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Animal patent debate heats up.

Animal patent debate heats up

In a hearing that presaged a confrontationbetween Congress and the patent office, a congressional subcommittee last week heard testimony on a controversial decision to allow patents on genetically engineered higher organisms (SN: 4/25/87, p.263). Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) announced that he would soon introduce legislation to put a moratorium on the granting of such patents until the economic and ethical implications could be considered by Congress. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) is planning to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

The debate centers on the U.S. Patentand Trademark Office's decision, effective last April 21, to consider all genetically engineered multicellular organisms --including all animals except human beings--patentable. Developers would thus be eligible for the 17-year monopoly on the sale and use of those animals as provided by U.S. patent law. (The board ruled that genetically altered humans could not be patented because ownership of humans is prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids slavery.)

The patent office has delayed processingthe first applications for patents on higher animals, but barring any definitive word from Congress the process may begin Oct. 1. Fifteen such patents are already pending.

"While the new patent policy will affectalmost every sector of the economy, the most dramatic impact may well be felt in the agricultural community,' Rose testified to the committee. "This new policy places major chemical, biotechnological and pharmaceutical companies in the position to virtually take over animal husbandry in America.'

Many farmers are concerned that thegranting of patents for genetically altered farm animals will result in a new kind of tenant farming, in which farmers will no longer own the animals they use Cy Carpenter, president of the National Farmers Union, which represents more than 250,000 U.S. farm families, said patenting would likely lead to a corporate consolidation of the livestock industry, with farmers having to pay royalties to patent owners. "Five major corporations now control 120 seed companies that were formerly independent prior to seed patenting,' he said. Seed patents have been allowed since 1970.

Others, however, noted at the hearingthat the patent system provides financial incentive to develop new ideas into commercially available forms. The patent system is "the engine and the machinery driving the investment in biotechnology,' said William H. Duffey, a patent attorney for St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp. He cited an Office of Technology Assessment estimate that biotechnology will be a $100 billion industry by the end of the century, and said that "It would be self-destructive to America's leadership position in biotechnology to allow the objections of a few opponents to lead to ill-advised restraints on the patenting of animals.'

Moreover, he said, the marketing anduse of genetically engineered organisms is already regulated by such federal agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. The simple act of issuing patents is "morally neutral,' he said, adding that "the patent system is certainly the wrong place to regulate matters of ethical, social or moral concern.'

A number of environmental, animalwelfare and religious groups disagree, however, and have organized a coalition in support of the patent moratorium. "The recent federal government ruling that genetically engineered animals can be patented, just as automobiles and toasters [are], encourages the exceedingly dangerous notion that living beings are nothing more than commodities,' the coalition said in a statement issued at the meeting. "Such genetic tinkering is sure to result in enormous suffering to animals and their offspring for generations to come.'

In particular, said Arie R. Brouwer, acoalition member and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, "The combining of human genetic traits with animals . . . raises unique moral, ethical and theological questions.'

Indeed, in light of the already successfulinjection of human genes into animals (SN: 6/29/85, p.405), and the ruling that humans may not be patented, an interesting question remains to be answered: How much human genome does it take to be human?
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Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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