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Anti-biotechnology activists and non-governmental organisations from more than 50 nations have announced their support for a proposal to establish an international treaty that aims to ban the patenting of plant and animal life.

The move is intended as a protest against the growing number of patents on human, animal and plant genes and genetically engineered organisms that have been granted to companies and institutions — giving them exclusive rights to what the campaigners say is a ‘shared legacy’.

“The gene pool should not be allowed to be claimed as commercially negotiable genetic information or intellectual property by governments, commercial enterprises, other institutions or individuals,” says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the US-based Foundation on Economic Trends, one of the leading organisations behind the treaty.

But industry representatives argue that gene patenting is vital to allow companies to recoup their investment in the research needed to produce new products. “The patent system has been working to date and has allowed for the development of medicines and new technologies,” says a spokesperson from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

The Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons is supported by more than 250 non-governmental organisations from both North and South. They plan to encourage governments to adopt the treaty at the Rio+10 conference in South Africa later this year.

The activists argue that the current patenting system, which allows companies from the developed world to patent genes originating in organisms from the biodiversity-rich developing countries, conflicts with the rights of nation states and indigenous peoples. “It is a classic case of colonialism, but now in the form of biocolonialism,” says Rifkin.

They also argue that it is wrong to talk of a scientist 'inventing' a life-form, seed, cell line, protein or DNA sequence.

But Rifkin acknowledges that creating a legally-binding treaty prohibiting all patents on life will not be easy. “I’m looking at a time plan of 20 years,” he says.

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