A european patent office changed the course of scientific history a century ago when one of its lowly clerks, Albert Einstein, published his revolutionary discoveries about the basics of light, energy and matter.
Relatively speaking, a decision by the European Patent Office this month will have a similar impact on science, especially food science, in this century.
The EPO dismissed the U.S. Agriculture Department's (USDA) and U.S.-based multinational W. R. Grace's appeal to extend into Europe its patent on and ownership of certain uses of India's sacred neem tree, a legendary evergreen revered as the "village pharmacy," referring to such patenting as "an act of bio-piracy."
The ruling means that European courts won't allow global corporations to buy the legal paperwork that gives them the patent and monopoly on natural and living processes, especially those known to and used by the common people over millennia.
International patent practice is presently a can of worms, with some 120 national systems operating in varying degrees of disharmony under conflicting international guidelines, some from the United Nations favouring poular access to knowledge, and some from the World Trade Organization boosting corporate ownership. But coming from powerful Europe, this ruling draws a huge question mark around the legal viability of the bio-tech industry. Canada - widely known as the attack chihuahua for the U.S. on corporate rights to patent seeds - should take note.
In common language, the ruling's logic seems as commonplace as a village commons, university common room, House of Commons or common law ruling on the common heritage or common good of the commonwealth, all from the same common name used to describe what belongs to all of us.
This may sound like Commonism to some, but society and civilization couldn't exist without common civility and a common understanding that things like common words and common meeting places - radical Commonists might even include water and parks - are common property that belongs to all of us and to which all of us belong.
But the anti-social needs of certain corporations, especially those in the biotech, entertainment and information industries, challenge these practices and traditions. Copyrights and patent rights (note how ownership, discovery and invention, as distinct from life needs, have acquired rights we once held in common) are their lifeblood.
It's no accident that the three people who challenged the European Patent Office to reject the claims of the USDA and W. R. Grace are international leaders of the food and environmental movements: Vandana Shiva, India's veteran opponent of genetic engineering, Linda Bullard of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and Magda Aelvoet, a Belgian cabinet minister representing European Greens.
"Old Europe," as some call it, has a vivid sense of ownership issues because of the traditions associated with Bordeaux and Chianti wines, Parma hams and Stilton cheeses. Those foods kept their place names because a host of nature's gifts and villagers' talents co-created the products.
As the reputations of these places and products grew, the authenticity conjured by their names acquired "brand value." That's when the global corporations got interested. They wanted to cash in on the cachet by calling their plonk Bordeaux and their cheese Parmesan.
Since the people of Bordeaux, Stilton, Parma and Chianti were too lazy and Commonist-inspired to bother patenting and copyrighting their monikers, there was no good reason, the World Trade Organization ruled a few years ago, to prevent corporations from giving their nowheresville products the same names. The commons, in other words, has no rights against corporations.
The food fight has huge North-South implications, too. The tropical and semi-tropical South is home to a richer biodiversity of plant and animal life than is the norm in the colder and harsher climates of the North. As a result of this trend line in nature, drug corporations from the North have gone on a "gene rush" of "prospecting" for Southern plants, escorted by locals who tell them how the plants are used to cure this or that.
When these corporate prospectors discover a trait they know how to sell, they patent it as if it were their own creation and discovery. Then they can sell its use back to the locals as well as the rest of the world.
It's known that corporations can't make money in food production, which is why it has largely been left to family farmers. The only money in food production goes to the companies that own inputs like seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. Those inputs only have value if their properties are patented. That's why this industry has gone South.
The global South is where the market is, some two billion strong, for genetically-engineered seeds. The market is virtually nil in Europe. It's on the downswing among North American and Brazilian farmers who like the idea of selling into Europe's high-end, anti-GE markets. That leaves the South: elementary deduction, Watson.
With luck, the South's own seeds can be patented and sold back to them, as W. R. Grace unsuccessfully tried to do when it applied for a patent on basmati rice.
Chutzpah the company should patent - it has a corner on that. But that's one of the few things it has a corner on now that the patent office of Europe, the world's largest economy, has pulled the legal rug out from under the patent untruth that underlies much of what passes for science in the global food industry.
firstname.lastname@example.org This tree's a pharmacy
Called the "blessed tree," this evergreen desert- and drought-defier is a multi-miracle giver. Use of the ancient plant was touted by Mahatma Gandhi, who led prayer meetings under its branches and ate chutney made from its leaves daily. The leaves, cake and oil are used as agricultural pesticides, fertilizers, mulch and herbicides. Its fruit, seed oil, leaves, bark and roots serve as antiseptics, antimicrobials, treatments for urinary disorders, diarrhea, fever, skin infections, hypertension and inflammatory diseases. In tablet form, it treats diabetes; in twig form, it's a disposable toothbrush used daily by millions, and as a toothpaste it fights periodontal disease. The grand umbrella of its leaves serves as an air conditioner and nurtures many species of birds. It's leaves, once fallen, restore degraded soils and are sacred to spiritual leaders as good luck charms. Hanging a branch on the door of one's home is said to offer pollution protection. And there's much more.
From the Neem Foundation