3 Key Biodiversity Insights from Vandana Shiva’s Biopiracy

biopiracyVandana Shiva, a prominent scientist, activist, and feminist, has profoundly shifted my thinking about the preservation of biodiversity recently. Thanks to her book, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, published in 1997, I now see how patent protections negatively impact biologically diverse regions of the world when they support the competitive and monopolizing ownership of seeds, medicinal plants, agricultural crops, and other biological agents by multinational corporations. These patents promote private ownership over natural resources in a way that systemically prevents biodiversity preservation through the traditional use of the land by women, indigenous people, and farmers in the Third World.

How did I come to these conclusions? By reading a short, but enlightening book by one of my favorite activists, Vandana Shiva. Biopiracy raises insightful objections to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which was effective as of 1995. For more details on her activism, Shiva’s campaign site regarding Biopiracy can be found here. In this post, I identify a few of the important elements of biodiversity thinking that are raised within Shiva’s arguments.

The TRIPs Controversy

TRIPs is an internationally binding agreement with far-reaching implications for its 162 signatory states. Adopted in 1995, Shiva notes that it was conceived by representatives of 12 of the largest corporations in the world with no democratic input from farmers, environmentalists, or other interested groups. It directly contradicts another significant internationally binding agreement with 196 party states, the Convention on Biological Diversity. Details on the exact contradictions between these two agreements are detailed in full by GRAIN.

TRIPs grants a legal framework for placing patent-protections on biological facets of nature such as species, hormones, seeds, plant parts, and more. Indian activists such as Vandana Shiva and those of the Gene Campaign have been at the forefront of resistance to these patent protections because of its threat to the traditional farming sector. In India, traditional farmers produce far more seed than corporations holding seed patents. They use traditional practices of seed collection and replanting to sustain, cultivate, and produce crops, which patent protections restrict. Furthermore, they have traditional farming practices that promote species interactions, in other words, farming that promotes biodiversity. Species interactions are at odds with patent protections over seeds because these seed patents isolate patented species as commodities that should be sold and marketed as a discreet entity in the sphere of intellectual property.

The legal justification for TRIPs is derived from the landmark legal decision known as ex parte Hibberd. Hibberd was a scientist who patented a strain of corn for its tissue, seed, and whole plant in 1985 with an application that requested patent protections for over 206 aspects of the plant. As Shiva notes, “While Hibberd apparently provides a new legal context for corporate competition, the most profound impact will be felt in the competition between farmers and the seed industry” (55). As mentioned, such a legal framework, which was largely adopted by TRIPs, specifically prevents traditional farming practices by requiring farmers using patented seeds to grow them once and then purchase them again later. Likewise, if the patented seed scatters onto a farmer’s land unbeknownst to him or her, a corporation holding the patented seed can sue them for violating their ownership rights.

However, placing ownership over natural processes has also led to other bizarre legal scenarios such as scientists patenting a naturally produced hormone in female ovaries. In another example, pharmaceutical companies applied for intellectual rights over a common medicinal plant called Neem in India. It was so widely known and commonly used before the pharmaceutical industry “discovered” its benefits, that it had seemed absurd to apply for privately owned patent protections over it.

Reductionist Biology

Shiva’s book points out the danger of what she terms “reductionist biology.” By establishing the rights of individual ownership over naturally occurring biological processes or agents, a number of consequences for biodiversity arise.

Firstly, such patents prioritize the regulation of species as individuated resources. This in fact puts a legal strain the unregulated processes of evolution, adaptation, and interactions among species, which are all inherent features of ecosystems. Biodiversity thrives because of varied species interactions in ecological communities, so any regulation of such processes prohibits the likelihood of effective conservation.

Secondly, biological patent-protections promote the cultivation of monocultures by individuating species through ownership. In agriculture, patented species designed to be produced as high-yielding monocultures are disproportionately designed to survive with the aid of expensive chemical pesticides, creating both a financial and environmental burdens for farmers. In many cases, the high-yield of such crops is also temporary, as they deplete the soil over time, unlike polycultures which benefit the soil. In other cases, the newly cultivated super-species become invasive and disturb the natural biodiversity balance in the environment. This industrial preference for monocultures disproportionately affects the regions and communities with the greatest biodiversity in the tropics of the global south. Such a phenomena is ongoing due to the palm oil industry in Indonesia, as I’ve previously written about.

Thirdly, industrial patent-protections on biological species give established corporations with a legal advantage the ability to co-opt existing traditional, communally held knowledge of indigenous people and Third World communities. They do so by claiming individual ownership rights to local biological resources through private patent protections, which restricts the traditional use and cultivation of beneficial plants. Moreover, this disproportionately affects women of the third world who make up a very high percentage of traditional farmers.


Three Key Biodiversity Insights

Shiva’s book goes further by providing key insights into biodiversity thinking that help to enrich our understanding of biodiversity protection.

One: No one should be obliged to follow prescriptive treaties that prevent pre-existing biological creativity or a species’ right to life

Shiva points out that TRIPs actually prevents species’ a priori rights to scatter seed, reproduce, procreate, and interact with other species and the environment without artificial ownership predetermining these interactions. These are rights that inherently belong to all species and they naturally lead to genetically diverse and robust species variation. Shiva claims, “All life-forms have an inherent right to life; that should be the overriding reason for preventing species’ extinction” (77).

This creative capacity applies to human social systems as well, which become more vibrant the more they tolerate diversity. She suggests that people’s self-organization is a birthright and no justice or peace will derive from an inherently unjust, undemocratic, and ill-founded law.

Two: Biodiversity is as vital resource that cannot be reduced to a raw material

Shiva points out that through the lens of patent protections, species with beneficial properties for humans can be “mined” from biologically diverse regions, which is why TRIPs identifies its patenting practice as “bioprospecting.” However, this places an globalized “instrumental” view on biodiversity as a latent source of raw materials used to derive profit. This view disrupts the communally held values placed on regions of great biological diversity.

For many people living in these regions and deriving benefit from them, biodiversity is a source of life as essential as water. The ecosystem provides resources “for nutrition, for health care, for energy, for fiber, and for housing,” which is why Shiva calls biodiversity a “people’s resource” not a “global commons” (66).

Furthermore, communities of life arise from very specific local climate conditions, which local indigenous people likewise adapt to and benefit from through their traditional knowledge that is rooted in a particular place. The paradigm of global markets and privatized intellectual property destroys important regional communal knowledge, ties and interactions between people and nature. Rather than merely a raw material, biodiversity provides benefit as a dynamic system of knowledge, interaction, change, growth, and productivity which is a life-support base for poor communities. Shiva writes, “We need a transition to an alternative economic paradigm that does not reduce all value to market prices and all human activity to commerce” (66).

Three: Underlying colonial, patriarchal, and monopolizing ideals govern these patent protections which lead to the negative consequence of stealing common knowledge from people of the Third World and from women

For Shiva, patent protections are part of a colonial system of ownership that imposes patriarchal, Western market values on resources that have been traditionally held in common by indigenous people. This occurs in a way that disenfranchises them of their rights to self-organization, traditional life, communal ownership of resources, and alternate economic systems. She suggests that the monopolizing effect TRIPs has for industry eliminates diversity both in nature and in the social sphere. Her critique goes beyond mere psychology into the fundamental belief system that plays a part in this framework of knowledge. She writes the following:

Ownership is thus acquired through invasive and fragmenting technology and control and ownership of resources and people that forms the basis of the patriarchal project of knowledge as power over others.

Such a project is based on the acceptance of three separations: the separation of mind and body; the gendered separation of male activity as intellectual and female activity as biological; and the separation of the knower and the known. These separations allow for the political construction of a creation boundary that divides the thinking, active male from the unthinking, passive female, and from nature. (60)

Furthermore, she asserts a poignant reminder of the classic colonizing binary of the savage versus the civilized peoples of the world. This binary asserts Western values as progressive and forward-thinking, while indigenous values are assumed to be primitive. She contradicts this by asserting the future importance of the knowledge about sustainability held by indigenous peoples, which complements our most pressing environmental dilemmas:

Community rights to biodiversity, and farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ contributions to the evolution and protection of biodiversity, also need to be recognized by treating their knowledge systems as futuristic, not primitive. (77)

Shiva’s book also cites the history of how the global right to free trade has been used to colonize the developing world, particularly in India, her home. She provides the Green Revolution as an example of enforced harmful agricultural processes. The premise was that large-scale commercial agricultural processes could help to feed larger numbers of people in developing countries than their existing farming practices could. However, Shiva notes how this failed policy resulted in farmers’ dependence on chemical pesticides that added harmful toxins into the environment that farmers live in close proximity to, depletion of soil quality, and diminished biodiversity, which gave communities the added medicinal and nutritional benefits eliminated by the substitution of monocultures.

The Green Revolution was aided by the General Agreement on Free Trade (GATT), which was effective from 1948 until 1995 and transformed into what is now the WTO. It enabled the competition of subsidized commercial farming to deprive traditional farmers of their livelihoods. These and further consequences of GATT are also outlined here.

Shiva continuously points to the hypocrisy of the global order of free trade as an emancipatory framework for society, due to its consequences of violence, strife, and environmental degradation for the global south.

Final Thoughts

The result of reading Biopiracy for me was an ability to connect global trade policy directly to the dilemma of mass extinction in a meaningful way. Furthermore, it gives empowering strategies and principles to defend when articulating the intrinsic value of biodiversity for people in the face of environmentally degrading biotechnology which falsely claims to hold the key to the health and nutrition of society. I encourage you to read it and learn more about Vandana Shiva’s work.



2 thoughts on “3 Key Biodiversity Insights from Vandana Shiva’s Biopiracy

  1. Erica,

    Excellent post and summary. I abhor the idea of patents in general and wonder what obligation nations have to honor patents granted in another country. I also wonder how long the corporations can control their seeds, since plants have their own ideas about who to cross-breed with.

    That doesn’t change the fact that such monopolization represents a dangerous trend, as you so eloquently note. The more these corporations can be named and exposed, the better, I think.


  2. Thank you and thanks for reading! Nice to hear from you and congratulations on your recent novel post on your site.

    You’re right–plants themselves certainly won’t obey patent protections, so why should farmers, plant breeders, etc? And, by the way, since you mentioned naming names–here is the list of organizations and business involved in creating TRIPs:

    “The framework for the TRIPs agreement was conceived and shaped by three organizations–the Intellectual Property Committee (IPC), Keidanren, and the Union of Industrial and Employees Confederations (UNICE). IPC is a coalition of 12 major U.S. corporations: Bristol Myers, DuPont, General Electric, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Monsanto, Pfizer, Rockwell, and Warner. Keidanren is a federation of economic organizations in Japan, and UNICE is recognized as the official spokesperson for European business and industry” (81).


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