Proposed World Trade Organization logo

What's wrong with the WTO? > Site map 
Ceilings on standards > this page > Public services 
The Teargas Ministerial  > Trade economics 

175pxls.gif (78 bytes)

 ON THIS PAGE  Opinions   Legal Basis   Cases   Resources

You must treat life forms and life-saving drugs as commodities.

What's wrong with the WTO?
You must treat life forms and life-saving drugs as commodities.

The WTO honors monopolies in intellectual property over human needs for medicine and food, threatening public health, small farmers, indigenous knowledge and biodiversity in developing countries.


"Concerned about the situation in which one third of the world's population has no guaranteed access to essential drugs, in which new world trade Agreements may have a negative impact on local manufacturing capacity and the access to and prices of pharmaceuticals in developing countries, … [nations must] ensure that public health rather than commercial interests have primacy in pharmaceutical and health policies and to review their options under the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights to safeguard access to essential drugs."

—Executive Board of the World Health Organization, a body of the United Nations


"What we must see now is pressure being brought on the WTO to change the trade rules which prevent poor people buying life-saving medicines."

—Justin Forsyth, Oxfam, U.K.


"Brazil is showing that no one who dies of AIDS dies of natural causes. Those who die have been failed — by feckless leaders who see weapons as more alluring purchases than medicines, by wealthy countries (notably the United States) that have threatened the livelihood of poor nations who seek to manufacture cheap medicine and by the multinational drug companies who have kept the price of antiretroviral drugs needlessly out of reach of the vast majority of the world's population."

"Brazil, by defying the pharmaceutical companies and threatening to break patents, among other actions, has made drugs available to everyone who needs them. Its experience shows that doing this requires something radical: an alteration of the basic social contract the pharmaceutical companies have enjoyed until now."

—Tina Rosenberg, New York Times Magazine


"The [drug] companies counter [criticisms] with an economic argument: these [anti-AIDS] drugs would not exist if not for the monopoly profits that finance research and development. But there are other ways to fund this research—in fact many of most expensive new drugs were discovered with the help of public funds."

"From a strictly economic point of view, a patent monopoly is a very inferior means of financing research. A basic principle of standard microeconomics is that the price of a good should be equal to the cost of producing an additional unit. Monopoly pricing, especially at 15 or 20 times the cost of production, is enormously wasteful and inefficient. And in the case of essential medicines, the toll of this inefficiency is measured in human lives."

—Mark Weisbrot, co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research, U.S.


"Liberalization, privatization and tighter intellectual property rights are shaping the path for the new technologies, determining how they are used. But the privatization and concentration of technology are going too far. Corporations define research agendas and tightly control their findings with patents, racing to lay claim to intellectual property under the rules set out in the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)."

"Poor people and poor countries risk being pushed to the margin in this proprietary regime controlling the world's knowledge. …"

"Tighter property rights raise the price of technology transfer, blocking developing countries from the dynamic knowledge sectors. The TRIPS agreement will enable multinationals to dominate the global market even more easily. …"

"Intellectual property rights under the TRIPS agreement need comprehensive review to redress their perverse effects undermining food security, indigenous knowledge, biosafety and access to health care. …"

"[M]ost developing countries previously exempted agriculture, medicines and other products from national patent laws, but with the passage of the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), almost all knowledge-based production is now subject to tight intellectual property protection, unified internationally. Further, the TRIPS agreement is unbalanced: it provides an enabling environment for multinationals, tightening their dominant ownership of technology, impeding and increasing the cost of transfer to developing countries."

—United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1999


"A United Nations sub-commission last week called on the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to analyze the impact the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights has on human rights. The sub-commission criticized TRIPS obligations as, at times, being in conflict with human rights as they relate to health, food and the benefits of scientific progress."

"In its August 17 resolution, the UN Sub-Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights said 'there are apparent conflicts between the intellectual property rights regime embodied in the TRIPS Agreement, on the one hand, and international human rights law, on the other.'"

—Inside US Trade, August 25, 2000


"In essence the TRIPS agreement aims to bring intellectual property rights protection standards in developing countries up to the standard and pattern established in the advanced industrial countries. Furthermore, in order to enable the holders of intellectual property rights to enforce protection, complaints procedures and remedies must also be enshrined in national law."

"The implementation of the Agreement will introduce major changes in the way that developing countries deal with intellectual property matters. It drastically limits the freedom of countries to shape their intellectual property systems in accordance with national objectives and degrees of development. Nevertheless, as a legal text, the TRIPs Agreement contains many ambiguities and loose definitions which leave scope for differing interpretations to be incorporated in national legislation."

—South Centre, an intergovernmental organization of developing countries


"The granting of patents covering all genetically engineered varieties of a species, irrespective of the genes concerned or how they were transferred, puts in the hands of a single inventor the possibility to control what we grow on our farms and in our gardens. At a stroke of a pen the research of countless farmers and scientists has potentially been negated in a single, legal act of economic highjack."

"Trade liberalization is dismantling the last protections of the poor—and robbing their last resources. For the thousands of farmers in India who have been pushed to committing suicide due to indebtedness after the seed sector was opened up to TNCs, the economy has ... [consumed] their very lives. For coastal communities whose lives have been devastated by the shrimp industry, for the small ghanis and oil mills and oilseed farmers whose markets have been snatched by imports of artificially cheap genetically engineered soya oil, the WTO is not a protector but a threat."

—Vandana Shiva, Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, India


"The theft and patenting of our biogenetic resources is facilitated by the TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) of the WTO. Some plants which Indigenous Peoples have discovered cultivated, and used for food, medicine, and for sacred rituals are already patented in the United States, Japan, and Europe. … Our access and control over our biological diversity and control over our traditional knowledge and intellectual heritage are threatened by the TRIPs Agreement."

—Indigenous Peoples' Caucus - Seattle Declaration


"On March 29, 2001, a Canadian judge dealt a blow to farmers around the world by ruling that [Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser] must pay the biotechnology giant Monsanto Company thousands of dollars because the company's genetically engineered canola plants were found growing on his field. Mr. Schmeiser did not obtain the seed illegally - pollen from a neighboring farm blew onto his fields and contaminated his crop. Mr. Schmeiser was a victim of genetic pollution from GM crops, and the courts now say he must pay Monsanto $10,000 for licensing fees and up to $75,000 in profits from his 1998 crops. This is in addition to the enormous legal costs he and his family have endured. Percy Schmeiser has filed a counter-suit against Monsanto, and is planning to appeal the ruling."

—International Forum on Globalization


The WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) undermines public health and food security in developing nations. By impeding developing countries in their efforts to make or obtain cheap drugs for AIDS and other critical needs, TRIPS increases the costs of medicines and limits access to them. And it enables powerful transnational corporations to rob the heritage of small and indigenous farmers in developing countries, turning life forms into commodities.

The WTO confers absolute rights on intellectual property holders, a departure from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) focus on non-discrimination (between domestic and foreign producers and among different foreign producers). TRIPS protections are not about free trade: rather, they are restrictions on trade and protections of monopoly justified in theory by their aim of fostering innovation. In practice, however, they often end up merely protecting the rights of the powerful to extract more wealth from poor countries.

AIDS drugs

Although a loophole in TRIPS theoretically allows governments to bypass medical patents in cases of public-health emergencies, wealthy countries—particularly the United States—and transnational pharmaceutical firms have exerted heavy pressure on developing countries against such policies. From Thailand to South Africa, from Israel to Brazil, despite the most devastating plague since the 14th-century Black Death, U.S. trade officials and drug companies have threatened trade sanctions and brought lawsuits to prevent the manufacture or importation of cheap generic anti-AIDS drugs. But growing international outrage has finally forced the companies to drop the lawsuit against South Africa, and is pressuring the WTO to revise its rules on medical patents in poor countries.

Through compulsory licensing and parallel importing to circumvent pharmaceutical patents, Brazil and Botswana have both created successful programs to provide AIDS care to all who need it by manufacturing or importing cheap generic copies of antiretrovirals. They have even found that these campaigns have positive side effects on their overall health-care systems. Brazil has cut its AIDS death rate in half and radically reduced hospitalization. In April 2001, The U.N. Human Rights Commission voted 52 to 1 in favor of a Brazilian resolution encouraging all governments to promote access to AIDS medicines. Only the U.S. abstained.

Food security

The TRIPS Agreement also threatens the food security of many countries. It encourages holders of intellectual property rights in agricultural technology to foster dependency on expensive imported seeds and inputs among small and subsistence farmers, the bulwark of food supplies in much of the world. At its most extreme, this trend has led each of the five dominant biotech firms to patent "terminator" technologies, seed varieties that produce sterile plants and therefore must be purchased again each year. These firms also push crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate pesticides, which may cause increased pollution from dangerous chemicals and "biological pollution" as genetically engineered strains hybridize with neighboring weeds. And as monopoly ownership of crop varieties encourages monocultures of major crops, TRIPS dangerously undermines the biodiversity long conserved by traditional communities.


As corporations search the world for plant varieties with medicinal or agricultural applications, "bio-piracy" has become a serious problem for some developing countries. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and the Principles of Farmers' Rights of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization acknowledge the rights of indigenous and local communities to the knowledge, practices and plant varieties cultivated collectively over generations. Yet the TRIPS Agreement promotes the expropriation of these rights by forcing local government to enforce questionable patents from rich countries.

For example, since the 1970s U.S. and Japanese firms have been granted patents on a variety of products extracted from the neem tree. Yet the neem tree's pesticidal and medicinal properties had been known and used for centuries in India. Finally, when the W.R. Grace Company applied for a patent on a traditionally used pesticidal extract from the neem seed, over 200 non-governmental organizations from 35 countries challenged the application.

The Texas company RiceTec received a U.S. patent on a minimally altered variety of Basmati rice, even though Basmati has been grown in India and Pakistan for generations and farmers were already exporting large quantities of the rice. Once such patents are granted, TRIPS obligates all signatories to enforce them against their own people. In another case, when Thailand passed a law protecting traditional medicines in 1997, the U.S. State Department sent a letter to the Thai government challenging the legislation as a "possible violation of the TRIPS Agreement."

175pxls.gif (78 bytes)

Legal Basis

Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).

See TRIPS page.

TRIPS is one of the treaties enforced by the World Trade Organization.

Convention on Biological Diversity

United Nations Environment Programme

Adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as part of a comprehensive strategy for "sustainable development."

175pxls.gif (78 bytes)

Cases & Controversies

175pxls.gif (78 bytes)




Official WTO Web site

By Peter Costantini ~ Seattle ~ November 2001

175pxls.gif (78 bytes)

 What's wrong with the WTO?   Cases   Controversies   Treaties   Sources   Author   Site map   Bibliography   Links