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Bioethics: Monsanto and the Extent of Patent Protection
If you’ve ever seen a documentary on food or agriculture (e.g. Food Inc.), you’ve probably walked away from it with a less than positive impression Monsanto Company. With a history highlighted by the creation of Agent Orange and recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, as well as being linked with farmer suicides in India resulting from instances of Bt cotton failure, Monsanto has drawn masses of opposition.
One hot topic of contention came up in the Supreme Court of Canada case of Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser in 2004. In this landmark case, the courts upheld that the growing of genetically modified plants constitutes the “use” of the patented invention of genetically modified plant cells. In short, Monsanto could sue farmers for growing their seeds without paying for them (e.g. when seed is sown from wind carrying seeds from neighboring crops).
It’s easy for the public to side with the humble farmer who faces the huge biotech with millions of dollars to spend on litigation, but let’s take a second to look at the case from Monsanto’s side. The biotech claims that in suing farmers who save and sow their seed (whether it is intentional or unintentional) without paying licensing fees, they are simply asserting their right to protect their intellectual property.
Millions of dollars have gone into the research and development required to develop these seeds that are meant to increase yield, and the profit from sales helps to fund future research in developing traits meant to fuel the company’s goal of creating plants that will yield twice today’s harvest over the next 20 years. With the world’s population estimated to reach over 9 billion over the next 40 years and food scarcity already presenting itself as a problem in much of the world, Monsanto claims to be working towards their goal of feeding the world.
Ethical issues like these are major challenges in the biotech industry that KGI students are taught to recognize and analyze in order to work as effective leaders in the biotech industry.
By Christina Lai (MBS '11)