Patents on life

One of the consequences of the introduction of techniques for genetic engineering is that living organisms are now considered to be patentable. In 1992, the first mammal, the so-called "oncomouse", was patented in Europe. Other patents granted at that time covered genetically engineered plants, micro-organisms and human DNA-sequences.

From an ethical point of view, the patenting of laboratory animals is particularly problematic. To date, more than 1500 patents have been granted in Europe on genetically engineered animals for use in animal experiments. These patents have handed industry an instrument to capitalise on so-called animal models, rather than engage in seeking medical applications. Patents provide economic incentives to produce genetically engineered animals and perform additional animal experiments. Put simply, genetically engineered animals are rapidly becoming a commodity, and just like any other patented product they can be produced in large quantities and sold for maximum profit during the 20-year period until the patent expires.

Ethical concerns are also relevant in the case of patents that claim parts of the human body such as genes, organs, germ cells and embryonic cells. In the final instance these patents imply commercialisation of the human body.
The scope of patents granted in the area of plant breeding and agriculture is extremely broad and often covers the whole chain of food production. These patents are nothing less than an abuse of patent law and an attempt to take control of genetic resources and food production. Already just three companies, Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, control more than 50% of the international seed market. These companies can also decide to a large extent which plants will be bred and cultivated in the future. In Europe, more than 2400 patents on plants and seeds have already been granted.