Piglets worldwide may have a new mother pig… Monsanto Company. In case you haven't heard, Monsanto invented the pig. Well, not all pigs, just the really profitable ones. Nature can keep all the regular pigs, but if this company gets its way, Monsanto will own the prodigies.
In February 2005, Monsanto published multiple patent applications at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. These proposed patents encompass nearly the entire lifespan of a pig destined for slaughter, from conception to selection.
In application WO 2005/015989, Monsanto essentially attempts to patent careful selection of parentage and crossbreeding, elements of farming that have existed since the birth of agriculture and human civilization. According to Greenpeace writer Brian Thomas Fitzgerald, "The main 'invention' is nothing more than a particular combination of these elements designed to speed up the breeding process for selected traits." If a combination of techniques is patentable, what if some poor pig farmer "invented" the combination first, but without the craftiness or self-righteousness to believe that he could own it? We will probably never know.
Another proposed patent (WO 2005/017204) focuses on a naturally-occurring gene sequence first identified in mice and humans. Pigs that have this product of natural selection grow faster than pigs without the sequence, so they produce more pork while receiving less animal feed. Monsanto wants to own the ability to detect this gene sequence and its results -- yes, the pigs themselves, as well as their "genetically superior" parents. "Monsanto isn't just seeking a patent for the method; they are seeking a patent on the actual pigs that are bred from this method. It's an astoundingly broad and dangerous claim," explains Christoph, the Greenpeace researcher who first blew the whistle on these patents.
Monsanto seeks to patent pigs in more than 160 countries and territories, including the United States. Submitting patent applications to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was only the first step in Monsanto's attempt to gain what Fitzgerald classifies as a global monopoly. WIPO will forward the applications to the individual patent offices and each country or territory will then independently decide whether or not to grant Monsanto the patents.
The Monsanto World Headquarters is located in the United States, so it will be interesting to see if the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants this "homegrown" company the patents it desires. Until recently, patent law did not allow living things to be patented. However, genetic manipulation has turned this aspect of U.S. patent law from crystal clear to murky. The 1980 Supreme Court Case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, changed everything.
When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused genetic engineer Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty's application to patent a bacterium, Chakrabarty took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark, five-to-four ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the patent. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger justified their interpretation of 35 U.S.C. §101, writing, "A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under 101. Respondent's micro-organism constitutes a 'manufacture' or 'composition of matter' within that statute." However, the Supreme Court clarified that their decision was "not to suggest that §101 has no limits or that it embraces every discovery. The laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas have been held not patentable." Chief Justice Burger goes on to write, "Thus, a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild is not patentable subject matter." Section 2105 of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Manual of Patent Examining Procedure uses the Supreme Court's decision as its guide for determining patent in the often-unclear world of genetic engineering.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will undobtedly base much of its decision on Section 2105, bringing several questions to the forefront. Is a particular combination of crossbreeding and selection a "law of nature" or a type of "manufacturing" process? Is a naturally occurring gene sequence "physical phenomena" or a manufactured "composition of matter"? These are the decisions that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office must make.
Only time will reveal the world goventments' decisions on the issue. If many world governments grant Monsanto these patents, Greenpeace and likeminded organizations fear the impact it might have on the world. Fitzgerald likens the possible future to feudalism, but worse: "By claiming global monopoly patent rights throughout the entire food chain, Monsanto seeks to make farmers and food producers, and ultimately consumers, entirely dependent and reliant on one single corporate entity for a basic human need. It's the same dependence that Russian peasants had on the Soviet Government following the Russian revolution. The same dependence that French peasants had on Feudal kings during the Middle Ages. But control of a significant proportion of the global food supply by a single corporation would be unprecedented in human history."
"Diamond v. Chakrabarty." Wikipedia. 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org
Fitzgerald, Brian Thomas. Monsanto Files Patent for New Invention: The Pig. Greenpeace International. 2005. http://www.greenpeace.org
Monsanto Technology LLC, 2005. Method for Genetic Improvement of Terminal Boars. World Intellectual Property Organization patent application W0 2005/015989. http://www.wipo.int
Monsanto Technology LLC, 2005. Use Single Nucleotide for Polymorphism in the Coding Region of the Porcine Leptin Receptor Gene to Enhance Pork Production. World Intellectual Property Organization patent application W0 2005/017204. http://www.wipo.int
United States Patent and Trademark Office. Chapter 2100: Patentability. Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, Eighth Ed. Rev. May 2004. http://www.uspto.gov