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
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
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
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
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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