TORONTO, June 10, 1988 -- Legislation now before the House of Commons raises serious ethical issues and could impose extra hardship on Canadian farmers, the Anglican Church of Canada says.
Bill C-107, an act to establish "plant-breeders rights", has received first reading in the House. The church says there should be public hearings across Canada before the bill receives second reading.
In a letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the Church's general secretary lists several concerns about the legislation which would allow corporations to take out patents on plants. David Woeller says this raises important ethical questions: "Something as basic to the future of all human beings as food must be seen in a context broader than that of individual or corporate property rights and must not be decided only by plant scientists and big business."
The letter notes that this is the first time Parliament has addressed the concept of "patenting" life forms. It says once any kind of life form -- even plant life -- becomes established as a commodity to be bought and sold, it will become extremely difficult to draw the line: "The United States began with plant patenting but has moved to allow patenting for micro-organisms and animals.
"Earlier this year Harvard University was granted a patent for a mouse containing human genes ..... There is no difference between human genetic material and the genetic material of any other species."
The letter raises three additional concerns:
First it says "Bill C-107 is addressing the wrong issue". The real issue is to ensure adequate funds for agricultural research. It suggests this should be done through public funding, rather than through increasing profits to agricultural companies. It says there should be a white paper on the future of agricultural research to allow Canadians to consider this issue in its broader context.
Second, the evidence suggests that "agricultural input costs will increase substantially" as a result of the legislation".
-- there will be an immediate increase in seed costs of 10 percent, according to an estimate by the Manitoba department of agriculture;
-- several estimates predict a further rapid rise in prices, by at least 30 percent;
-- the example of pharmaceutical companies causes special concern. These companies recently received similar patent protection for prescription drugs. At that time, the federal government said price increases would not exceed the Consumer Price Index (about 5 percent). In fact, a study by the government of Ontario revealed that more than 1,000 drugs had excessive price increases over a six month period -- and some increased by more than 100 percent ! Many of the pharmaceutical companies responsible for these price increases are the same companies which seek patents on their seeds.
Third, the bill would operate to the detriment of Third World agriculture which has supplied us with much of our "germplasm" -- the genetic material of plant breeding -- free of charge. Bill C-107 flies in the face of United Nations initiatives to ensure "farmers' rights".
The letter concludes by urging the government to initiate public hearings to be held across the country before proceeding with the legislation.
That the National Executive Council convey to the Government of Canada its concerns with respect to Bill C-107 regarding Plant Breeders' Rights and in particular the following concerns:
1. That a wide genetic diversity of plant stock be preserved and their availability maintained.
2. That plant breeding research and development not ignore those crops designed for relatively small markets or for regions with specific needs.
3. That the present level of funding for public research and development be increased.
4. That royalties received from publicly produced cultivar be returned to support the plant breeding program that developed the variety.
5. That the free exchange of research information be increased.
6. That excessive price increases for seeds and plant stock be avoided and that the financial needs and constraints of Canadian farmers and consumers be considered, should any increase in cost occur.
7. That government maintain a responsible presence and control over research and pricing.
8. That the 18 year patent period be reassessed and decreased.
9. That the full implications of patenting life forms be explored in depth and the ethical and legal questions addressed in greater detail.
10. That the question of ownership vis-a-vis the concentration of productive power of food resources be squarely addressed and the ethical and geo-political implications responsibly explored.
11. That efforts be made to develop new plant stocks that are less dependent upon agro-chemicals.
12. That the well-being of the natural environment be a major consideration in granting patents to any new seed stock.
13. That the needs of the Third World, in terms of food production and agricultural practices compatible to ecological and economic conditions, be responsibly considered.
14. That the issue of possible conflict of interest of patent holders be addressed. (In many cases, the same key international companies are involved in the debate over generic drugs, generic pesticides and plant breeding legislation. The question to be addressed is how appropriate is it for the same company to hold a patent on a given seed stock that requires the application of an agro-chemical patented by that company.)
15. That in granting patents for new foods stocks where possible nutritional content takes precedence over such factors as uniformity of size, ripening time, colour, etc., that is over factors that have more to do with aesthetics, convenience and efficiency than with nutrition.
16. That public and open hearings begin as soon as possible so that all sides of the debate may be heard and that the ethical, ecological, political and commercial implications of such a Bill can be more fully explored before any final action is taken.
Following lengthy discussion, it was the consensus that the above motion should be referred and it was:
That the above motion regarding Plant Breeders' Rights be referred to the Executive Director of Program, for staff work as appropriate noting the need for urgency. CARRIED #53-05-88