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Welcome to the greatest sale on Earth: the gene pool

By Julian Cribb - posted Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Suppose you discovered that someone was quietly stealing your home, brick by brick. And when you found out and wanted them back, you found it was a big foreign company backed by an army of lawyers - and it wanted you to pay $1,000 a brick.

Well, it’s happening. Now. Worldwide. Something that belongs to the entire human race is being quietly filched from beneath our noses with the aim of selling it back to us at much inflated prices at some future point. It’s the biggest real estate scam in history.

Around the world thousands of genes, from humans, plants, animals and microorganisms are quietly being prospected and patented by a handful of wealthy corporates, mainly in the US and Europe. These are genes that have probably been around on the planet for millions if not billions of years. They are products of nature and were certainly not invented by the companies that now lay claim to them.


The genes will mainly be used in medical diagnostics, drugs and foods and sold back to society at inflated prices. If you have a suspected breast cancer and can’t afford the latest gene test, tough luck: that’s the point of a major lawsuit now running in the US. Remember the 25 million people who died in Africa before the drug companies were shamed into releasing low-cost anti-AIDS drugs? It’s the same shabby deal. Pay up - or die.

Companies have a right to patent any product that they have genuinely invented that can be justifiably shown to be novel, and to recoup their effort and investment. But wandering around the planet patenting things that occur in nature on the pretext that they are “inventions” because they been removed from their natural environments is another matter. Imagine if they decide next to patent gold, or iron, or aluminium. Or oxygen. Or sunlight. Or a tree. The logic is identical.

Of great concern is the patenting of genes that go into GM food crops. Since most governments - including Australia’s - have steadily abandoned agricultural science over the past 30 years, the patenting of key genes in wheat, rice, corn, barley and other important crops will eventually make these grains the private property of a handful of corporations. The free varieties bred by public research institutes will gradually disappear, as they become vulnerable to changing pests, diseases and climate. Then it will be exactly the same: I own the wheat you eat - pay up or starve.

There is something so obscene about this process that it almost defies description. A handful of companies, supported by an army of American and now Australian lawyers and, indeed, enthusiastically supported by agencies of the Australian government, are preparing to rip off your human heritage as hard as they can go.

A large proportion of Australia’s species are found nowhere else on earth, meaning that some of their genes are unique to this continent. Yet they too are being prospected and may be patented in this genetic goldrush - and both Aboriginal and other Australian people will soon begin to lose free access to their benefits.

There is an irony here. If you are caught at the airport with an Australian python down your Y-fronts, two parrots up your sleeve, a valuable fossil in your briefcase and some Aboriginal rock art in your luggage, government officials will throw the book at you. But if you show interest in patenting our genetic heritage, a platoon of bureaucrats and lawyers will line up to help you nick a piece of Australia from the Australians.


There is a larger issue at stake here. Humanity faces six major crises this century: resource scarcity, the food crisis, climate change, global pollution, pandemic disease and poverty. These can only be solved by sharing scientific knowledge, including genes, with everyone who needs it. But if the knowledge is exclusive to a tiny handful of the world’s 7 billion people, it won’t be put to work for the public good - only for profit. And the rest of us will have to pay up - or face the consequences.

In the Indian subcontinent in the late 1960-70s there was a food disaster: tens of millions of people were starving. In the nick of time international scientists delivered high-yielding crops that dramatically improved food security, and the crisis passed. These grains were given free to people who desperately needed them. What would have happened if the grains were owned by entities that refused to release them except at unaffordable prices?

The bad news is that today there is a worldwide race on among large biotech firms to patent any genes that will enable crops to adapt to climate change. This will give them a stranglehold over the ability of humanity to cope with the biggest food threat in its history. CSIRO research shows clearly that, without adaptation, Australia will no longer grow enough food to feed its enlarged population by the mid-century, and will have to rely on imports. That’s if any imports are available by then.

Australia is poised, in the coming months, to take a momentous decision affecting all our futures - whether to endorse the plunder of the world’s gene pool by a handful of corporates, or to give humanity free and open access to what nature provides. Some of our politicians and bureaucrats are so far in thrall to these corporates and their legal advisers that the final decision is in grave doubt. It may ultimately favour the corporates, against the interests of Australians.

This is not about patenting and IP, which are absolutely fine if you have invented something genuinely new and original out of your own creative abilities. It is about whether anyone has a right to stake a claim to the ownership of a naturally-occurring gene or substance present in you or me, or in any of the species that have evolved on this planet millions of years before the words “patent”, “money" or “real estate” were invented.

We either stop the gene scam now - or pay the price.

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First published in the Canberra Times on March 10, 2010.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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