2nd, December 2012
Table of Contents
Seed Patenting – An Overview.. 3
Global Corporation – The Case of Monsanto. 4
Other Global Actors. 5
The US Government 5
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 6
Oppositional Movement Represented by Opposition Activist, Ms. Vandala Shiva. 7
Works Cited. 12
Seed Patenting – An Overview
Seed patenting rose because of the numerous technological advances by the biotechnology companies in the field of agriculture. These companies depend on the protection of their patents, and continuously struggle to ensure the extension of what they can patent. The passing of the Plant Patent Act in 1930 has seen a series of amendments, which finally paved way for the acceptance of organism patenting. Being part of organism patenting, seed patenting continues to raise many controversies today. However, seed patenting in the US and other countries is allowed to primarily serve the purpose of motivation to inventors. It is argued that without seed patenting, further inventions would be limited. Therefore, seed patenting is a way through which companies or individuals make profits from their patents, through fining and prosecuting those found guilty of infringing on their patents. However, the controversy of this whole issue lies in the aspect of its legal, moral, and ethical implications on different players in society.
Farmers are the most affected parties of seed patenting by companies, as they are denied equal access to seed varieties, thus limiting their freedom in the agriculture practice. Seed patenting generally raises many issues based on ethics and morals. However, most views opposed to seed patenting cite its support for a materialistic conception of life. It is as well unethical as allows for a biased human control of information and organisms that occur naturally in the environment, which are a common heritage. Additionally, seed patenting acts against plant welfare as plants are subjected to simultaneous researches.
Global Corporation – The Case of Monsanto
Monsanto is considered the biggest global agricultural company. It embraces genetic engineering and makes many profits from its patents. Today, Monsanto boasts of over twenty products that can be bought on its website. Among these products, is the genetically modified corn. Monsanto, among other agricultural companies in the US, are allowed to patent their seeds, in addition to other living organisms. Monsanto has fully taken advantage of this US patenting bill to come up with a whopping 647 biotech plant patents. Considering its investment in seed patents, Monsanto has hired specific employees and set aside a special budget to address its patent issues, including investigating farmers who infringe on its patents. After their development of a new organism and modified seeds, Monsanto patents the products with immediate effect to avoid them being used without extensive contracting. By using private investigators, Monsanto is able to trace such farmers after soil tests are conducted on their farms for gene detection (Shuster, 2012).
The seed patents play a big role in Monsanto’s business as the company makes a lot of money from lawsuits and fines against farmers who are found guilty of seed patent infringement. Recently, Monsanto is involved in a court case over the aspect of exhaustion in its patents. The accused argued that like other patents subject to exhaustion doctrine, Monsanto’s seed patent should as well apply only to the original seeds and not the replicated ones. However, Monsanto emphasizes that it owns patent rights in a genetically modified plant (Shuster, 2012). Additionally, the fact that it is a self-replicating living organism is irrelevant because the patent rights are independently applicable to all generations of the seeds embodying the invention, and therefore, any farmer who creates a new generation of genetically modified seeds, without an authorization from Monsanto, directly infringes on Monsanto’s seed patent and is liable to prosecution. This means that Monsanto excludes exhaustion in their patents. Nonetheless, the main reason Monsanto gives for its seed patenting is the profit they get from their patents, which serves as an incentive for them to further develop more seed technology, which farmers continue to use (Shuster, 2012).
To determine the morality and ethics in this case of Monsanto, different moral and ethics frameworks such as social justice framework can be used. According to Young, (1990, p.25) when social justice is present, there is no oppression or monopolization by institutions. Therefore, elements of monopolization and oppression must be viewed under the social justice lenses. The case of Monsanto does not allow for the distributive paradigm between farmers and the company, yet distributive paradigm is the pillar of the social justice theory. According to this framework, there must be a morally proper way in which benefits and burdens are equally distributed among members of the society (Rawls 1999). In the case of seed patenting, the biochemical companies enjoy all the benefits, while leaving the burdens to the farmers. In contrast, the deontology framework of ethics does not base on the consequences of actions, rather, moral judgment lies in the type of actions and motives of the actors. Therefore, the outcome of one’s actions cannot be used to evaluate one’s morality since consequences are not pre-planned by people (Rawls 1999). Therefore in the case of Monsanto, the consequences of its seed patenting, especially to the farmers is overlooked as this is beyond their control. Monsanto just patented its seeds, but did not plan for this action to result in adverse consequences on the side of farmers. Therefore, this framework justifies Monsanto’s position on seed patenting.
Other Global Actors
The US Government
At the end of 2010, it was quite evident that there was going to be a change of course in the whole issue of seed patenting, which continues to raise many controversies (“Nature” 2010). This came after the US government declared to act towards limiting organism patenting in the country, hence ending the support organism patenting received from the government. This decision of the US government based on the argument that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented, as patents are only meant for independent innovations and discoveries (Ikuta 2009). Therefore, modification or alteration of a gene to a new form is not innovation, and does not guarantee patenting. Most biotechnology companies reacted to this government move by claiming that this decision was going to affect the companies adversely, considering that their researches get motivation from the profits earned from the seed patents. However, this government decision would not apply to all gene patents, as specific unique cases would be exempted. Nonetheless, this came as a surprise to all biotechnology companies, as they had enjoyed the support of the government in issues concerning their gene patents (“Nature” 2010).
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
FAO’s panel of eminent expert on ethics in food and agriculture held their final session in 2007, where they addressed vital issues in global agriculture practice. The report of this session was released in 2009, and bears important insights as it covers a variety of issues, including both ethical and moral, in the food and agriculture sector (“FAO” 2009). Concerning organism patenting, the panel observed that most nations through their laws have realized the relationship between organism patenting and morality. The panel supported the fact that these two factors, patents and morality, are always in a conflict. Quoting one of their articles, it is attributed that the TRIPS agreement allows members of the WTO not to patent inventions that are aimed at protecting; morality in a country, economic exploitation, human life, plant life, health, or the environment. Additionally, this agreement is against the patenting of living organisms. The panel argued that organism patenting is morally wrong and unacceptable. This is because this case allows for IPRs to be attached to organisms occurring naturally in the environment, and which are not necessarily invented (“FAO” 2009). Similarly, the panel thought that organism patenting leads to the development of different private monopolies, which negatively serve to hinder the public from freely enjoying the naturally occurring organisms in the environment. They generally term organism patenting as immoral, unethical, and unacceptable, and cannot be justified in whichever case. Conclusively, the panel agreed that FAO is responsible for talking different governments into assessing cautiously the ethical and moral implications of organism patenting in their countries. FAO is also charged with the dissemination of knowledge and awareness about the TRIPS Agreement in order to abate cases that arise because of organism patenting as this involves morally unacceptable subject matter, which is plants and animals (“FAO” 2009). According to this panel report, it was recommended that a series of ethical reviews be conducted on the issue of organism patenting. This involves cases where an undesirable dissemination of genes are claimed in patent applications, which may have adverse effects on the development and sustainability of agriculture. Additionally, if the acquired patents lead to development of technologies that are lethal to all organisms, as well as agricultural practices, then this is subject to ethical review. Ethical reviews will also apply to patented products that were discovered in nature and were not invented by the patent holder. Genetic patenting of any form as well as those patents involving variety of plants and prevent use of these plants by the public, will also be reviewed. Finally, ethical and moral reviews must be applied on patents that do not allow farmers to save and re-use seeds as it was practiced in the past (“FAO” 2009).
Oppositional Movement Represented by Opposition Activist, Ms. Vandala Shiva
Different environmentalist groups and individuals have expressed their outcry on the issue of seed patenting. Dr. Vandana Shiva is an environmentalist, who advocates for the revamping of the global agriculture and food systems (Shiva 2012). She is renowned for her intellectual contribution to issues regarding intellectual property rights, biodiversity, bioethics, biotechnology, genetic engineering, among other environment related fields. She uses her literature and activist campaigns as a medium of disseminating this information.
On the controversy surrounding seed patenting, Vandana holds that seed is the primary source of life for humans and other organisms, as it is holds the position of the producer in the food chain. In her view, seed patenting hands over the control of seeds from the hands of everyone else to the hands of specific individuals or groups. This translates in putting the freedom of people, the control of their food, and control of their lives into the care of a different person (Shiva 2012).
Vandana is greatly opposed to Monsanto’s unethical and unjust agricultural practices, including seed patenting. She attributes seed monopoly to a lethal practice that has caused the deaths of close to 250 000 Indian farmers through suicide. Vandana also points out the unethical actions of Monsanto in contaminating farmers’ seeds and crops, then suing them later for infringing on its patents. Seed patenting and genetic engineering has resulted in multiple problems today, which need to be addressed globally through a collective stoppage to seed patenting (Shiva 2012). Vandana urges more people who realize the seriousness of this matter to be part of the Global Movement on Seed Freedom. This way, collective efforts may pave way for the new policies that will condemn seed patenting, and give back the freedom and future of people from the seed patent owners (Shiva 2012). The utilitarianism framework can be used to describe the morality of seed patenting as echoed by Shiva. This framework is based on happiness and pain, and uses these as lenses for measuring morality of actions (MacIntyre 2007). Good actions that are moral must have happiness as their outcome. Both the actor experiences this happiness and the other parties involved. If the actor only experiences the happiness and other parties are hurt, then the action in perspective is described as an immoral act, since it does not lead to collective happiness (MacIntyre 2007). The fact that farmers are hurt, to the point of some of them committing suicide because of the adverse effects of seed patenting is a proof enough that seed patenting is a hedonistic practice. It only takes into account the “happiness” of the biochemical corporations, while neglecting and exploiting the farmers.
Apart from the FAO, and the US, Government, another global player opposed to organism patenting is the Greenpeace, which is an international non-profit organization, interested in the global environmental aspects. With its headquarters in Amsterdam, Greenpeace has the goals that the earth remains capable of nurturing life in all biodiversity, and increase awareness on important issues such as deforestation, global warming, among other environmental issues on the globe. Greenpeace conducts researches, and is involved in lobbying, as well as direct actions for attainment of goals (“Greenpeace” 2012).
Greenpeace links genetic engineering in plant breeding with increased seed monopolies, noting that companies today are taking advantage of seed patenting to corporately control agriculture. Greenpeace relates seed patenting to the soaring seed prices and unjust restrictions of farmers. Greenpeace criticizes Monsanto for its dominance through the enforcement of its many patent rights. Seed patenting results in unethical issues as more farmers across the world face prosecution by international companies on seed patent infringement. Monsanto is widely criticized as it makes a lot of money from its patents. Nonetheless, Greenpeace is opposed to seed patenting because of the negative effects this has on farmers. These include monopolization of the seed market, farmers affected negatively in the course of patent litigation, reduction in the choices of farmers and their access to genetic resources, as well as the skyrocketing of seed prices. (“Greenpeace” 2012). Using the virtue ethics framework, the element of ethics in seed patenting can be evaluated. Unlike other moral frameworks, virtue ethics is based on the actor, and not actions. Here, the consequences of actions, the ethical duties, and rules are all overlooked, while attention is paid to the virtue, or moral character of the actor. Apart from the rightness or wrongness of actions, virtue ethics guides on the kinds of virtues people need to uphold. Virtue ethics strongly advocates for justice (MacIntyre 2007: MacIntyre 1996). Therefore, it is considered that Monsanto acts unjustly by prosecuting farmers and treating them unjustly due to its monopolization of the seed company. In fact, the act of monopolization itself is not a virtue but a vice, therefore this renders seed patenting as a non-virtuous practice.
The negative effects of seed patenting in agriculture today call for immediate changes in the sector. Since farmers are the worst hit, governments should amend the patent laws so that they consider both the farmers and biotechnology farmers equally. Farmers should not be punished for GMO contamination of their soils, as this is beyond their control. Additionally, farmers need to be compensated by biotechnology companies in case of GMO contamination of their previously GMO-free soils.
The environmentalist groups should collaborate in increasing people’s awareness of the seed-patenting situation. People then should be encouraged to use the more ecological past methods of farming. Past farming methods allow for the evolution and dissemination of agronomic knowledge, unlike the modern IPR system, which leads to personalization and profitability of information. Alternatively, the re-adoption of seed saving and seed sharing is important (Ikuta 2009). This enables the organic co-evolution of organisms and culture. This shift from chemical farming to organic farming will save farmers from exploitation by biotechnology companies.
Seed patenting, as seen is unethical and unacceptable as it gives more restrictions and less benefits to farmers. Compared to other alternatives, the GMOs, which result in organism patents, are harmful to environment and life. Seed patenting is unethical because it does not result in equal development in agriculture, instead; it only leads to the economic prosperity of monopolies, at the expense of farmers. Monsanto is regarded as greedy for money and power; therefore, maybe it is time people realized that the agricultural sector is in dire need of a revolution today. Monsanto continues to grow at an unimaginable rate, monopolizing the agricultural industry, and maneuvering the government to face limited regulations in their “inventions.” This keeps harming the environment and creates new health problems. People should be wise enough to appreciate and lobby for the technological development that will not ruin them in the end. If appropriate measures are not taken to address this situation, the global health and future will be in stake.
“FAO” 2009, Report of the Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture (Fourth Session,
26-28 November, 2007) Retrieved 2 December, 2012 <http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/i2043e/i2043e.pdf >
“Greenpeace” 2012, Genetic Engineering Enforces Corporate Control of Agriculture,
Retrieved 2 December, 2012 <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/agr
“Nature” 2010, US Government Wants Limits on Gene Patents, Retrieved 2 December, 2012
Ikuta, B 2009, Genetically Modified Plants, Patents, and Terminator Technology: The
Destruction of the Tradition of Seed Saving. Ohio Northern University Law Review,
MacIntyre, A 1996, A Short History of Justice, Simon & Schuster, London.
MacIntyre, A 2007, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame
Rawls, J 1999, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.
Shiva, V 2012, Seed Freedom, Retrieved 2 December, 2012
Shuster, M 2012, Seeds of exhaustion: Monsanto is coming to the United States Supreme Court,
Retrieved 2 December, 2012
Young, M 1990, Justice and Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
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