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Owning Rights to Nature

On Tuesday a very interesting case was argued in front of the Supreme Court regarding patents on seeds by Monsanto (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/business/justices-signal-a-monsanto-edge-in-patent-case.html?ref=earth) . Although it appears the court will likely side with Monsanto the case had me thinking about a topic I often discuss at home with my wife but have never blogged about on Jewcology. GMOs are an interesting topic and there are many different aspects that can bring out passionate debate between individuals. The following link to the World Health Organization discusses many of the potential issues and benefits related to GMOs. The aspect of GMOs that I find most interesting is related to the fact that these genetically modified seeds are patented. There is similar controversy over the ability to patent human genes, an issue that will be heard by the Supreme Court this April (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/02/19/smith-vikos-controversy-over-gene-patenting/).

These are obviously very complicated issues. Certainly as a society we want to encourage scientific research and the ability to patent something like a seed or gene provides an proprietary incentive for investors to put money into research in these areas. That being said, the concept of being able to patent seeds or genes intuitively does not sit right. In the case related to genes the defendant claims that by isolating human genes that already exist in nature, the gene can be patented. If the patent is upheld the company would be allowed to block research on these human genes or other companies would have to pay a fee. Although I am not a fan of the slippery slope argument, in this case I believe there are very real ethical concerns as to where the line will be drawn. If companies can patent a seed or a human gene, what else in nature can patented?

I think these are very interesting questions and as Jews we should certainly be paying attention. Not only because of our responsibility as stewards of the earth but also because these issues can impact us in other ways. While researching this topic I found this 2005 article regarding the same gene and company at issue in the Supreme Court case when it applied for a patent in Europe, discussing how this specific gene is specifically relevant to Jews and a how the Israeli Ministry of Health fought against the patent.http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2005/07/jewish_guinea_pigs.html. Note that a patent in Australia for this same gene was also recently upheld: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-02/15/australia-breast-cancer-gene-patent.

The quest to patent things that are found in nature but then altered in some manner by humans will likely continue. The question we must ask as a society is to what level this practice acceptable and to what extent it is ethical in any form.

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