TRIPs and the Environment

by Vandana Shiva

In the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement of GATT, life forms have been included as subject matter for IPR protection through article 27.5.3(b).

TRIPs therefore has implications for biodiversity conservation and the environment. The most significant ecological impacts of TRIPs are related to changes in the ecology of species interactions and changes in the socio-cultural context of conservation.

1. Spread of monocultures as corporations with Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) attempt to maximise returns on investments by increasing market shares.

2. Increased use of chemicals as biotechnology patents create an impetus for genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crops.

3. New risks of 'biological pollution' as patented genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment.

4. Undermining of the ethics of conservation as the intrinsic value of species is replaced by instrumental value associated with intellectual property rights.

5. Undermining of traditional communities' biodiversity and hence a weakening of their capacity to conserve biodiversity.


Corporations that get IPRs for plants or animals have the pressure to maximise their returns on investment by maximising their market shares. The same variety of crop or livestock is therefore spread worldwide, leading to the displacement of hundreds of local varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. The spread of monocultures and the destruction of diversity is an essential aspect of global markets protected by IPRs. Monocultures are ecologically unstable, and that reason alone should be enough to NOT view them as essential to production. Monocultures invite diseases and pests, as was experienced in 1970-71 in the US with the corn blight epidemic which laid waste 15% of the nation's crop, because of genetic uniformity. Eighty per cent of the hybrid corn in US in 1970 was planted with corn which contained T.cytoplasm which made the corn plants vulnerable to the corn blight fungus, H.maydis. It had been used by plant breeders and seed companies to foster quick and profitable production of high-yielding, hybrid corn seed, but the introduced cytoplasm was vulnerable to corn blight.

According to the 1972 US National Academy of Sciences study on Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops, 'The corn crop fell victim to the epidemic because of a quirk in the technology that had designed the corn plants of America, until, in one sense, they had become as alike as identical twins. Whatever made one plant susceptible make them all susceptible'.

The spread of monocul-tures of 'fast-growing species' in forestry and 'high-yielding varieties' in agriculture has been justified on grounds of increased productivity. All technological transformation of biodiver-sity is justified in the language of 'improvement' and increase of 'economic value'. However, 'improvement' and 'value' are not neutral terms. They are contextual and value-laden. Improvement of tree species means one thing for a paper corporation which needs pulping wood and an entirely different thing for a peasant who needs fodder and green manure. Improvement of crop species means one thing for a processing industry and something totally different for a self-provisioning farmer.


Patent protection as guaranteed under TRIPs will encourage biotech-nological interventions and accelerate the release of genetically engineered organisms in the environment. While the sales appeal of genetic engineering is through the 'green' image of chemical free agriculture, most agricultural applications of biotechnology have a focus on increased use of agrichemicals. The impact of these applications will be higher in the Third World because the native biodiversity is higher and because livelihoods dependent on this diversity are higher. Most research and innovation in agricultural biotech is being undertaken by chemical multinationals such as Ciba Geigy, ICI, Monsanto, Hoechst. The immediate strategy for these companies is to increase the use of pesticides and herbicides by developing pesticide and herbicide tolerant varieties. The dominant focus of research in genetic engineering is not on fertiliser free and pest free crops, but pesticide and herbicide resistant varieties. Twenty-seven corporations are working on virtually all major food crops to develop herbicide tolerance. For the seed-chemical multinationals, this might make commercial sense since it is cheaper to adopt the plant to the chemical then to adopt the chemical to the plant.

The cost of developing a new crop variety rarely reaches $2 million whereas the cost of a new herbicide exceeds $40 million. Herbicide and pesticide resistance will also increase the integration of seeds/chemicals and the control of multinational companies (MNCs) in agriculture. A number of major agrichemical companies are developing plants with resistance to their brand of herbicides. Soya beans have been made resistant to Ciba-Geigy's Atrazine herbicides, and this has increased annual sales of the herbicide by $120 million. Research is also being done to develop crop plants resistant to other herbicides such as Dupont's 'Gist' and 'Glean' and Monsanto's 'Round-Up' which are lethal to most herbaceious plants and thus cannot be applied directly to crops. The successful development and sale of crop plants resistant to brand name herbicides will result in further economic concentration of the agro-industry market increasing the market power of transnational companies.

The Ministry of Environment, of Denmark, in its environmental risk assessment of the use of herbicide-resistant agricultural crops has stated:

The present case is concerned with a plant which exists as a weed in other crops and which is closely related to wild species. As described below, there may be an exchange of genes between oilseed rape and related species. The spreading of resistance, especially combinations of resistance - will make it more difficult to eradicate oilseed rape with minimal use of herbicides and the rape itself will also appear as a weed which is difficult to control in other crops. Patterns of herbicide use probably change. In this particular case, resistance has also been introduced to a herbicide (Basta) which is characterised by being effective against practically all weed species of importance. It is therefore to be expected that the transfer of resistant genes to weeds will cause a gradual spreading of resistance to this agent and is thus likely to result in increased and wider use of herbicides.


The promotion of genetic engineering through biotechnology patents will also introduce a new kind of 'biological' pollution, resulting from 'converting the phyto genetic tree of DNA into an interspecies network' (Dr Peter Wills).

Strategies for genetic engineering for herbicide resistance which are destroying useful species of plants can also end up creating superweeds. There is an intimate relationship between weeds and crops, especially in the tropics where weedy and cultivated varieties have genetically interacted over centuries and hybridise freely to produce new varieties. Genes for herbicide tolerance, pest-resistance, stress-tolerance that genetic engineers are striving to introduce into crop plants may be transferred to neighbouring weeds as a result of naturally occurring gene transfer.

The hazards of gene transfer to wild relatives are higher in the Third World, because these regions are home to most of the world's biodiversity. As the MNC guide to 'Field Testing' Genetically Modified Organisms' states:

Temperate North America, especially the United States, includes the home ranges for very few crops, as US Agriculture is based largely on crops of foreign origin.

This paucity of crops derived from North-American sources means there will be relatively few opportunities for hybridisation between crops and wild relatives in the United States. The incidence of hybridisation between genetically modified crops and wild relatives can be expected to be lower here than in Asia Minor, South East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and South America, and greater care may be needed in the introduction of genetically modified crops in those regions.

Recent experiments in Denmark confirm the risks of transfer of transgenes to wild relatives. Spontaneous hybridisation rates of 0.3%-8% were measured for oilseed rape and its wild relative Brassica Campestris suggesting that cultivation of genetically modified oilseed rape might result in spread of transgenes to related wild species by hybridisation. (R Jorgensen and B Anderson, Spontaneous Hybridisation: A risk of growing genetically modified oilseed rape Am J of Botany, 81 (12) 1994) in which the objective is to make designer plants for higher chemical use, (eg. herbicide tolerance) genetic engineering will lead to an increased use of chemicals with all associated environmental risks of chemical pollution.

Genetically-engineered organisms also create new risks of biological pollution. As Dr Peter Wills has stated, there are serious but unpredictable consequences of 'converting the phyto-genetic tree of DNA into an interspecies network'.

Recent experiments have established large-scale transfer of engineered traits into related species.


Intrinsic value of other species creates a prima facie duty and responsibility of humans not to use organisms as lifeless, valueless, structureless objects. When this intrinsic value of species is replaced by the instrumental value built into IPR claims, the ethical basis for conservation of biodiversity is undermined.

This compassion is the basis of ancient religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism as well as the basis of new movement such as the protests against live calf exports and hunts in the US.

Article 2 of TRIPs allows exclusions of patents on life on ethical and ecological grounds. However, most groups most concerned with these ethical issues do not even know that trade treaties could have implications for their fundamental ethical principles. It should therefore be obligatory that before the TRIPs implementation takes place, the implications for lifeforms are publicised and the views of diverse groups are heard.

When organisms are treated as if they are machines, an ethical shift takes place from intrinsic value to the instrumental value of life. This shift to instrumental value has further ethical implications in terms of increasing the vulnerability of organisms to disease. The manipulation of animals for industrial ends has already had major ethical, ecological and health implications. The reductionist, machine view of animals removes all barriers of ethical concern for how animals are treated to maximise production in a reductionist paradigm. The mechanistic view is the dominant mode for the industrial livestock production sector. For eg., a manager of the meat industry states that:

The breeding sow should be thought of as, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery, whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine. (Evelyn Fox Keller, 'A feeling for the organism, The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, Freeman & Co., New York 1983, P99)

However, treating pigs like machines has major impacts on pig behaviour and pig health, because pigs are living organisms, not machines. Pigs in animal factories have to have their tails, their teeth, their testicles cut off because they fight with each other and resort to what the industry calls 'cannibalism'. Eighteen per cent of piglets in factory farms are choked to dealth by their mother. Two to five per cent are born with congenital defects such as sprayed legs, no anus, inverted mammary glands. They are prone to diseases, such as 'banana disease' (because stricken pigs arch their backs into a banana shape) or PSS (Porcine Stress Syndrome).

These stresses and diseases are bound to increase with genetic engineering as is already signalled in the pig with the human growth hormone, whose body weight is more than its legs can carry, or cows injected with bovine growth hormone.

The issues of health and animal welfare are intrinsically related to the ecological impact of the new technologies and on the capacity of self regulation and healing.


IPRs in the area of biodiversity and life forms is not merely a creation of new rights, they also involve a rewriting of traditional rights which enabled local communities to be the keepers of biodiversity, with a stake in its replenishment and utilisation. IPRs in seeds, plant material, indigenous knowledge systems alienate the rights of local communities and undermine the stake they have in the protection of biodiversity.

This is what happened when village forests were 'enclosed' as Reserved Forests by the British in colonial India. When local communities lost their rights to their own forests their responsibilities to protect the forest were simultaneously taken away.

When seeds are covered by patents or plant breeder rights, and market forces combine with IPR protection to shift seed supply from the farmer to the corporation, farmers rights as breeders and innovators are undermined and the incentives for on-farm conservation are undone, leading to rapid genetic erosion.