ANOTHER VIEW: Whose property is life?

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Where is it going to stop? Last week, the US government quietly patented the DNA of a man living in the remote north of Papua New Guinea. Today, the European Patent Office decides on whether to confer on Harvard University intellectual property rights in a genetically manipulated mouse. Slowly, unobtrusively, behind a dense fog of technical arguments, the laws of genetic life are being revolutionised.

The rise of the biotechnology industry over the past two decades has provided the impetus behind the change. Powerful pharmaceutical and agro- chemical companies have argued that without intellectual property protection they have no incentive to invest in genetic modifications that could save lives and enhance farming productivity. Through their influence over Western governments in the last GATT round of trade talks, these companies have created a globally enforceable intellectual property code. They are now working on overturning national legislation which prohibits the extension of that code to genetic materials, like DNA.

For these multi-billion dollar corporations the stakes are high. The world market in bio-tech products will be worth $50bn by the end of the century. Intellectual property is fast replacing capital and production as the key to top profits.

Few people deny the importance of such research to combat genetic disease. The DNA in the Papua New Guinea cells may confer immunity to carriers of the virus that causes leukaemia - hence its vast commercial potential.

Genetic property rights, in effect, provide their owners with a monopoly for up to 10 years. But what happens if corporate interests dictate that such materials be withheld from the market? Or be used to maximise profits rather than alleviate suffering? Alexander Fleming opposed the patenting of penicillin on precisely these grounds. And, more generally, do we really need faster-growing pigs and cows that provide five times more milk on Western farms which, with taxpayers' subsidies, already overproduce?

There is also the question of legitimacy. More than 90 per cent of the germ plasm used to develop high-yielding seeds in Western laboratories derive from seeds developed over centuries by peasants in the Third World. Unlike "gene-hunting" transnational companies, these peasants will be unable, under the new laws, to claim patent rights for their discoveries.

Ultimately, what is at stake is a fundamental question about human rights and ethical values. Should life be regarded as the property of all? Or can it be commercialised and commoditised by unaccountable private interests and then subjected to the arithmetic of the marketplace? It is one of the greatest moral questions facing us. It cannot be left to lawyers and corporate executives to decide.

Kevin Watkins is senior policy adviser for Oxfam

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