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March 2006 Updates

Terminator Seeds Suffer Defeat at Global Biodiversity Conference

by Mario Osava
Inter Press Service
March 25, 2006

CURITIBA, Brazil - Small farmers and activists celebrated a triumph against Terminator seeds in Brazil Friday, but said they would not let down their guard, and would continue to fight the seeds.

The working group in charge of addressing the issue at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8) maintained the moratorium on field trials of Terminator technology, which produces seeds whose sterile offspring cannot reproduce.

The decision is still pending a vote in next Friday's plenary session in the Mar. 20-31 conference taking place in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. But that will merely be a formality.

Only Australia, Canada and New Zealand tried to leave a door open, pushing for "case-by-case" evaluation of permits for field testing, which critics say would weaken the moratorium put in place in 2000 on Terminators, or GURTS (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies).

For the stance they took in this case, and with regard to transgenic crops in general, Australia, Canada and New Zealand were granted the "evil axis" award by an informal coalition of civil society groups that annually hands out the Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy.

The coalition awarded 10 "prizes" to "biopirates" as well as 10 "cog awards for resisting biopiracy". (Cogs were ships designed to repel attacks by pirates).

The United States won the award for "most despicable" act of biopiracy, for imposing plant intellectual property laws on occupied, war-torn Iraq in June 2004, making it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law.

Swiss biotech giant Syngenta was voted the worst threat to food sovereignty, for its patent on the Terminator potato.

The global small farmer movement Vía Campesina has held near daily demonstrations since COP8 began on Monday, to demand a ban on Terminator seeds.

On Friday, it announced that it would continue holding protests in Curitiba to call for a total worldwide ban on Terminator technology.

Other activists also said they would keep up their guard, even while they celebrated the victory. "There are governments and companies that will keep trying to produce 'suicide seeds'," said Maria Rita Reis, with the Brazilian NGO Terra de Direitos.

GURTS, as Terminator technologies are referred to in the Convention on Biological Diversity, produce "suicide seeds" or "homicide seeds" stressed Hope Shand, research director for the ECT Group (Action Group on Erosion, Concentration and Technology), a Canada-based organisation that works to defend cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.

The commercialisation of Terminator seeds, which would make it impossible for farmers to save seeds from their harvests, would provoke enormous losses for farmers, forcing them off the land and exacerbating hunger and poverty, she maintained.

According to ECT Group estimates, soybean production in Argentina would be hit by an additional 276 million dollars in annual costs, while the cost of wheat production in Pakistan would be 191 million dollars higher.

Numerous activists emphasised that potential contamination and sterilisation of other species would have catastrophic results. There is no need for "field testing" to establish that this technology poses a threat to all life on earth, just as there is no need for field testing on the effects of torture, one activist commented.

The protests voiced by small farmers and environmentalists have fallen on more than fertile ground. Restrictions on Terminator seeds have enjoyed majority support from the outset of COP8. In the European Parliament, this position earned 419 votes in favour and a mere 15 against.

Within the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) there is a consensus on maintaining the moratorium on field trials and commercial releases of Terminator seeds and rejecting the proposal for a "case by case" assessment, Alicia Torres, director of Uruguay's National Environment Office and head of her country's delegation to COP8, told IPS.

In the meantime, Syngenta is currently facing troubles in Brazil that go beyond acts of protest.

In addition to the occupation of its test field since Mar. 14 by close to 1,000 rural activists from Brazilian groups associated with the Via Campesina network - like the Movement of Landless Rural Workers û the transnational corporation has just been hit with a fine of one million reals (470,000 dollars) from Brazil's environmental authority.

The sanction stems from the fact that Syngenta's transgenic soybean test crops in Santa Teresa, in the southern state of Paraná, violate national laws because they are located too close to Iguaçú National Park, a nature preserve.

Syngenta and Monsanto have both been consistently targeted by protesters at the parallel meetings to COP8 and by the Global Civil Society Forum, a gathering of social movements and non-governmental organisations held in tents outside the Expo Trade Centre, the venue of the official conference.


[This article deals with patenting issues not GMOs per se.]

Justices Reach Out to Consider Patent Case

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
March 20, 2006

For the first time in a quarter-century, the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday a case involving the basic question of what type of discoveries and inventions can be patented.

Both sides say the case, which involves a blood test for a vitamin deficiency, could have a wide-ranging impact on the development of diagnostics, perhaps threatening many of the underlying patents for genetic and other medical tests.

But the array of companies filing supporting briefs - including American Express, Bear Stearns and I.B.M. - indicates that intellectual property in other fields might also be affected.

Some patent specialists say they think the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, against the advice of the United States solicitor general, to rein in patenting.

"The Supreme Court reached out and grabbed this case," said Edward R. Reines, a patent attorney at Weil, Gotshal & Manges who is not involved in the case. "These circumstances suggest that some members of the court believe there are too many patents in areas where there should be none."

At issue is whether relationships between a substance in the human body and a disease - for example, the familiar association between high cholesterol and a higher risk of heart attacks - can be the basis of a patent, or whether such relationships are unpatentable natural phenomena.

This case, LabCorp v. Metabolite Laboratories, stems from a 1990 patent awarded to scientists at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. They found that a high level in the blood of homocysteine, an amino acid, indicated a deficiency of either vitamin B12 or another B vitamin called folic acid.

Much of the patent describes a specific way to measure homocysteine, and those claims are not at issue. But the 13th claim of the patent is more general: it covers a way of determining vitamin deficiency by first testing blood or urine for homocysteine by any means and then correlating elevated levels with a vitamin deficiency.

The patent is owned by Competitive Technologies, a publicly traded patent management firm in Fairfield, Conn., and licensed to Metabolite Laboratories, a tiny company based at the University of Colorado. LabCorp, one of the biggest clinical testing companies in the nation, with 2005 revenues of $3.3 billion, sublicensed the test from Metabolite.

At first, LabCorp, whose full name is Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, tested for homocysteine using the specific method described in the patent and paid royalties to Metabolite and Competitive Technologies. But in 1998 it switched to a newer and faster test developed by Abbott Laboratories.

Metabolite and Competitive sued, charging LabCorp with violating Claim 13 of the patent. In 2001 a federal jury in Denver ruled against LabCorp, and the company was eventually ordered to pay $7.8 million in damages and attorneys' fees. The appeals court that handles patent cases affirmed the lower court decision in 2004.

In asking the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court decisions, LabCorp is arguing that Claim 13, because it does not specify how testing is to be done, patents nothing more than the natural relationship between homocysteine and vitamin B deficiencies, blocking other inventors from developing better tests.

"The present-day implications of such a holding are limitless - and dangerous," LabCorp wrote in its brief. "Anyone who discovers a new medical correlation could stifle medical treatment through a 'test plus correlate' claim."

But Metabolite and its allies argue that such correlations are the basis of diagnostics and that not allowing patents would stifle development of new tests. There are tests, for instance, that look at mutations in particular genes to predict a high risk of breast cancer or to predict which AIDS drugs will not work.

"Hundreds, if not thousands, of patents would at once be called into question" if the ruling goes against Metabolite, said a brief jointly submitted by Perlegen Sciences, a company developing genetic tests, and Mohr Davidow Ventures, a venture capital firm that backs diagnostics companies.

Another question in the case is whether doctors could infringe the patent merely by looking at a test result for homocysteine and then thinking about vitamin deficiency. Indeed, the lower courts said LabCorp had not directly infringed but rather had induced doctors to infringe by performing the correlation.

Partly with that in mind, the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and AARP have submitted briefs in support of LabCorp, arguing, in the words of the heart association, that the patent could have "devastating effects on patient health care."

Millions of homocysteine tests are done each year because high levels of the amino acid are associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, birth defects and other diseases; people often take B vitamins to lower homocysteine and reduce the risk. (Clinical trial results announced last week, however, suggested that taking B vitamins did not prevent heart attacks.)

Court precedents have held that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas cannot be patented. "Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E = mc2; nor could Newton have patented the law of gravity," the Supreme Court wrote in a 1980 decision.

But in a 1981 decision in Diamond v. Diehr - the last time the Supreme Court considered the issue - the court upheld a patent on a method of curing rubber that made use of a well-known equation governing chemical reactions. The court said that the equation was only part of a broader invention.

Glenn K. Beaton, an attorney for Metabolite, said that as in that 1981 case, "it's not the correlation itself that is patented here," but rather "the use of that correlation to determine B12 and folate deficiencies."

In recent years, controversial patents have been granted on software and on business methods, such as ways of managing investment portfolios or of allowing people to order merchandise on with one click of a mouse.

Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and the Computer and Communications Industry Association filed briefs urging the court to use the LabCorp case to restrict such business method patents, or at least not expand them. Other companies, including American Express and I.B.M., say the LabCorp case is not relevant to business method patents.

The solicitor general, in urging the court not to hear the case, said there was not enough of a record from the lower courts on the question of patenting natural phenomena. That is because LabCorp did not raise that argument in the lower courts, instead trying to get the claim invalidated on other grounds. If LabCorp wins the case in a way that weakens patents on diagnostic tests, it could be one of the bigger losers. The company, based in Burlington, N.C., is counting on high-priced, patented genetic tests to fuel its growth.

Bradford T. Smith, executive vice president for corporate affairs at LabCorp, disputed that. "We think this case can be decided very narrowly," without undermining other patents, many of which rely on more than just correlations, he said.


Patently Ridiculous

New York Times, Editorial
March 22, 2006

Something has gone very wrong with the United States patent system.

Americans think of the granting of patents as a benevolent process that lets inventors enjoy the fruits of their hard work and innovations. But times have changed. The definition of what is patentable has slowly evolved to include business practices and broad ideas. The fact that the Smucker's company went to court over patents on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might have provoked chuckles. But it became a symbol of a system gone awry.

Technological advances raise new questions with each passing year. Should genes be patentable? What about life forms? The high-tech and pharmaceutical industries find themselves at odds on reform because patents affect their businesses so differently. The understaffed Patent and Trademark Office needs to draw the line between a real innovation and an obvious concept that should be freely available as a building block for future generations of creative thinkers.

Meanwhile, profiteers, including lawyers and hedge funds, have turned the very purpose of patent rights - to encourage people to invent and produce - on its head, using them to tax, blackmail and even shut down productive companies unless they pay high enough ransoms. These so-called patent trolls have emerged as the villains in this intellectual property debate.

The possibility of this sort of abuse is inherent in the concept of patents, which in this country allow no one to produce or sell a patented product for up to 20 years without a license from the patent holder. Our nation's founders considered intellectual property important enough to include in the Constitution, but did not establish the system for the sake of the inventor. It exists for the sake of society, or, as it says in the Constitution, "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts."

Now the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of the patent holder that many experts say we are not only restricting competition, but discouraging research and innovation as well. More patents are slipping through that are not new, like the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or that should be obvious, like the migration of a simple business practice onto the Internet or a mobile device.

The problem lies not just with the short-staffed patent office, but also with the courts. The ease with which patent holders can get an injunction to shut down a thriving business means that many companies are quietly paying rather than fighting.

The recent threat that BlackBerry service might be shut down by an injunction caught everyone's attention. The patent office found that the three disputed patents should not have been granted in the case of the BlackBerry, a popular wireless communications device. Yet Research in Motion, the company that makes it, settled for a staggering $612.5 million to avoid an injunction.

The Supreme Court now appears ready to weigh in and - we hope - restore some sanity to the system. Yesterday the court heard arguments on whether the patent for a blood test for a vitamin deficiency was so broadly construed that it included a natural process of the human body and the idea of how to interpret it. Such a patent could prevent other inventors from developing new and better tests. The court will also hear arguments next week in a case attacking eBay, the global marketplace.

The court will not be able to solve the problem by itself, no matter how wise its ultimate rulings. The patent office, which handles three times as many applications as it did in 1985, has to be upgraded to meet the 21st century. There is legislation in the House to address that issue, and it needs to be taken up. By giving other people or companies the right to submit documentation before patents are granted and to challenge decisions, patents' quality could be improved and the courthouse avoided.


Waldo County Town Votes to Ban GMOs

Boston Globe
March 27, 2006

MONTVILLE, Maine --Residents have voted to include a ban of genetically engineered seeds in the town's land use ordinances.

At their annual town meeting on Saturday, residents gave overwhelming approval to a resolution that declared that the town would commit to banning genetically modified organisms, or GMO's, and develop land-use ordinances to support the policy. The policy will be included in the town's comprehensive plan.

It is thought to be the first time that a Maine town has agreed to ban GMO's in its land use ordinances. Voters in Brooklin last year passed a resolution to voluntarily declare the town a GMO-free zone.

Kai George, a supporter of the Montville resolution, called the vote a "landmark decision for Maine."

Genetically modified seeds are planted on about 6,100 acres of Maine's 1.25 million acres of farm land, she said.

Genetic technology has been widely used by major seed companies to promote insect resistance or herbicide tolerance in crops.

Opponents fear that pollen from genetically altered plants -- whose DNA is reconfigured to make the plants resistant to insects and weed-killing chemicals -- will contaminate nearby organic farms or traditional farms that don't want to use the altered seeds.

Many consumers also fear there isn't enough information available on the long-range consequences of eating genetically modified foods.

Biotechnology companies have countered that the negative effects are nonexistent, noting that not a single stomach ache has been reported since the Food and Drug Administration first approved genetically engineered crops for human consumption a dozen years ago.

Moreover, they say that crops genetically engineered to resist weeds and bugs enable farmers to decrease pesticide use.

European consumers are widely entrenched in their aversion to genetically modified food and pockets of similar resistance have popped up in the United States.

In California, voters in at least four counties have voted to ban biotech plants in their counties. But voters in four other California counties have rejected such proposals.


Biotech Crops Will Hurt Family Farmers and Worsen the Energy Crisis

by John E. Peck
March 29, 2006

As concerns about oil supply mount, the latest group to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon has been the biotech industry. In a March 13, 2006 press release, building towards their Chicago meeting in early April, Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), proclaimed that a new wave of genetically engineered technologies "will end our national addiction to oil." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Family farmers and others who have already suffered from the first wave of biotech crops can only shudder at what lurks within this latest Pandora's Box. Thanks to Monsanto, farmers are now stuck producing vast quantities of low quality Bt corn that has hardly any market. This unwanted biotech corn must then be dumped - at taxpayer expense - into domestic ethanol production, factory livestock farms, or abroad in places like Mexico. There it contaminates indigenous varieties, undercuts peasant farmers, and creates desperate people who have no choice but to cross the border. And in the wake of the Starlink disaster, in which genetically modified corn not intended for human consumption found its way into fast-food tacos and elsewhere, one can only imagine the consumer safety threat posed by fields of high starch low fiber biotech corn, engineered with an ethanol enzyme, growing adjacent to sweet corn across the Midwest.

The conventional ethanol industry is already under the thumb of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Many family farmers have lost their shirts investing in co-op ethanol projects that get gobbled up by ADM when times get tough, such as happened to MN Corn Processors. And, in tune with its slogan about being the supermarket to the world, ADM could care less about energy independence at a national level. They have already pledged to import sugarcane ethanol from Brazil under new "free trade" deals and leave U.S. corn producers high and dry if the price is right. Adding biotech ethanol crops into this corporate controlled market will only tip the scales further against family farmers.

Another lucrative "solution" to the energy crisis being promoted by the biotech industry is to engineer microbes to produce enzymes that can then be added to switchgrass or crop wastes, such as corn stover or wheat straw, in biorefineries. This is a process known as cellulosic ethanol production. Of course, the environmental impact of such massive industrial facilities is unknown. And beyond all the hype, one is still left with the same Enron style scheme, dependent upon potentially dangerous patented technologies, abusive one-sided contracts, and markets manipulated by corporate cartels.

Patented varieties and bioenergy facilities under tight corporate control are hardly a recipe for sustainable rural development or national energy independence. In fact, given all the problems created by existing biotech crops, this misguided approach may only make matters worse. Rather than going to war or trusting in biotech, the Unites States would do much better by investing in comprehensive energy conservation, decentralized energy production, and genuine renewable alternatives such as wind, solar, and biodiesel.

John E. Peck is a member of the National Family Farm Coalition. The National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) was founded in 1986 to serve as a national link for grassroots organizations working on family farm issues.

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