Physicist says seed patents wrong

Dr. Vandana Shiva, winner of the Thomas Merton Award, said that companies should not be able to patent genetically altered seeds. (credit: Kechun(Coco) Mao/) Dr. Vandana Shiva, winner of the Thomas Merton Award, said that companies should not be able to patent genetically altered seeds. (credit: Kechun(Coco) Mao/)

Students and faculty members gathered in the Connan Room of the University Center last Thursday to participate in a conversation with Vandana Shiva, an eco-feminist and physicist.

Shiva came to Pittsburgh to accept the Thomas Merton Award given by the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit, for her remarkable contributions to world peace and social justice.

In her lecture, Shiva shared personal stories and talked about a wide range of topics, from biopiracy — the practice of exploiting nature for commercial gain, as when a particular seed is patented by a company — to hunger.

“I grew up in the Himalayan forest. My father was a forest council officer,” she said. “I’ve seen the Himalayan forest rich and dense, but I remember the particular day when I went swimming and my favorite tree wasn’t there because forest trees were chopped down for an apple orchard.”

Shiva said that her childhood memories exerted huge impacts on her values and the path she would take later. In 1991, Shiva founded Navdanya, a national movement in India to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seeds.

Shiva’s work has involved her in the campaign against biopiracy. She said that no one can invent and have ownership of a plant simply by introducing a gene into it. However, companies such as Monsanto genetically modified seeds and then tried to patent them so that farmers had to pay for every “patented” seed to those companies.

Shiva gave the audience a personal analogy of biopiracy, using her own physical disability.

“Now I was wheeled very kindly to [the Connan Room] in this wheelchair,” she said. “Do I turn around and say because I’ve introduced a new element to the room, this room built in Carnegie Mellon is something I created? And now Carnegie Mellon gives me rent? It’s a ridiculous notion. And all we’ve done in genetic engineering is just shoot a gene.”

“I believe in integrity of biodiversity,” she added. “And for me, it’s ethically wrong to say that ‘I’ve invented this life form.’  ”

In 2004, Navdanya scored a victory against biopiracy when the European Patent Office in Munich revoked Monsanto’s patent on the Indian variety of wheat “Nap Hal.” Back in India, Shiva’s organization has helped set up 65 community seed banks across the country to protect diversity of seeds.

Students and professors had positive feedback following Shiva’s lecture.

Caroline Acker, a history professor and a historian of medicine and public health, supported Shiva’s ideas. “I appreciated Dr. Shiva’s discussion of the patenting of life forms such as seeds. The idea of patents was developed so as to encourage innovation and thus a diversity of possibilities. Ironically, as Dr. Shiva noted, the patenting of seeds and the insistence on selling them contributes to monoculture and to cultivation of single varieties of crops.”

Jihoon Min, a Ph.D. student in the department of engineering and public policy, said, “I think [Shiva] is great, because she was educated through a totally Western perspective, which can be an obstacle that will prevent average people from having a holistic view about the world, or from respecting the local knowledge of local people. She went beyond this obstacle and made people around the world sympathize with the environmental issues and the corporate violence.”