Friday, May 07, 2010

Intellectual Property And Human Rights

Yes, Jim, you were right. Your comment spawned a blog post . . . I'm getting predictable.

This past weekend, listening to BBC America, I heard about the death of an Indian economist (whose name I cannot remember; sadly, I cannot even find a reference to the story on Google!), part of whose work considered the impact of the protection of intellectual property on developing countries. The example offered was patent protection enjoyed by pharmaceutical companies, and how this creates not only barriers for the use of good drugs for impoverished people, but also encourages intellectual piracy. It is, in fact, not uncommon for pirated knock-offs to be offered in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia in place of overpriced drugs to battle everything from childhood diarrhea to AIDS. In a recorded interview with the person in question, the example given was actually Lasik surgery. In the US, the average cost is $1600 for such a procedure; a large opthamalogical clinic in southern India actually performs the same procedure, roughly 10,000 times a year, at an average cost close to $10 a pop. Part of the difference is the socialization of delivery in India, as opposed to privatization in the US. This creates an atmosphere in which an entire set of assumptions from profitability to questions of medical necessity are radically reimagined.

The reason for recalling this imperfectly recalled radio story is the treatment of genetically-modified foods in the legal atmosphere of the United States. After developing the first GM food products, Monsanto ended up in court because it sought to patent them. At issue was the question of whether or not something that is alive can be treated as intellectual property. The Supreme Court ruled that, indeed, it can because it is the creation of a particular industry, a particular corporate entity; rather than just "corn" or "rice" or "millet", the Court accepted Monsanto's argument that GM foods were, in a sense, artificial.

While I understand the distinction between the legal argument and other forms of discourses, in this particular case, I find it (no pun intended) hard to swallow. With patent protection, the potential benefits of some kinds of GM food products become extremely limited. Only those agricultural concerns that have enough capital to purchase them can make use of them. Since the alleged benefits of GM foods include their utilization in marginal production areas and by impoverished farmers in the developing world, slapping a patent on a product and demanding higher prices for it creates a barrier that prevents their use that way.

Of course, as I heard on yet another radio chat show (I think it was NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, but again the great Google has failed me . . .), the promised deliver of all sorts of benefits from genetic modification of various crops just hasn't materialized. Even the much-hyped pest-control plants really don't work all that well. So, we have high-priced seeds for plants whose marginal return is negligible. While there are only a few sources for mass produced commercial seed - ADM and Monsanto come to mind as I see their signs in the corn fields here about - one is left with the impression that much of the alleged cost is nothing more than a way of artificially boosting prices by oligopolistic entities.

Faced as the world was just a couple years ago with overpriced rice crops that created the odd situation where warehouses full of the stuff were quite literally rotting because the price put them out of reach of buyers created a dual hazard. While those who purchase rice couldn't afford it, the producers were also impoverished because no one bought the rice at the inflated prices. Such a situation also encourages theft and piracy on a massive scale; those with few scruples obviously see an opportunity and will exploit it.

It seems to me that access to affordable basic food stuffs - grain and dairy, basic meats and fruits and vegetables - is a human right. With the industrialization of agriculture, we face the absurd situation where that most basic ingredient of life, food, becomes so commodified that artificial shortages, political and market manipulations, and legal technicalities interfere with its efficient and even necessary distribution. Yet, there is a claim the producers have upon consumers - to earn enough to keep producing!

It seems to me that discussions of agriculture (at least in this country) are so burdened with unreality - how may times do we hear about small family farms? - that it becomes almost impossible to talk about how to balance their needs of producers and consumers. Including discussions of the industrialization of agriculture, the legal impediments to production and distribution that exist, and the failure of so many of the claimed promises of genetic modification might be a start, I suppose. Keeping in mind, however, that we are talking about food, the very stuff of life, might also help us focus on priorities.

I don't have answers to the complications here. I'm just kind of offering these observations as a conversation starter . . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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