Social Implications

Discovery or Invention?

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Original art by Lee Massey, 1999

If you were asked what the difference is between discovery and invention, how would you answer? Most people would agree with Webster's Collegiate Dictionary when it defines discovery as a "disclosure of pertinent facts or documents." Invention on the other hand is "to produce (as something useful) for the first time through the use of the imagination or of ingenious thinking and experiment." While the former relates to facts, and the latter ties to the imagination, how would you feel if both discovery and invention had the right to be patented? It might be seen as unethical to patent genes, for example, because they are merely a discovery rather than an invention. Currently, the patenting of plant genes is an ongoing ethical debate.

Large corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis are currently patenting plant genes to promote industrial innovation and economic growth. Patents on genes within genetically engineered foods such as corn, soybeans, and tomatoes, are happening today. Genetically modified foods, otherwise known as GMOs, are a prized commodity among the large corporations because they have potential to dominate all farming practices in the world. Monsanto and Novartis, among other seed engineers, promote GMO technology because it serves the welfare of humanity, as it attempts to feed to world population. The average yield may be increased under identical conditions, and resistance to parasites and herbicides may be developed. Corporations also claim that there are environment benefits due to the toxins added to the plants that ward off bad pests so that farmers do not have to spray as many pesticides. There are ongoing debates about all of these potentials, including the abundance of corporate monetary benefits. This is where the real issue of patenting takes its place.

To counter the effect of these supposedly positive aspects are anti-GMOs who represent the welfare of the public. These individuals are in stride with development and aid organizations, farmers, and organizations of indigenous people's rights and the environment. Among the many non-governmental organizations are scientists, who often discuss the possible affects of rapid unleashing of hundreds of transgenic plants. These anti-GMO forces have very important questions, such as: how can life be patented, especially life that is merely a discovery? How is it fair that "the limits to morality in patent context are set by the ethical norms which are established in the individual professional fields (Szarka)?" Shouldn't there be an ethical advisory team which helps include the concerns of all anti-GMOs so that it safe-guards public security, protects the physical integration of individuals, and encompasses the protection of the environment?

It is clear that the GMO industries have vested interest in pushing forward a particular technology. What is still left to be answered is: who in these communities stands for a moral and ethical dimension? There is a powerful body who argue that in biotechnology, patent protection is an indispensable means to promote industrial innovation and economic growth. Thus, it is very difficult to keep the balance of the various interests; in particular between the preservation of the freedom of research, the maintenance of competitiveness of the biotechnological industry in the given country or on the given field, and the moral issues which ask us to what extent can mankind intervene in the biological order of the Earth and its living things, including human beings(Szarka)?

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