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Monsanto Looks to Patent Pigs

In what critics call a dangerous power grab, the Monsanto Company is seeking wide-ranging control over swine reproduction methods in the form of patents which, if granted, would give the corporation economic rights over any offspring produced using those techniques. Documents obtained by Christoph Then, a Germany-based researcher for Greenpeace, show Monsanto's attempts to secure broad intellectual property protection for swine herds.

Monsanto spokesperson Chris Horner said that the company merely wants protection for its selective breeding processes, including the means to identify specific genes in pigs and use of a specialized insemination device.

"We're not talking about [patenting] individual pigs," he said. "We're talking about the process itself."

But the actual wording of the patent applications appears to rebut this claim.

Besides production methods, Monsanto' applications seek to claim rights to "pig offspring produced by a method ...," a "pig herd having an increased frequency of a specific... gene...," a "pig population produced by the method...," and a "swine herd produced by a method..." respectively. If accepted, these patents would appear to grant Monsanto intellectual property rights to particular farm animals and particular herds of livestock.

"Broader and broader patent claims seem to be a trend," said Charles Margulis, spokesperson for the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group specializing in food policy, "and this is another move forward in that trend."Many say this trend is disturbing as corporations move to exert power and ownership over the fundamental human need for food.

Monsanto is seeking to patent a package of protocols, including a device and several procedures aimed at increasing the effectiveness of artificial insemination.

But Then, who has been studying patents for a decade, said that there is really nothing new to the breeding processes of which Monsanto is seeking to claim exclusive ownership; rather, the patents attempt to privatize farming techniques already in existence for centuries.

"There's no invention in this," he said. "It's just normal pig breeding."

The dangers, Then said, are quite concerning. As food production centralizes, consumers could become dependent upon fewer and fewer companies -- raising the risk of dangerous monopolies. In this case, Monsanto -- already a giant in other arenas -- is making a bold move into pork products, on which American consumers spend about $38 billion each year.

Seeking to patent life forms is a relatively recent development. In a time of rapid scientific advancement, biotechnology companies are rushing to claim new discoveries as their own.

"But discoveries are different from inventions: genes have been in pigs forever," said Margulis. "In this case, it's as if someone had gone out during the California gold rush and tried to patent the process of gold panning, then said 'anyone who ever pans for any gold has to pay me a licensing fee.'"Previous efforts at patenting life forms have mostly focused on genetically modified organisms. But Monsanto's new patent claims would give the company rights over pigs that have not been genetically modified, swine that have merely been produced with certain breeding protocols.

Plus, Margolis contends, Monsanto's history suggests that the new patent applications deserve strict scrutiny.

"We're talking about one of the biggest polluters of the 20th century. This is a company with a 100-year track record of polluting the planet: now they're moving in and trying to control the food supply. This is a very troubling development, and people need to be aware of who is behind it."

For example, before dangerous industrial coolant chemicals called PCBs were banned, Monsanto spent decades producing the toxins and covering up internal studies that showed PCBs were deadly to humans and animal life.

To Then, granting these patents would be shortsighted and pose grave threats to small farmers.

"One patent is related to a genetic condition in pigs," he said. "It could be, in five years or so, that this becomes a desirable condition - nobody knows. If that happens, Monsanto could try to file lawsuits against farmers who own pigs with those genes, even if they've never bought a pig from Monsanto."

Monsanto has already sued farmers with crops containing the firm's patented strains of genetically modified plants. Often, plants with genetically modified genes cross-polinate with non-modified crops in nearby fields and farmers can end up with patented genes in the plants without ever even knowing it.

Food safety activists fully expect that if patents come into effect, Monsanto will begin filing lawsuits to enforce its newly gained intellectual property, targeting other producers -- including individual small farmers -- for using methods already in use. This, the activists say, would undermine local food production.

"That's exactly what's been happening with farmers and genetically engineered crops," says Margulis, "so there's every reason to believe that not only could [lawsuits] happen, but that Monsanto would be the first in line to make that happen."

Monsanto representatives downplayed the significance of the moves, pointing out that the claims have only been filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization, not with any particular country. The WIPO cannot itself grant patents, since it merely serves as a clearinghouse that forwards applications to regional patent offices.

"Anything we'd be looking at in terms of an individual country patent is still a ways away yet," said Horner.

He did not specify a timeframe, but did say that even though Monsanto is seeking patents in more than 100 countries, it would focus on the US market.

Irrespective of the practical implications, many critics say that placing patents on life is never justified.

"Genes should be looked at as the common heritage of nature," said Margulis, "and they shouldn't be owned by anyone."