Vexed issue

Verdict on patents on life forms throws up posers

Published: Wednesday 30 June 2004

On may 21, 2004, the Supreme Court (sc) of Canada ruled that Percy Schmeiser, a farmer, had breached the law by growing canola containing a patented gene without the permission of the patent-holder, Monsanto Company. The court's order implies that patent rights extend to any living organism in which a patented gene may be found, regardless of whether or not the introduction was intentional.

Schmeiser was, however, spared a lower court's order to pay the biotech firm his profits from the crop because the sc felt that he had not made money out of his action. "I feel good about this ruling as I didn't take advantage of or profit from Monsanto's technology in my fields," said Schmeiser. "They will now have to prove that a farmer profited from having the genetically modified (gm) canola in their fields," he added.

Monsanto, too, was gratified that the sc found its patent "valid and enforceable". Carl Casale, executive vice-president of the company, said the court had set a world standard in intellectual property protection. "This ruling maintains Canada as an attractive investment opportunity," he added.

Schmeiser's argument was that he only used seeds he had harvested himself and the gm seed had probably come from neighbouring farms. Though the court did not accept this argument, the fact that he had not used Monsanto's herbicide Round-Up, to which the seeds were supposed to be tolerant, bolstered his argument about the lack of intent to benefit from the technology.

Critics have resented the legitimacy granted to patents on life forms. But they draw solace from the interpretation of this ruling that if the patent follows the gene, so does the liability. According to Gene Campaign, a New-Delhi based non-governmental organisation, this implies that if a farmer proves that his fields have been contaminated by a gene from a transgenic variety, he may sue the patent-holder of the gene for compensation.

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