Worried that the greed of multinational corporations will destroy the world's biodiversity, leading organisations and individuals from all walks of life are appealing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to declare 'biodiversity of the living world' a common heritage of humanity, so as to protect it.

By Someshwar Singh

November 1999

Geneva: Leading organisations and people from all walks of life, including Parliamentarians and Nobel Prize winners, are issuing a joint appeal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to declare 'biodiversity of the living world' a common world heritage of humanity so as to protect it from the greed of multinational corporations.

The appeal, made to UNESCO and other concerned international authorities, says biodiversity is seriously threatened by the expansion, control and profit of some large private MNCs.

'These multinationals, often with the cooperation of the richest and most powerful countries, successfully patent organisms and genes that they have identified,' the signatories say. 'They take this ownership with the intent of strategically furthering their own development.'

This appropriation of organisms and genetic information by powerful companies, they say, occurs to the great detriment of people, notably of those countries in the process of 'development'. It is also against the interests of the producers of natural fibres, natural colouring agents, natural therapeutic treatments, and of the environment as every plant, every animal and every micro-organism become trade objects.

The appeal, which is still gathering more steam from people around the globe, warns people not to be fooled by 'scientific' fronts to genetic modification. 'There are naturally voices that rise in favour of genetic modification of organisms. These voices defend the potential benefits that may come from the culture and breeding of these transgenic animals and plants.'

'Scientists lend their name and their signature to defend the patents and or organisms genes,' the appeal notes. 'Do these scientists understand that the patenting of living things will deprive them of freedom to study the genetic diversity of the biosphere? Public research will be taken hostage in universities and schools of agriculture. How can they study genes which are the property of a multinational corporation, if not by paying rights, or by producing a contribution in kind, to the profit, naturally, of the aforementioned multinational?'

The appeal outlines four good reasons why appropriation of living things by companies puts everyone at risk:

1. People will be subjected to private economic interests, regarding their access to seeds, their right to produce the food they need, and the ability to harvest the natural resources of their prairies and forests. In particular, the natural genetic wealth of 'developing countries' is plundered shamelessly.

2. Environmental risks stem from the invasion of genetically modified organisms into ecosystems that have neither defences nor predators to keep these entities in check. These organisms have been endowed with characteristics that confer a great possibility of survival than their indigenous counterparts. The increase of homogeneity in plant and wildlife populations decreases biodiversity and the genetic wealth of our planet.

3. Threats to health are real. For the fauna, as shown by the example of the Monarch butterfly in the United States, but also for human beings. The transgenic Soya having incorporated a gene from the Brazil nut became allergenic for persons suffering from allergies to this nut.

The numerous doubts regarding health and safety of genetically modified crops must be freely aired. Other organisms can, like the Monarch butterfly of America, feel their habitat becoming toxic for them. The disappearance of these animal and vegetable species becomes more certain as time goes on, further threatening the earth's biodiversity.

4. Finally, transgenic varieties working to take the place of traditionally cultivated plants and bred animals seriously threaten the genetic variety of agricultural crops and domesticated apples. At present, there are more than 1,000 varieties of apples, more than 1,000 varieties of rice. How much variety will remain if companies that monopolise the sale of seed sell only transgenic seeds. Certainly much less. That will be a major ecological disaster: the disappearance of very numerous varieties of plants, domesticated animals and of ornamental flowers.

The appeal questions whether it is really possible to patent life. When seed companies patented a new breed, they patented a new hybrid. This is logical, it says. 'They had worked to create this hybrid during long years of research. But patenting a gene is not at all comparable to patenting a hybrid. In one case, the user pays for the right to use the hybrid. In the other, the user pays for the right to use any transgenic organism which can contain this gene, even himself. So, it is only possible to use this gene by paying rights to the company which holds the patent on it.'

The appeal leaves to imagination the consequences of Einstein patenting his famous equation, Watson and Crick patenting their theory of double-helix structure of DNA, or if the discovery of mercury, oxygen and all other chemical elements had been patented.

'Because of these compelling arguments, the risks to freedom, the threat to the diversity of the species of the living world, and the threat to the food security of all people, we call all the actors of the scientific world, the intellectual world, the artistic world, the political, social and economic worlds, as well as all concerned consumers and citizens, to support the demand that UNESCO classify global biodiversity the common heritage of all humanity,' the appeal notes.

The new Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, took office in mid-November. Outlining some of his priorities, he noted: 'Another priority will concern science in a global approach examining its links to development and to the fate of humanity as a whole, while assessing the many new ethical challenges it poses - as in the case, say, of the human genome.'

Regarding UNESCO's mission to safeguard world heritage, both artistic and natural, Mr Matsuura observed: 'In UNESCO's view, cultural diversity, but also cultural exchange are in fact twin and inseparable notions: whereby we may learn from each, and yet may contribute to all.

'In the light of today's globalisation, it is becoming increasingly important for peoples to protect their cultural identity and heritage, including intangible cultural treasures.' - Third World Network Features


The above article first appeared in SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), Issue No. 4555.