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Multinational Monitor
Biotech Futures


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An Interview with Pat Mooney

Pat Mooney is the executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an international non-governmental organization headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. RAFI is dedicated to the conservation and improvement of agricultural diversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. RAFI is concerned about the loss of genetic diversity -- especially in agriculture -- and about the impact of intellectual property on agriculture and food security.

Multinational Monitor: RAFI has used the term "Gene Giants" to describe the large multinational ag-biotech firms who control the world's commercial seed market. How is the industry consolidating?

Pat Mooney: We started to monitor the industry more than 20 years ago. In 1979, we did an assessment of who markets seed around the world. We came up with a list of over 7,000 public and private institutions. Now we're down to about 10 companies that control in excess of one third of the global commercial seed market. Twenty years ago not even one company occupied a significant percentage of the global seed market.

We're down to about 10 companies that control in excess of one third of the global commercial seed market. Twenty years ago not even one company occupied a significant percentage of the global seed market.

It's important to understand that it's not just the seed companies, but other sectors that are joining with them to create a life sciences industry.

In the late 1970s, there were 65 companies that were inventing and marketing crop chemicals -- herbicides, insecticides, nematicides and so on. Now we're down to nine companies that make up about 91 percent of the global market.

In the late 1970s the top 20 pharmaceutical companies collectively had about 5 percent of the global pharmaceutical market. If you look at it today, they have over 40 percent of the global pharmaceutical market.

We didn't pay much attention to veterinary medicines 20 years ago, but today the top 10 have about 60 percent of the global market in veterinary medicines.

The important thing is that today when you look across the spectrum at who are the top 10 companies in pesticides, seeds, pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicines, and add to that the biggest companies investing the greatest sums in biotech R&D, it's the same handful of companies that are dominant across the spectrum -- it's DuPont, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Dow and Aventis. These are the leaders in biotech R&D, with the greatest number of key patents. They have the heaviest investments in genomics or gene sequencing research. They are the ones who dominate in pesticides, seeds, human drugs and animal drugs. It's a very tightly and ever tighter controlled industry.

MM: Is there any sign of a slowdown in these mergers?

Mooney: While I don't think the long-term direction has changed all that much, I do think the industry has been taken by surprise by the developments over the last 18 months or so and are rethinking their immediate, short-term strategies.

While their long-term strategy is still to create a life-science industry which combines pharmaceuticals and food into one package, the events of the last 18 months have forced them to worry a bit about what they are going to do with the first generation of GMO [genetically modified organism] products, which they've decided are a dud.

I think their own projection would be that the second generation are also going to be a dud and that it's the third generation of GMOs that they're going to make some money out of and get consumer acceptance with. In the interim, there is a move now by industry to distance themselves from the agricultural side, the food side of the technology, but not lose their links and be prepared to make a strong move back in to the agricultural side in the next three to five years, depending how fast they can get the third generation into the marketplace.

The first generation were products with input traits, things like herbicide tolerance and insect resistance traits that they thought they could sell to farmers and that would allow them to package their chemical products, mainly herbicides, with their seeds. That was a very hard sell to consumers. It was impossible to convince anyone that it was a great idea. It looked far too self-serving, and wasn't in fact providing the kind of benefits that farmers wanted in the field either. So farmers are already backing away from them and consumers don't want it.

The second generation provided output traits important to food processors. That meant things that would allow them to increase the transportability of the product, reduce the water content and therefore the energy costs of processing the plant, and to improve product durability and other qualities that would help the food processors save money. There is a recognition now that it is possible to bring those on-line, but it will be extremely hard to convince consumers that these are great ideas, because there is little direct benefit to consumers with these output traits.

The third generation products, which they're talking about, but which in fact aren't really there yet, are those things like nutraceuticals which will provide value to consumers.

A year ago I would have said that the industry's counselors who say they will be able to weather the consumer backlash in three or five years were right. Now I'm not sure that they're right.

One reason is that as the whole biosafety discussion has moved on, at least two trends have emerged. One interesting trend is that people are coming back to the more important question of who owns and controls this stuff. And there's a recognition and a real fear on the part of farmers and certainly consumers that the ownership of life is a very scary thing, and there's just a handful of companies out there that are doing this. So that's a wild card that's becoming more important all the time, and it is not going to go away.

There's a scenario emerging where when a family chooses to conceive they will have their gene line studied and will be offered gene therapy for the sperm if the company believes it is necessary. The family will start paying licensing fees at that stage

The second trend is a recognition that the same guys trying to sell us herbicide-tolerant crops are also pharmaceutical companies. I think if we can make the connection between food and health then the coalitions concerned will be much wider and deeper than they have been so far on food biosafety issues. For the first time in a quarter century we're seeing the issues of who owns and controls life becoming important.

MM: What is driving this unification of the food, agricultural products and pharmaceutical industries?

Mooney: There are three reasons. One is they're all using the same technology -- mixing and matching genes, playing with DNA. Once you've got some control over the technology you can apply it across a very wide spectrum of end products.

The second reason is that the method of control is identical. The need to use monopolistic forms of intellectual property to gain control of markets is similar.

Thirdly, the products actually do fit together. These things can be blended together. Food after all can be described as a pharmaceutical product vital to human health. The reverse is more the case -- medicine can be seen as a supplement to food. When they put those two together into a package and market them to consumers through retail outlets it makes sense.

MM: What are some of the implications of this concentration in the life sciences industry?

Mooney: We've talked with companies who agree with us that there's a scenario emerging where when a family chooses to conceive they will have their gene line studied and will be offered gene therapy for the sperm if the company believes it is necessary. The family will start paying licensing fees at that stage.

When it's conceived either in the womb or in vitro, the child will have its DNA assayed early -- when it might be aborted or continued. The company will provide a print-out at birth of the child's DNA structure, his or her propensity towards certain diseases and an analysis of his or her theoretical life expectancy.

The family will then pay for the storage of placental material in perpetuity and pay annual fees for that storage, so that the company can develop vaccines or other designer drugs right from the cell line during different stages of the child's life.

The most appropriate foods and everything else including the supplements you can't find in the store will be designed for that child.

So the child's life will be followed right through from the beginning to the end. Besides receiving the annual storage and maintenance fees and the special finder's fees, the company will have the right to patent the material it develops and use the genetic material of the child to develop other products and drugs.

At the end of the day, we'll probably not just see the merger of the pharmaceutical, seed and food companies, but also the insurance industry, because in the end the ones who stand to make the most money on all of this are the companies that have to bet on how long you're going to live.

MM: Why did Monsanto withdraw the "Terminator" seed last year?

Mooney: They really at that point had no choice. They were getting such a bashing, not just because of Terminator, but because of the international consumer backlash against GM foods as well, that they had to do something. They had decided to drop Terminator back in the spring, but couldn't do it because their lawyers had told them they could get into trouble with Delta & Pine Land Company if they did drop it. They had to show that there was enormous pressure on them to drop it, and that was provided by the general campaign against Terminator and by the initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation to go to them and ask them to drop it. That gave them the argument they needed with the SEC to show it was a practical decision, that it was not intended to undervalue Delta & Pine Land's stock.

It was also a painless decision. First, because they had their own Terminator patent that they'd had for some time. Secondly, they recognized, as the industry has generally, that there are other, more effective ways to make money than simply to make a suicide sequence in seeds. Trait control is more profitable in the long run, and probably easier to sell to consumers and farmers.

The ability to manipulate the trait could be much more effective at forcing farmers into a market strategy that belongs to the company than using Terminator.

MM: What is Traitor technology and what is the industry's strategy behind it?

Mooney: It really has us more alarmed than Terminator. Terminator showed us that you can take just about any trait in a plant and turn it on or turn it off with a certain external chemical promoter. That external chemical promoter could be your own proprietary herbicide, insecticide, fertilizer or even specific weather conditions. Almost anything can be tagged to be the promoter to that particular trait.

Knowing that you can turn it on or turn it off means that you can identify any of a large number of traits that can be beneficial to farmers or stop bad things from happening to farmers. You can see beneficial things such as being able to turn on a trait that would speed up the ripening process in a plant if it looked like the harvest has to come in early because of the danger of snow or frost. Farmers would use the trait control mechanism, apply a specific chemical to get that effect. None of these would necessarily lead to any real problem for the crop, in fact they might be a benefit to farmers.

The concern side of all of this is that we can see all sorts of traits being built into plants which can be turned on or turned off and there might be the kind of bloat problem with the load-ware in a product that we see with software. We could see traits competing with each other, or being triggered awkwardly. The plants might crash in the field the same way our computers can crash.

A second concern is that the ability to manipulate the trait could be much more effective at forcing farmers into a market strategy that belongs to the company than using Terminator.

At first we thought the Terminator was great for industry because it would allow industry to stop farmers from being able to save their seeds. Then they realized that what they'd really rather do is force farmers to save their own seed over and over again, but still have to pay for it. The seed would die at the end of the growing season, but like Lazarus would rise again if the farmer took it back to the company. The company would apply its proprietary chemical to rejuvenate it. That is a much more profitable way for them to use Terminator than to deny them access to the seed.

For the companies, this makes enormous sense because they don't have to have an external source for the seeds, they don't have to have their seed multiplied in New Zealand, Tanzania, Mexico or Chile like they do now in the off season and brought back to our climate to be sold to the farmers. There's no need for warehouses, transportation or seed growing. There's much less need for advertising, because once they've got the farmers on the treadmill they just have to dump the chemicals and wait for the money to roll in.

Trait control goes one step further. You get rid of the problem where farmers are on their own until the end of the growing season. With trait control, the farmers are dependent in the current year for the current traits that they need to have in order to have a commercial market or something to eat at the end of the season.

A third concern is Traitor's impact on food security. Let's say you have, for example, a crop in the field and a trade war broke out, for instance, between the United States and India over textiles. If India is growing cotton and the United States refuses to allow the export of the trigger chemical to India which would prevent the cotton from ripening prematurely, because that chemical is not being applied, the cotton would ripen prematurely and the crop would then fail.

It just destroys the idea of national or farm-based food security and makes us entirely dependent upon a handful of companies.

MM: Has there been any resistance to the Terminator or Traitor technologies yet by governments?

Mooney: There certainly has been to Terminator. We wrote letters to 155 governments last year asking them to ban the Terminator and warning them about the Traitor technology as well. The replies we received so far are more impressive than we would have imagined. The government of India has clearly said that it is going to ban the Terminator. We expect they will move on and examine how they would ban some aspects of the traitor technology as well. It's trickier to ban the Traitor because you can see theoretical benefits to farmers and to consumers in certain traits. It is who controls those traits, who makes the decision to activate or deactivate a trait and the dependence that might be created upon a certain chemical that is of concern here.

The government of Uganda has said that it is going to ban the Terminator and look at Traitor as well. Argentina, much to our surprise, has said that while they are going through a process of judicial and scientific review of the implications of Terminator and Traitor technology, they suspect that in the end they will ban the technology. That was also said by the government of Peru -- they're not sure they will ban it yet, but their correspondence suggests that they're moving in that direction. Panama said the same thing. They believe that in the end they will have to ban the technology. We suspect that other governments in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia will take the same position.

MM:What about the United States?

Mooney: The U.S. government still defends the Terminator technology, for reasons we don't understand and we suspect for reasons they don't either. If they're defending Terminator, most likely they would defend Traitor as well.

MM: What is RAFI's position on life patents?

Mooney: RAFI took the position in 1977 that intellectual property rights are not an appropriate method to create innovation. They actually stifle innovation. This is not just true of biological materials, but of sewing machines, telecommunications equipment and just about everything else. We see no evidence in history that shows that patents stimulate innovation. They do create monopolies, that's for sure. We think there is a need in society to find ways to stimulate innovation that have not been explored.

Intellectual property rights are not an appropriate method to create innovation. They actually stifle innovation. We think there is a need in society to find ways to stimulate innovation that have not been explored.

We are now seeing the Patent Office providing permission for patents on SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms -- the smallest unit of genetic variability). This is driftnet patenting. It allows a company to simply go into the genome of a plant, animal or even a person and to patent anything that they find that hasn't been found without even identifying the function of the genes. That's just absurd.

MM: Are there any hopeful challenges to the patent system that you can see?

Mooney: Yes. For instance, there's the biopiracy issue. As the WTO trundles on and goes towards another negotiating round, and as efforts are made to create a global patent system, we need to show that there's systematic piracy taking place. The system now is predatory on the knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world and that has got to stop.

If we can clearly document as we have been doing that these piracies are taking place and that they are systematic, then that forces the patent authorities in these conventions to do something that eliminates the negative effect. So we're going to keep on coming up with more and more examples of patent violations of human rights and force governments to deal with them.

For example, there's a situation in Chiapas that will eventually become a patent case. If the U.S. government's International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups goes through, then we'll see material based upon the knowledge of indigenous Mayan peoples and their plants in Chiapas being brought back to the United States, put under patent protection and then marketed commercially around the world.

Our views are entirely irrelevant; it's the right of the people of Chiapas to decide. Eleven indigenous organizations in Chiapas, including local healers, midwives and farmers organizations, have now said they don't want this kind of bioprospecting taking place in Chiapas.

What the University of Georgia, which has a contract with the U.S. government to collect biological materials in Chiapas, has said, and what most anthropologists have been saying, is that if a significant number of people in the community say no, then that's it, then they would get out.

Yet although 11 organizations have clearly said "no," that they don't want them there, the University is saying, "Well, we haven't finished dialoguing with them." In other words, "no" seems to be for the University of Georgia to determine and not for the people of Chiapas to determine.

They claim they're looking for the knowledge of the common people. They've said that even if some communities refuse to be a part of it and others agree to be a part of it, they'll collect it from the communities that agree to be in the project and share whatever benefits accrue with all of the communities, whether they agreed or not to be a part of it.

To us that raises an important problem, which is that the knowledge of the common people is the knowledge of the Mayans and it isn't for one Mayan community to make an agreement which other Mayan communities object to and to transfer all of that knowledge into private property controlled by companies in the North. It's completely unacceptable to go down there and make a pact with one or two communities while the others are all saying no.

What we will see in the next couple of years is an agreement that at least the major patent centers in the world would establish an ombudsperson's office which would listen to and react to the concerns expressed by indigenous and rural communities.

MM: What is the Basmati rice dispute about?

Mooney: That's a good example of what's almost universally regarded as a bad patent. A Texas-based company, RiceTec Inc., claims they acquired Basmati from several sources, including through the U.S. gene bank. Of course the original material was from Pakistan, India, Thailand and probably the Philippines as well. They crossed that material with U.S. long-grained rices grown in Texas and California to develop rice varieties that they call Texmati and Kasmati that they claim as the equivalent of Basmati. They have the same aromatic qualities and are marketed as being Basmati-like rice to farmers and consumers in North America and Europe.

The challenges on this are at least at three levels. One is a technical challenge that it's just a bad patent -- they didn't really do any new and useful work on it at all.

Second, they took the knowledge from local communities in India and Pakistan that has been developed over a very long time. Under intellectual property systems that provide for protection of geographic indication, you can't use terms that are uniquely identified with a place, names like Scotch whiskey or French champagne. There's general acceptance that there are names associated with places that no one else can use. We believe the same kind of protections should apply for Basmati.

Third, the U.K. government in their DNA evaluation of RiceTec's Texmati and Kasmati rice concluded that the genetic profile of RiceTec's Kasmati and Texmati are much more similar to U.S. long-grained rice, and that's why it's not fair to market Texmati and Kasmati as Basmati. They think it's very poor quality compared to Basmati, and shouldn't be called by that name.

MM: What are the prospects for a systemic, rather than case-by-case, approach for dealing with biopiracy?

Mooney: The response that has come from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been logical but it is disturbing. They have launched a study of the possibility of providing for intellectual property rights for indigenous knowledge. We think that's the entirely wrong approach. It makes sense for them to explore that, and in their preliminary findings they've concluded that there is a basis for intellectual property rights for indigenous knowledge.

Now there's a three-year commitment by governments to let WIPO put together a sui generis legal mechanism to accept that knowledge.

Most of the communities that we know would not like to see a monopoly created over their knowledge. They would like to see it shared with the rest of the world, but in an equitable and honorable fashion so that the benefits are shared. I think most are against that kind of initiative.

What we will see in the next couple of years is an agreement that at least the major patent centers in the world -- the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office in Munich, the Australian Patent Office, the Japanese Patent Office and so on -- would establish an ombudsperson's office which would listen to and react to the concerns expressed by indigenous and rural communities.

If they say that a patent that is being looked at is a violation of their rights, the ombudsperson would have the authority and funds to explore that, and if they concluded that there was a problem, then take it to the next logical step and finance a challenge to the patent on behalf of the originating communities.

I've been talking about this for about the last two or three years with governments and industries. Three years ago when we first raised it, it was laughed out of court. Now we find that both industry and government are nodding their heads and quietly saying that that makes sense.

That's a piecemeal interim reform that we'd like to see happen in the patent system, though it's not a complete solution of any kind.

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