s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 17 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Worldwide Green

European Parliament Surrenders to Corporate Pressure

by Stephen Emmott, Biotechnology Coordinator, Green Group in the European Parliament

In November 1989, the European Commission published a proposal for a Directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions (the Life Patents Directive). In March 1995 the document was rejected by the European Parliament -- killing it off. Later that year it rose from the dead and was resubmitted by the Commission. In May 1998 it finally received Parliamentary approval and came into force at the end of July. There are some significant changes between the first and the final texts but the substance remains the same-virtually unrestricted patenting of animals, plants, cells and genes, including parts of the human body, in Europe.

By giving its approval, the European Parliament (EP) ignored the numerous voices that warned against this legislation-those of the World Medical Association, the World Health Organization, many patient-support groups, farmers unions, plant and animal breeders, religious leaders, developing countries who fear "biopiracy," environmental campaigners and animal welfare organizations.

"The European Parliament has unfortunately joined the US crusade to allow for patents on virtually anything that lives."

The detailed story of what happened between November 1989 and May 1998 will one day fill a book, but the essence of it is that the EP, the only supposedly pan-European democratically-elected political institution, lost its nerve in the face of an all-out lobby campaign by the biotech industries, led by the pharmaceutical giant, SmithKline Beecham. "The European Parliament clearly placed commercial interests over ethical values" Magda Aelvoet MEP, Co-President of the Green Group in the EP said after the final vote. Her colleague, Claudia Roth, MEP noted that "The European Parliament has now voted for a piece of legislation which has grave defects concerning the protection of human dignity, animal welfare and the genetic resources of the Third World."

The immediate consequences are that biopiracy-the unauthorized patenting of genetic resources taken from developing countries by mighty Western multinationals and institutions-will not now be controlled and thus the expropriation of resources which often belong to the poorest countries in the world will continue. Animal welfare will not be guaranteed. There are bans on patenting human cloning and human embryos but these are poorly defined and will be wide open for exploitation by clever patent lawyers.

Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN commented "The European Parliament has unfortunately joined the US crusade to allow for patents on virtually anything that lives. Today is a black day in Europe's history. Farmers in Europe will be prevented from saving patented seed from several important crops for even their own use, although seed saving and seed exchange are the basis of the crop diversity that humankind-including biotechnology companies-rely upon."

The Greens, who have led the opposition to this legislation for more than 10 years, are now actively considering what legal action can be taken to expose the internal contradictions in the directive and to challenge it on the grounds that it conflicts with international treaty laws which have completely different patent rules.

Direct Action by Green MEPs

from A-INFOS NEWS SERVICE http://www.ainfos.ca/

It's slightly unusual for European Members of Parliament (MEPs) to resort to direct action to make their point, but on May 12, 1998 the Greens, dressed in pirate costumes, unfurled Jolly Roger flags and banners inside the Strasbourg plenary saying, "Stop Bio-piracy!" The incident-to mark the second reading of the European Life Patents Directive-caused consternation, with one member declaring to the chairperson, "This ship has been taken over by pirates. Will the chairman get rid of them."

The decision gives the go-ahead for the privatization of life in Europe. Human genes, embryos and body parts will become corporate property along with animals and plants, including entire species. Already, under current stricter rules, human umbilical cord blood cells have been patented by US company Biocyte and the application for the cloning process that created "Dolly" covers all mammals including humans.

As well as the obvious ethical implications of patenting human and animal genetic material for "medical" purposes, the freedom to patent plant species could, in a short space of time, wreak havoc with the lives of small-scale farmers. Already Nestle's L'Oreal has patented the South Pacific ceremonial plant Kava, for use in reducing hair loss, while India has reacted furiously to news that Basmati rice has been patented in the US by RiceTec.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | S/R 17 Contents