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Ontario government supports Schmeiser

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- What does Percy Schmeiser have in common with a test for breast cancer? The answer? Tony Clement. Yes, I realize none of that makes any sense, but read on and all will be explained.

Percy Schmeiser, of course, is the Saskatchewan farmer locked in a battle with Monsanto over its patent on Roundup Ready canola. Tony Clement is the former Ontario Minister of Health, now taking a run for the leadership of the new federal Conservative party. The breast cancer test, the link that brought together unlikely bedfellows Schmeiser and Clement, is one owned by a company called Myriad Genetics, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In late 2000, Myriad Genetics received U.S. patents on mutated parts, or sequences, of two human genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 and on a test to detect those genes. Women who have the BRCA genes have a significant chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Several types of early intervention of can reduce that risk greatly.

Myriad's patent is very broad. It claims ownership of the whole BRCA1 and 2 genes, any information relating to or derived from them, and all methods developed to diagnose and treat hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. If anyone develops another test for the BRCA genes, Myriad claims to own that as well.

Canada has a habit of following the lead of the U.S. patent office in granting patents like these. Thus, Myriad was given essentially the same patent in Canada as it has in the U.S.

Myriad has threatened to sue anyone using any test but its own to detect the genes. (There are other tests, which some claim are more effective.) Myriad also demands that all tests be sent to its lab in Utah for analysis, for a fee of $2300. Canadian provinces, including Ontario have been using a far cheaper test to detect the gene - one costing less than $800. Myriad has ordered Canadian provinces to stop using other tests. Some have given in to Myriad's threats, but not Ontario. In refusing, Tony Clement called gene patenting "abhorrent".

The breadth of patents on living organisms, human genes and the like is often alarming. Take the case of Larry Proctor. Proctor got some yellow beans from Mexico, grew them for a few years, then applied for a patent on them. The U.S. patent office ignored the fact that yellow beans have been grown in Mexico for thousands of years. They rewarded Proctor's biopiracy with a patent not just on his variety of yellow bean, but on all beans with a yellow seed coat. American companies that were importing yellow beans from Mexico were faced with a demand from Proctor for royalties.

An even more extreme example is found in Monsanto's European patent over all genetically modified soybeans. This resulted from a patent given to a company that Monsanto later bought out. Monsanto now owns a patent on all existing genetically modified soybeans, no matter how they were developed, and on all future soybean varieties that might be developed by genetic modification, no matter what technique might be used. It is an unbelievably comprehensive patent. Monsanto controls, in effect, half of the soybeans grown worldwide.

Patents such as these, and the patent on the breast cancer gene have a chilling effect on further research. Anyone wanting to do further work on inherited breast cancer would be forced to purchase the right to do so from Myriad. Anyone wanting to genetically modify soybeans would have to pay Monsanto for the privilege.

It was the fear of such patents on living organisms that brought the government of Ontario, via Tony Clement, to the Supreme Court of Canada on January 20, to intervene on the side of Percy Schmeiser. Clement was adamant that genes and all living organisms should be excluded from patenting. Clement was ousted along with the Conservative government in Ontario, but the new Liberal administration is carrying on the fight.

Some farm groups have defended Monsanto's Roundup Ready patent and its prosecution of Schmeiser in simplistic terms, claiming that if the patent is revoked, research in Canada will end. This is simply untrue, because plant breeders have other ways to profit from the distribution of their progeny. It is also unfortunate, because the issue being decided by the Supreme Court has implications far beyond the canola fields of western Canada. The existence of patents may be a stimulus to research, but it can also be a barrier to research. Adding to this, there is much wrong with the way our patent office grants broad patents. Farm groups and their leaders should become better informed on these complex issues, rather than follow Monsanto's self-serving lead.

(c) Paul Beingessner, (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax