In the United States, the Patent Act of 1790 granted the applicant “sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used”. Over time, the spirit of the act has been defiled to an extent previously unimaginable. It took the entirety of 121 years for the number of patents filed by humankind to hit 1 million. Nowadays, it takes more or less six years for another 1 million patents to be filed. While some might argue that this is sign of rapid scientific progress, it also might be a gauge of the reduced significance of each and every single patent filed. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, in a rush to protect even minor improvements, is overburdening patent offices around the globe.
The first biological patents granted may be traced back to isolates from plants and animals that may be used for treating disorders of various kinds. It was recognized very early on that biological patents might hinder the well-being of humankind. One of such instances was the goodwill sale of the patent for insulin production to the University of Toronto for the paltry sum of half a dollar. And as expected, biological patents got out of hand pretty rapidly.
In ancient times, the village doctors extracted and used various medicinal plants for various different uses. Growing up in India, my grandmother always had an herbal remedy for pretty much every disease. One of the recurring plants that came up was neem (Azadirachta indica) which was used as a naturopathic remedy for things such as its anti-fungal properties. However, in 1995, the European Patent Office granted a patent to W. R. Grace and Company for the anti-fungal properties of neem on the grounds that there was not any prior scientific literature published in peer-reviewed journals.
There is rampant wrongful patenting of biological properties of plants especially arising from regions with a long standing tradition of herbal remedies. Such a situation in which the indigenous knowledge of the local population is used by other for profit without permission and without compensation to the originators of the natural knowledge is known is biopiracy. Another such rampant example is the instance of biopiracy of the sweetening agent brazzein which was patented as a sweetener that is 500-2000 sweeter than sugar. This is however an incorrect granting of the patent because it was common knowledge in Gabon and Cameroon that oubli berry from which this protein is extracted, is renowned for its sweetening properties. Several other instances such as the patenting of basmati rice, enola beans etc. has illustrated the inadequate nature of the present infrastructure to patent plants.
As far as genetically modified food goes, there are several arguments against its consumption. However, very many of these claims are unfounded. Genetically modified crops have changed the playing field of agriculture as we know it. Monsanto has done a commendable achievement with their RoundUp Ready crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to their herbicide RoundUp (glyphosate). However, it is observed in nature that due to evolution, strains of crops can naturally gain resistance to glyphosate. A famous instance of this is when the Columbian Government started spraying plantations of coca (the source of cocaine) as a part of their war on drugs, its rapidly emerged that the plants could (and did) evolve to grow resistant to the herbicide. In this case, those plants are in direct violation of Monsanto’s 1986 patent (US4940835) on Glyphosate resistant plants. Does that mean that these plants that are naturally less prone to the effects of glyphosate are violating a patent? There is no human being involved in the violation of this patent and thus nobody would be responsible for breaking the law in this case. Unfortunately, Mother Gaia cannot defend herself in court and this is a clear elucidation of the fact that patent protection for plats is quite a murky topic.
Furthermore, another issue with genetically modified plants is the risk of genetic uniformity. Repeated selective breeding to pass on desirable traits often leads to omission of other traits (which may be essential to the procreation of a species). With such widespread use of genetically modified frops, there is a possibility that a virus might just wipe out entire cultivars (much akin to what happened in Ireland causing the potato famine).
The Patent Act of 1790 was meant to safeguard scientific discovery and not hinder it. Unfortunately, at the rate at which things are progressing, this might be hard. There is a dire need for mature and sensible laws governing biological patents because as they stand presently, they serve as an impediment to progress.