Cyborg controversy

There's gaiety on the greens as the European Parliament drops a directive on patenting genetically-engineered life-forms

Published: Friday 31 March 1995

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)THE 7-year-long debate over patenting of life-forms in Europe has finally reached its denouement. On March 1, the European Parliament decided to drop a proposed directive that would have introduced common standards throughout the European Community (EC) for the patenting of new plants and genetically-altered animals.

Ethical issues seem to have finally won hands down for the Socialist critics of the directive -- the largest bloc in the Parliament -- supported by the green Members of the European Parliament (MEPS). The directive has been hauled up for clauses relating to the testing of products on animals, and the absence of safeguards on future research on foetuses to find cures for congenital diseases. Other contentious issues included the patenting of elements extracted from the human body, and terms of royalty payments on genetically-modified animals.

Environmental groups had reason to be pleased with the vote's outcome -- 240 to 188, with 23 abstentions -- in the European Parliament. According to Greenpeace, the meps had "prevented the genetic engineering industry from gaining monopoly control over human genes and animals and plants through the use of patents".

The vote has, however, shocked the European biotechnology industry. The proposed legislation would have enabled the industry to become a competitive force, through uniform patent provisions to protect research investments. With the directive on gene patents falling through, however, a biotechnological product may be patent-protected, say, in France, but not Germany. This loophole, the companies maintain, will allow us researchers to steal an edge in the market. "The vote sends a negative political signal to investors that will further reduce the attractiveness of the ec as a place for doing business in new technologies," warned the Senior Advisory Group on Biotechnology, which represents European biotechnology companies.

The biotechnology companies had not the faintest that the legislation would get stuck in the European Parliament. The directive had already been cleared by a committee of representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (representing 15 ec nations). But, evidently, the patchwork compromise that had been hammered out after 7 years of prolonged tripartite negotiations was too fragile to hold together.

The contradictions were apparent in the compromise text. While the Council emphasised that the proposed directive would allow genes to be patented once they are isolated from the "human environment", the meps claimed to have successfully protected the "genetic identity" of individuals -- solely by discouraging patents on any dna sequence that can be traced back to a single individual.

The directive's debacle does not, however, affect patenting herbicide-resistant crops. The European Patent Office retains the authority to grant patent protection to companies (see box). However, the fact that patents can be challenged in the courts of member countries could scuttle the European industry's long-cherished ambition to simplify patent procedures.

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