The first afternoon session was entitled “Patents on Life: The Roles of Ethics, Commerce, and Religion” and was Chaired by Professor Tom Berg of the University of St Thomas, Minnesota.
Dr Michael Kock, Global Head of IP, Syngenta spoke on “Patents for life: Towards an ethical use of patents on plant innovations”. Unfortunately, Dr Kock has a German accent that is reminiscent of 1960s style war movies, but his presentation as excellent. It purported to look for a balance between corporate greed and the public good and to critically examine genetic engineering, however, essentially was a very informative and persuasive corporate presentation on why none of our crops can be considered natural, noting that carrots were white, until they were crossed with the Persian purple carrot in nineteenth century Holland as a tribute to the Royal House of Orange, to create the orange root we are familiar with. He argued convincingly, that all food was genetically modified.
Dr Kock focused on why introducing a rot resistant gene from Chinese cabbage into cauliflower, white cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc. by genetic engineering was more efficient than selective breeding. However he didn’t really discuss the more controversial topic of transplanting a gene from one genus to another, with the implicit Spiderman worries. True, the presentation was a carefully crafted presentation from industry. Nevertheless, it does put things into some sort of perspective. He suggested a radical arbitration mechanism based on game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma to determine the correct licensing royalty in IP disputes.
Professor Margo A. Bagley, of theUniversity of Virginia School of Law ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’: Morality and Misappropriation in Life Sciences Patenting” and Professor Paul Heald, Professor of Law, University of Illinois spoke about “One Nation Under Pfizer (or maybe Monsanto)”.
I wondered what Father Gregor Mendel would have thought of it all.
During yet another coffee break, to clarify the point that popular opinion on genetic engineering and science is based on ignorance, someone told me that when presented with a ripe tomato and told that it contained 350,000 genes, 80% of respondents were horrified and wouldn’t eat it.