Industry and the EU Life Patent Directive
"The European Directive that will make it possible genetically to manipulate living organisms will hand control over the genetic heritage of humans, animals and plants to the few industries rich enough to buy the patents, thereby effectively transforming life itself into a commodity to be altered on the whim of partisan commercial interests."
- Dario Fo, Nobel Laureate
n July 1997, the European Parliament, bowing to two years of intensive industry lobby, adopted the draft "Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions", despite widespread public opposition. Commonly referred to as the "Life Patent Directive," this controversial piece of legislation would allow for the patenting of genes, cells, plants, animals, human body parts and genetically modified or cloned human embryos. Why did the Parliament, the only directly elected governing body in the EU, not vote according to the wishes of the majority of Europeans who are sceptical or opposed to biotechnologies and ownership of life? What brought about a change of direction by a Parliament that initially vetoed the proposed Directive in 1995? According to geneticist Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Women's Environmental Network, European parliamentarians, by approving legislation that declares that genes could be 'inventions', "sold out to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry."
The Commission's Clean-Up Job
A month later, in August
1997, the EU Commission, the main advocate and architect of the Directive,
released its position on the Parliament's draft, with some major changes
to many of the 66 amendments. The Commission argues that the changes
made were minor and that all of the Parliament's concerns are secured
in the text. David Earnshaw of SmithKline Beecham, in defense of the
Commission, argues that the changes made were just the "usual legal
cleaning-up process." Groups
opposed to the Directive however contend that many of the Parliament's
proposed 'safeguards' were drastically weakened, or removed entirely
in the Commission proposal.
Whispering Sweet Nothings
The European biotech industry, in its very aggressive lobbying on this issue, has been whispering some key words in the ears of decision-makers -- 'jobs', 'growth' and 'competitiveness'. Their arguments that life patents will help European TNCs to help Europe and Europeans has been largely effective in swaying the Parliament's vote in favour of the Directive.
EuropaBio for instance, the largest biotech industry association with members such as Smithkline Beecham, Novartis, Unilever and Monsanto Europe, has mainly focused on convincing decision-makers that government should support the European biotech industry to be more competitive in the global market, and by so doing, the formula goes, create more jobs. In its 1997 report entitled "Benchmarking the Competitiveness of Biotechnology in Europe," EuropaBio suggests that "creation and preservation of up to three million jobs by 2005" can be achieved if there is a biotech- friendly regulatory environment in the EU. The report compares the patent regulations in the EU to those of the United States, highlighting the US's relaxed regulatory environment with respect to biotechnology as the key to promoting competitiveness of the European biotech industry.
EuropaBio has recently joined
a new lobby group set up specifically to push for the life patent directive,
called the Forum for European Bioindustry Coordination (FEBC). The FEBC
comprises an impressive collection of sector-specific industry groups
such as AMEEP (food and feed enzymes), CEFIC (chemicals), CIAA (food),
COMASSO (plant breeders), EDMA (diagnostic products), ECPA (plant protection
products), EFPIA (pharmaceuticals), FAIP (farm animals), FEDESA (animal
health products), FEFAC (compound feed), FEFANA (feedstuffs additives)
and GIBIP (plants and seeds). EuropaBio hosts the FEBC Secretariat.
The Forum has issued a flood of lobby papers, including briefing papers
on specific scientific and legal principles raised in the Directive.
Considering the complexity of the issues, and the limited information
that MEPs have, such briefings can play a significant role in influencing
decisions. Many of these papers offer interpretations of the text of
the Directive, suggesting that all of the MEPs concerns are addressed
properly in the Commission's draft. The Forum warns "that any weakening
of the draft would put Europe at a further disadvantage and will shift
the emphasis of research in biotechnology further towards the USA and
Japan. It strongly believes that, without patents, there could be fewer
or no new treatments, cures, food products, or environmental solutions
generated in and adapted to Europe."
SmithKline Beecham: Manufacturing Consensus
"Genes are the currency of the future!" - George Poste, Research Director, Smithkline Beecham
The pharmaceutical giant Smithkline Beecham (SB) has been one of the most aggressive campaigners for the Directive, launching its own lobby campaign even before EuropaBio existed. According to SB lobbyist Simon Gentry, the company allocated 30 million ECU from the start for a pro-Directive campaign.
SB has also actively manipulated and instrumentalised patient interest groups, knowing very well that such groups would be very effective in influencing decision-makers where industry cannot. Its tactics included the direct support of patient charities and organizations (see below).
Having witnessed the efficacy of the environment lobby prior to the initial EP vote in 1995 which ruled against the proposed directive, SB hired the former assistant to the Chair of the EP's Environment Committee, David Earnshaw, as their Director for European Policy Affairs. This enabled SB to not only have better access to the European Parliament and MEPs, but also helped the company to understand the tactics and strategies of the environmental movement in the case of the Directive.
Patient Interest Groups
By far the most influential lobby groups active on the Directive have been the patient interest groups. Many MEPs voted in favour of the Directive under strong pressure from these interest groups in what was described as "the largest lobby campaign in the history of the EU." On the day of the July '97 vote, a number of people in wheelchairs from some patient interest groups demonstrated outside the main hall in Strasbourg, chanting the pharmaceutical industry's slogan, "No Patents, No Cure" in an emotional appeal to Parliamentarians to vote for the Directive.
Perceiving a strong and unified position in favour of gene-patenting from the patient interest groups, MEPs have voted accordingly. Further investigation, however, has revealed that in fact the views of the majority of patient interest groups were not expressed, and that those that were vocal were largely co-opted and bankrolled by big pharmaceutical companies such as Smithkline Beecham. Companies like SB have approached these groups and presented themselves as agents who care about their needs and are actively seeking cures for their maladies. They highlight the need for legislation such as the Directive in order to create a climate in which development of the much needed medicines can take place freely. Painting a picture in which patents on life correlates directly with cures for all known diseases, industry has sought to blackmail Parliament and these interest groups with the ultimatum "no patents, no cures." While most patient interest groups did not buy in to the corporate dream, some rather influential groups have been co-opted.
GIG and EAGS
The Genetic Interest Group (GIG), a UK umbrella organization, and the European Alliance of Genetic Support Groups (EAGS), have both been very active in lobbying for the Directive. This, however, was not always the case. Up to 1995 vote where the European Parliament voted to reject the draft Directive, GIG and EAGS, through their main spokesperson Alastair Kent, were both against the patenting of genes. However, this changed when SmithKline Beecham began making donations to GIG. Alastair Kent was soon found lobbying aggressively for the Directive, still in the name of both organizations, with new and considerable financial resources to finance a strong lobby initiative.
GPC Market Access
SmithKline Beecham's support for Kent also included the hiring of professional consultancy GPC Market Access to help with the lobby campaign. It was during this time that the slogan, "Patents for Life" became the title for a series of lobby documents issued in the name of EAGS. With the assistance of GPC Market Access, a massive disinformation campaign was launched which tried to inflate the emotions of decision-makers by talking about saving lives, ending hunger and creating jobs.
Another consultancy group, Adamson Associates, was also recruited by the biotech industry to work on the Directive, and has been engaged in similar activities. Adamson also organized an information event on human gene-patenting in Strasbourg in January 1997, which was presented as an event of patient organisations.
Patient Groups Clarify Their Positions
After the 1997 vote in which
the efforts of Kent and his well-oiled lobbying machine helped to sway
the decision, some patient interest groups became aware of the fact
that his activities in the name of GIG and EAGS were in fact contrary
to their own views on the Directive. After this information emerged,
the Chair of GIG, Joanie Dimavicius, issued a letter restating the views
of the group, which is clearly against gene-patenting.
Patients have now woken-up to the fact that they have been manipulated
and abused by industry and industrial lobbyists, and have since restated
their positions against the patenting of genes.
"Advances in both medical knowledge and plant variety have not been driven by venture capitalists but by the pursuit of knowledge, the desire to heal, the need to feed and sustain."
Just how successful this massive industry campaign has been will be revealed when the European Parliament votes on the Directive in May. The Directive, if passed, would give TNCs a broad license to loot and possess exclusive rights over the world's genetic material.
While intellectual property and life patent law is a relatively new legal frontier, industry is working hard to make sure that the legal and legislative frameworks developing on these issues are in the interests of business. Teamed with the European Commission in its effort to "nurture the European biotech industry," the above-mentioned groups have been able to strongly influence this process.
The European Commission and industry have been pushing the legislation forward rather quickly, arguing that the European biotech industry cannot afford to wait long to establish itself firmly as a contender in the world market. Responding to the lack of public acceptance of biotechnology in Europe, Dennis Purcell, Managing Director for Life Sciences for investment bankers Hambrecht and Quist, said he was not concerned about potential effects on biotech companies."I think the United States went through the same process ten years ago when there were a lot of questions in people's minds about what biotechnology was. Lobbying could help educate," he said.
Industry has manipulated public opinion through forcing biotechnology products into 'unwilling' markets and through political channels. By strategically forcing biotechnological products into the world's food supply, companies such as Monsanto argue that biotechnology and patents on life are inevitable and resistance is futile. "Our genes are incorporated into approximately 19 million acres around the world -- covering an area larger than Switzerland and the Netherlands combined," says Tom McDermott, Monsanto's European head of public affairs. "Can Europe at this point really resist?"
1. International Research Associates conducted a poll for the European Commission in which 61 percent of those polled thought that biotechnology poses a risk and believed that it can result in dangerous new diseases. These fears were not necessarily based on ignorance about the issues say the surveyors: "It is rather the case that those who are the most ignorant on the subject tend to be less concerned. Being more informed does not necessarily mean being less worried." | Back to Text |
2. Sarno, Niccolo. Poll Finds Europeans Mistrust State And Science. IPS, Brussels, 6 October 1997. | Back to Text |
3. Coss, Simon. Campaigners seek MEPs' Support in Final Bid to Halt Genetic Patenting Law. European Voice, 9-15 April 1998. | Back to Text |
4. Rural Advancement Foundation International. "Enclosures of the Mind: Intellectual Monopolies". Page 7. | Back to Text |
5. "They (the genome companies) systematically patent everything which could be of any value at all. If this is not possible they withhold large quantities of genetic information which could be of public value, until such times as better conditions for its use appear." Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1997, pp. 12-13. | Back to Text |
6. Rural Advancement Foundation International. "No Cure for Patents: Biotech Patents Distort and Discourage Innovation and Increase Costs for Dubious Drugs." News Release -- European Biotech Patent Directive, RAFI, 2 July 1997. | Back to Text |
7. EuropaBio, "The Importance of the European Biosciences Industry." <http://www.europa-bio.be/publications/patent03.htm> | Back to Text |
8. Genetic Resources Action International. "Patenting, Piracy and Perverted Promises. Patenting life: the assault on the commons." GRAIN, Page 2. | Back to Text |
9. Bioprospectors -- "Companies and individuals who explore, extract and screen genetic diversity and indigenous peoples' knowledge for commercially-viable genetic resources." From "Enclosures of the Mind: Intellectual Monopolies. A Resource Kit on Community Knowledge, Biodiversity and Intellectual Property." Published by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, page 8. | Back to Text |
10. Currently, some cell lines of indigenous people have been patented by TNCs. In most cases, the people were not told that they were granting the ownership of their cell lines to corporations. | Back to Text |
11. EuropaBio is a result of the merger of the Senior Advisory Group on Biotechnology (SAGB) and the European Secretariat for National Biotechnology Associations (ESNBA) in 1996. SAGB was one of the chief architects of the Directive. For more on the SAGB and on Europa Bio, consult "Europe Inc.: Dangerous Liaisons Between EU Institutions and Industry", pages 35-37, as well as the Corporate Europe Observer, October 1997, p. 6. | Back to Text |
12. FEBC, FEBC's Views on the "Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions", page 3. | Back to Text |
13. Ibid, page 4. | Back to Text |
14. Ibid, page 3. | Back to Text |
15. "The ICC works closely with intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations involved in intellectual property policy, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Customs Organization, the European Commission, the International Association for the Protection of Industrial Property (AIPPI), the Licensing Executive Society (LES),and the Association Europeenne des Industries de Marques (AIM)." ICC Commission on Intellectual and Industrial Property, <http://www.iccwbo.org/Comm/html/property.html> | Back to Text |
16. "Western Europe is the world's largest market for chemicals. The European chemical industry should, therefore, operate with an advantage over other regions whose home markets are not as significant. However, the difficulties in securing effective patent protection in the region mean that this market is not as easily exploitable by high technology business as it should be, putting European-based chemical companies at a disadvantage to their American counterparts, for example." Page 3. | Back to Text |
17. ECOBP,"The Big Mirage: The Misuse of the Patient with Hereditary Diseases Before the EP's Vote in 1997," an ECOBP Background Paper, March 1998, page 4. | Back to Text |
18. Ibid, page 7. | Back to Text |
19. GIG, Position on the European Biotechnology Directive, 19 November 1997. | Back to Text |
20. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) Communique, "The Life Industry 1997". Nov/Dec 1997, page 1. | Back to Text |
21. Simpson, Alan. "The Theft of Our Souls". The Guardian, 11/7/97. | Back to Text |
22. Ernst & Young. "European Biotech '97: A New Economy." Ernst & Young International. April 1997. Page 67. | Back to Text |
23. Reuters. "Europeans Don't Trust Biotechnology, Study Finds." Reuters [WS] via Individual Inc. London, June 25. | Back to Text |
24. BusinessWeek. "Seeds of Discontent: The Pros And Cons Of Gene-Spliced Food." 2 February 1998, p.62-63.| Back to Text |