High-Tech Piracy

From one-eyed swordsmen to scientists in rubber gloves, looters once again are seizing the earth’s riches


| March-April 1996



This is part of a series of essays on bioprospecting and biopiracy. The other essays are: “Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?”; “Mapping the Territory”; “Pharmaceutical Giant Shares the Wealth”; “Transnationals With a Conscience”; and “Biodiversity Resources”. 

The brave new frontier of genetic engineering is extending humanity’s reach over the forces of nature as no other technology has ever done. Scientists can now isolate, snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, program, and produce biological and genetic material. In fact, scientists for the first time have the potential to become the architects of life itself, the authors of an ersatz technological evolution designed to create new species of microbes, plants, and animals that are more profitable for agriculture, industry, biomass energy production, and research than the ones nature gave us.

This biotechnology boom in the industrialized world has massively increased corporate demand for an unconventional form of natural resources: not the minerals and fossil fuels of the industrial age, but rather living materials found primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. According to the World Resources Institute, more than half the world’s plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the Third World—and nowhere else on earth. Ironically, as industrial expansion and pollution reduce the number of species, we are witnessing a “gene rush” as governments and multinational corporations aggressively scout the continents in search of genetic material.

“Bioprospecting” is a potential gold mine for both science and business, since genetic material found in the developing world may yield cures for diseases as well as cash. But what also looms on the horizon, and in fact is already occurring in many parts of the developing world, is “biopiracy,” where corporations use the folk wisdom of indigenous peoples to locate and understand the use of medicinal plants and then exploit them commercially. U.S. and European scientists hoping to find cures worth billions of dollars have even taken samples of the blood, hair, and saliva of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, their resources, and even their bodies are being pirated, and they receive little or nothing in return.

The Patenting of Life 

Modern-day biopiracy is not just the product of new science and corporate greed, but also of new law. The economic trigger for bioprospecting was provided by a little-known 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Its impact makes this unheralded court decision one of the most important judicial decisions of the 20th century. The case began in 1971 when Indian microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an employee of General Electric, developed bacteria that could digest oil. That same year, GE applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on Chakrabarty’s genetically engineered oil-eating bacteria. After several years of review, the PTO rejected the application under the traditional legal doctrine that life forms (“products of nature”) are not patentable.