sharing them as protection against the larger, unpredictable forces of nature. These cures and the seeds have always been part of the global commons. Patenting has distorted our understanding of this.

We are now invited to accept that unless patents are obtained, all medical and agricultural research will cease. Biotech companies have been pushing the notion of 'no patent - no cure'. Yet this is an absolute myth. They claim they need patents to protect the massive investment costs of research. Yet if you analyse the way they fund the research, you find that most of the costs, either directly or ultimately, are paid by you and I as taxpayers.

It may cost billions of pounds to undertake research. But government gives companies 100% write off against tax for research costs; we give them 25% write off per year for ancillary costs; we put huge amounts of direct public grant aid into research institutes; we offer generous tax breaks over extended periods of time; and then we guarantee monopoly profits as companies sell us back the products we have subsidised all along the process. This is even before we put a cost to the voluntary contributions which come from the public in the form of their family history, medical records, blood and tissue samples, all given freely as part of the research effort.

It is a myth that the industry carries all the cost and all the risk, and therefore needs to be protected. But despite my antipathy towards patents, I am actually in favour of an experiment; one in which patents are allowed, but only on cures and treatments derived without any public contributions at all, and financed entirely by the company that wants the patent. I doubt there would be much of a queue.

The chase after patents is also damaging research. Collaboration between scientists is being reduced as they become fearful of sharing ideas. There is a new fear about someone getting there first. (S)he who holds the patent controls the routes of future research. Royalties and license fees will determine who can play the game. This is anti-democratic in the most profound terms. It destroys the basis of a democratic research community which shares ideas and can act in partnership with the public, not live parasitically off it.

It is also anti-democratic in prompting scientists to view the building blocks of life as things to be patented. This is at its most grotesque in the bio-piracy currently taking place in less developed countries. Traditional medicinal plants, and the recipes of cures have been bought for as little as $5 in southern India. Blood samples have been taken from isolated populations and patents taken out on their cell-lines, in the belief they may hold clues to future medical breakthroughs. None of these are taken altruistically. They are taken because biotech companies see this as the short-cut to massive profits.

How can they presume the right to patent someone else's cell-line, their herbs, roots or traditional medicine? We are seeing a new era of colonialism; presuming a right to take ownership of people's very existence. This is the colonisation of the soul. When we did this in previous centuries, it was called slavery. Then we landed on new shores, and declared 'terra nullius', empty lands, allowing conquerors and prospectors to set up shop wherever they wished, ignoring indigenous people's most basic human rights. Today's research companies presume the right to take patents out on fundamental aspects of nature, and ought to be asked how different they are from conquering armies who believed they could colonise land and own people. The patent is mightier than the sword in today's era of biopiracy.

I see no reason why we couldn't have a different approach to this, picking up on a phrase that Tony Blair was once so keen to use, the idea of 'stakeholders'. I am a strong believer in stakeholding. We all have a stake in research funded from the public purse. So why don't we have a new concept of 'public patents' - goods permanently held in public ownership with guaranteed common access rights, and which treat the products, whether crops or cures, quite differently from the process of inventing machines. It would simply define research into our common heritage as part of the global commons.

We ought to learn to value the holding of these public patents as a cornerstone of democracy itself. Once you slip patents into the domain of private ownership, you create fiefdoms whose principal interests are to destroy any notion of democratic rights and common ownership. The global companies who fiercely defend the rights of private ownership of our biodiversity, do so in order to expropriate private profit, to undermine democracy and to enslave people.

This, I think, is the real challenge of the next century. If we do not address it, I am not sure that today's economic or political systems will themselves survive. If this is so, then the biggest crime of our time is to remain silent and inactive.

Alan Simpson MP is the Labour member for Nottingham South.

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Author: GRAIN
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