WTO in Cancun: the Great Trade Robbery (1/9/2003)

Some of what you need to know about the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico, September 10-14:

"The shocking levels of food dumping and its little understood but horrendous impact on the farming sector in the developing countries is the result of clever manipulations at the WTO."
Devinder Sharma, chair of the Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security

"The Africa Group is asking for an outright ban on patents on all life forms... a proposal very much in the interest of developing countries".
Suman Sahai, president of Gene Campaign

"The uninhibited flow of information is a long human tradition It has been crucial to seed, drug and computer companies, among others... People risk being hunted down as pirates when they share music files, save seed from patented crops or bring back a suitcase full of medicines from Mexico. But, whatever their legal status, these are strictly small-time activities. You'll find the big-time pirates operating openly starting Sept. 10 along the coast at Cancun."
Stan Cox, a former plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of

1. WTO and agriculture: THE GREAT TRADE ROBBERY
by Devinder Sharma
2. Agenda for the South : Cancun
by Suman Sahai
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: The WTO in Cancun
by Stan Cox
1. WTO and agriculture
By Devinder Sharma

As expected, the United States and the European Union have arrived at a new accord, just ahead of the fifth WTO Ministerial at Cancun, which in letter and spirit lays out a detailed road map for what can be called as the second phase of the great trade robbery.

The new framework - a "common vision" rather than a detailed plan - is aimed at further destroying whatever remains of the strong foundations of food self-sufficiency in some of the developing countries already wilting under the compound impact of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). For the small farmers and giant agribusiness in North America, Europe and the Pacific, it will however be business as usual. Rich countries subsidise agribusiness by allowing them to buy very cheap, with the government then making up some of the differences with direct payment to farmers.

So much so that the recipients of the US agricultural subsidies in 2001 also included Ted Turner and David Rockefeller  - no wonder, the CNN continues to stifle the voice of the developing countries' farmers. The richest man in the United Kingdom, the Duke of Westminster, who owns about 55,000 hectares of farm estates, receives an average subsidy of 300,000 pound sterlings as direct payments, and in addition gets 350,000 pounds a year for the 1,200 dairy cows he owns.

It certainly is an unequal world, and perhaps the most debasing and demeaning of all the world's inequalities is the manner in which the cattle in the rich countries are pampered at the cost of several hundred million farmers in the developing world. When I first compared the life of the western cow with that of the Third World farmer,  I didn't realize that this would hit the sensibilities of at least some of the economists and policy makers. It has now been worked out that the EU provides a daily subsidy of US $ 2.7 per cow, and Japan provides three times more at US $ 8, whereas half of India's 1000 million people live on less than $ 2 a day.

Irrespective of the stark inequalities, the new agreement throws a stronger protective ring around the domestic producers in the richest trading block - Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Unmindful of the negative consequences inflicted with impunity, the highway robbers are getting ready once again. Cancun provides them a perfect playground to arm-twist the developing countries into submission.

But first, let us get a glimpse of the extent of exploitation that the WTO has already inflicted - through the first phase of trade robbery -- on the poor and vulnerable ever since the Magna Carta for hunger, food insecurity and destitution was unleashed in January 1995. In the Philippines, agricultural export earnings were expected to increase by billions of pesos a year after 1994, generating 500,000 additional jobs a year in the Philippines. Instead, traditional exports such as coconut, abaca and sugar have lost markets. Corn production suffered significant negative growth between 1994-2000, partly because of cheaper subsidized grains. With incomes falling, the agricultural sector had lost an estimated 710,000 jobs, and another 2 million by the year 2000.

Trade liberalization has already exposed developing country farmers to ruinous competition, driving down prices, undermining rural wages and exacerbating unemployment. In the Philippines, opening up of corn market in 1997 reduced corn prices by one-third. At that time, US corn growers were receiving US $ 20,000 a year on average in subsidies, while Filipino farmers in Mindanao had average income levels of US $ 365.   Between 1993-2000, cheap corn imports from US into Mexico increased eighteen times, leading to accelerated migration from rural areas to urban centres.

In Central America -- Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - the price of coffee beans have fallen to just 25 per cent of its level in 1960, and the region lost an estimated US $ 713 million in coffee revenues in 2001. In these countries, traditionally dependent upon coffee exports, over 170,000 jobs were lost the same year with the loss in wages computed at US $ 140 million.  The negative impact was also felt in sub-Saharan Africa, where Ethiopia and Uganda reported huge losses in export revenues. In 2000-01, Uganda exported roughly the same volume, but it earned the country $ 110 million, a steep drop from $ 433 million that it notched five years earlier in 1994-95.  Ethiopia reported the export revenues dropping from US $ 257 million to US $ 149 million between 1999-2000. Ironically, in January 2002, the EU and USAID warned of increased poverty and food insecurity in Ethiopia not realizing that much of the fault rests with their own policies.

In Vietnam's Dak Lak province, farmers who were solely dependent upon coffee are now categorized as 'pre-starvation'. In India, coffee plantations have laid off over 25 per cent of the workers in the southern provinces of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In Brazil, low coffee returns have resulted in increased unemployment and hunger. In Honduras, such has been the terrible impact that the World Food Programme reported in March 2002 that the coffee crisis, coupled with prevailing drought, had left some 30,000 farmers in the hunger trap, with hundreds of children so malnourished that they needed to be hospitalised.

In 2001, the 25,000 US cotton growers received roughly $3.9 billion in subsidy payments, for producing a cotton crop that was worth only US$ 3 billion at world market prices (One Arkansas cotton grower received US$ 6 million, equal to the combined annual earnings of 25,000 cotton farmers in Mali). It's also more than the gross domestic product of several African countries and three times the amount the US spends on aid to half a billion Africans living in poverty. In 2002, direct financial assistance by a number of exporting countries, including China, European Union and the US, to the tune of 73 per cent of the world cotton production, destroyed millions of livelihoods in West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad). India and Pakistan too have been forced to lower import duties, allowing a surge of cotton imports thereby pushing farmers out.

In the dairy sector, the EU subsidized exports have hit the dairy industry in Brazil, Jamaica and India. While the Jamaican dairy producers have time and again split milk onto the streets, the Indian dairy industry too complains of export dumping. In 1999-2000, India imported over 130,000 tonnes of EU's highly subsidized skimmed milk powder. This was the result of Euro 5 million export subsidies that were provided, approximately 10,000 times the annual income of a small-scale milk producer.  Butter export subsidy paid by the EU, for instance, is currently at a five-year high and butter export refunds have risen to an equivalent of 60 per cent of the EU market price. Consequently, butter oil import into India has grown at an average rate of 7.7 per cent annually. This trend has already had a dampening effect on prices of ghee in the domestic market. Ironically, India is the biggest producer of milk in the world, and does not provide any subsidy for the dairy sector.

Indonesia was rated among the top ten exporters of rice before the WTO came into effect. Three years later, in 1998, Indonesia had emerged as the world' s largest importer of rice. In India, the biggest producer of vegetables in the world, the import of vegetables has almost doubled in just one year - from Rs 92.8 million in 2001-02 to Rs 171 million in 2002-03.  Far away in Peru, food imports increased dramatically in the wake of liberalization. Food imports now account for 40 per cent of the total national food consumption. Wheat imports doubled in the 1990s, imports of maize overtook domestic production, and milk imports rose three times in the first half of the previous decade, playing havoc with Peruvian farmers

Looks shocking, but this is merely a peep into the destruction wrought by the 'disagreement' on agriculture. Everyday, thousands of farmers and the rural people in the majority world - without land and adequate livelihoods - constituting a reservoir of frustration and disaffection, trudge to the cities, their abject poverty contrasting vividly with the affluence of the urban centres. These are the victims - in fact, the first generation of the affected -- of the great trade robbery. These are the hapless sufferers, who are being fed a daily dose of promises - increase in poverty in the short-run is a price that has to be paid for long-term economic growth.

The complete impact on human lives - women and children in particular - and the resulting loss in livelihood security and thereby the accelerated march towards hunger and destitution cannot be easily quantified. Surging food imports have hit farm incomes and had severe employment effects in many developing countries. Unable to compete with cheap food imports, and in the absence of any adequate protection measures, income and livelihood losses have hurt women and poor farmers the most.

Farmers in the developing world have suddenly become the children of a lesser god. They are the neo-poor.

Through a variety of instruments, the rich countries have ensured complete protectionism. Trade policies therefore have remained highly discriminatory against the developing country farmers. Such is the extent of protection, that the benevolence OECD exhibits through development aid to all countries - totalling US $ 52 billion - dwarfs before the monumental agricultural subsidies of US $ 311 billion that these countries provided to its own agriculture in 2001.   In reality, you don't even give by one hand to take back with the other. Rich countries effectively use development aid to convince the domestic audiences of their generosity towards human suffering, in essence using aid as the human face for 'ambitious' one-way trade - from the OECD to the rest of the world.

The colourful band of boxes - green box, blue box and amber box - have come in handy for the rich countries to protect its subsidies to agriculture, and at the same time dump the surpluses all over the world. Considering that the world commodity prices are far from adequate anywhere to provide them with a living, these subsidies are actually the cause of excessive supplies in the world markets, and thus resulting in low prevailing world markets. Still further, US is permitted under AoA to provide $ 363 million in export subsidies for wheat and wheat flour, and the EU can limit it to $ 1.4 billion a year.  At the same time, the US incurs annually $ 478 million under its Export Enhancement Programme (EEP), which is not being subject to any reduction commitments.

With the availability of all such subsidies, agribusiness companies find it much easier and economical to export. Export credits, used primarily by the US, and not counted as export subsidies, doubled in just one year to reach US $ 5.9 billion in 1998. The export subsidies and credits are therefore cornered by the food exporting companies. In the US, for instance, more than 80 per cent of the corn exports is handled by three firms: Cargill, ADM and Zen Noh. The level of dumping by the US alone hovers around 40 per cent for wheat, 30 per cent for soybeans, 25 to 30 per cent for corn and 57 per cent for cotton.  Further, each tonne of wheat and sugar that the United Kingdom sells on international market is priced 40 to 60 per cent lower than the cost of production.

The shocking levels of food dumping and its little understood but horrendous impact on the farming sector in the developing countries is the result of clever manipulations at the WTO. The US and EU were successful in ensuring that some subsidies -and that included direct payments -- have little or no impact on production levels and so have little or no impact on trade. Using sophisticated models and taking advantage of the un-preparedness of the developing country negotiators, they devised a complicated set of rules that termed only 'amber box' subsidies as 'trade distorting' that needs to be cut. As it turned out, these were the type of subsidies that the poor countries were also using.

On the other hand, 'green box' and 'blue box' subsidies categorise the farm support that only the rich countries were providing, and which the developing countries are not in a position to afford. Subsequently, in July 2002, the US proposed significant cuts in 'trade distorting' domestic support for all products and trade partners, with a ceiling of five per cent of the value of agricultural production for industrial countries and 10 per cent for developing countries. This however does not mean that the US will make any major cuts in its farm subsidy support, despite the US Farm Security and Rural Investment Act 2002, which provides for US $ 180 billion in subsidies to agriculture for the next ten years, with more than a third coming in the first three years.

New EU Common Agricultural Policy reform proposals that have been announced prior to the Cancun WTO Ministerial have also made no attempt to make radical changes in reduction commitments. Moving on US lines, it has shifted most of the 'blue box' subsidies to 'green box'. European agriculture will continue to be subsidised to the tune of Euro 43 billion for another decade, and that amount will increase further when the new members join in. Like a magician, both the US and EU have managed to juggle the farm support from one box to another without making any significant commitments. The magical trick is now being used to create an illusion of sincerity of the rich towards 'free' trade, using it as a bargaining block for seeking more market access from the poor countries.

As if the massive subsidies are not enough, developed countries have used high tariffs to successfully block imports from developing countries. They have used special safeguards (SSG), used only by 38 rich countries so far, to restrict imports from developing countries. Developed countries took advantage of this flexibility by reserving the right to use the SSG for a large number of products: Canada reserves the right to use SSG for 150 tariff lines, the EU for 539 tariff lines, Japan for 121 tariff lines, the US for 189 tariff lines, and Switzerland for 961 tariff lines. On the other hand, only 22 developing countries can use SSG. The most vulnerable of the WTO members, whose trade in agricultural products take place under a tariff only regime, have been denied to access to these instruments.

At the same time, these countries have managed to fulfil the technical requirements for tariff cuts under AoA without any meaningful reductions. Although the US, EU, Japan and Canada maintain tariff peaks of 350 to 900 per cent on food products such as sugar, rice, dairy products, meat, fruits, vegetables and fish  the thrust of the ongoing negotiations remain on pierce opening the developing country markets to more subsidised exports.

Keeping the economic interests of the developed countries in mind, the chair of the agricultural negotiations, Stuart Harbinson, had proposed a compromise formula that suggested creation of two new instruments: 'special products' and 'special safeguard mechanisms'. For crops which are crucial for food security needs, the proposal is to put them in the SP category for which the tariff reduction should on an average be of 10 per cent with a minimum reduction rate per tariff line of five percent. For the remaining products, tariff reduction should be between 25 to 40 per cent. The US-EU proposal however does not make a mention of the special products. The general feeling is that developing countries do require special safeguard measures that act as a partial protection rather than they be allowed a more permanent feature of resorting to 'special products'.

For all practical purposes, the concept of 'strategic products' or 'special products' is merely a proxy for the 'development box', a proposal that will eventually turn out to be more damming if implemented. Moreover, the negotiations are going to be centred around the number of 'special products' that a country can claim. In other words, the debate will very conveniently shift from the more contentious issue of agricultural subsidies in the west. The AoA does not realize that production of crops and its imports into developing countries cannot be equated with industrial production. What the developing countries need is a trading system that recognises their specific needs of food security and rural development based on the principle of production by the masses rather than production for the masses.

The hypocrisy of the developed countries has been echoed by the World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern, while travelling through India recently, denounced subsidies paid by rich countries to their farmers as "sin ...on a very big scale" but warned India against any attempts to resist opening its markets. "Developing countries must remove their trade barriers regardless of what is happening in the developed countries." No wonder, while the negotiation continues and the developing countries are kept busy with diversionary tactics like 'special products', agricultural exports from the OECD countries continue to rise. Between 1970 and 2000, EU share in agricultural exports increased from 28.1 per cent to 42.7 per cent. France increased its share from 5.7 per cent to 8.1 per cent, Germany from 2.6 per cent to 5.9 per cent and United Kingdom from 2.7 per cent to 4.1 per cent.

Developing countries cannot afford to be a silent spectator. If the rich industrialized countries can protect their agriculture, developing countries should not feel shy in doing the same. Instead of succumbing to pressure tactics that comes along with olive branch of a 'development box' or 'special products' that helps in partially protecting agriculture, the entire effort should be to demand the abolition of agricultural subsidies in the OECD countries. A collective stand based on the following three planks is the only way forward for developing countries to protect agriculture, the mainstay of their economies:

* "Zero-tolerance" on agricultural subsidies: Developing countries should make it categorically clear that the negotiations will move ahead only when the subsidies (under all 'boxes') are removed. The Agreement on Agriculture should wait till the subsidies in the west are grounded. Any agreement without the subsidies being removed will play havoc with developing country agriculture.

* Restoration of Quantitative Restrictions: Developing countries should demand restoration of quantitative restrictions (and special safeguard measures for those countries which did not follow the QR route). In fact, the removal of subsidies should be linked with the removal of quantitative restrictions. That alone will provide the necessary safeguard for developing country's agriculture and food security.

* Multilateral Agreement Against Hunger: Among the new issues to be introduced at Cancun, the developing countries need to strive for the inclusion of a Multilateral Agreement Against Hunger. This should be based on the guiding principle of the right to food and should form the basis for all future negotiations. Such a multilateral agreement would ensure that countries will have the right to take adequate safeguard measures if their commitment towards the WTO obligations leads to more hunger and poverty.

(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent books are: 'GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair' and 'In the Famine Trap'. He also chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security.
Email: [email protected] )
2.Agenda for the South : Cancun
The focus for developing countries at the upcoming Cancun WTO Ministerial must be on food and agriculture, says Suman Sahai.
August 2003

The position held by the EU and the US on agriculture subsidies places enormous hurdles on developing country aspirations of entering markets in the North with agricultural produce of their own. Indeed, progress on agriculture negotiations at the Cancun Ministerial meeting have always seemed difficult. Still, what India should take to Cancun on the food and livelihood front is an aggressive posture on the unfinished Doha agenda, especially where it relates to TRIPS. (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights)

Although the subject of TRIPS and Public Health finds mention in the draft Cancun Ministerial document that has been circulated, there is continuing neglect of the impact of TRIPs on agriculture, food security, farmers' rights and livelihood security. India should take the position that the rights of farmers and local communities have been reiterated in other conventions, notably the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources (ITPGR) and these must be reflected in the WTO, which must move to harmonise with the international developments.

It is for this reason that India has been advocating the linkage between the CBD and the WTO in its submissions to the TRIPS Review Council. The submission to the TRIPS Council is jointly made by Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, India, Thailand, Peru and Venezuela. In order to protect the rights of local communities and their livelihood base, this group of countries is asking that the TRIPs Agreement be amended to provide for the following in the case of applications for patents relating to biological materials or to traditional knowledge:

Disclosure of the source and country of origin of the biological resource and of the traditional knowledge used in the invention

Evidence of prior informed consent, and

Proof of provision for fair and equitable benefit sharing

On TRIPs, it is unfortunate that some developing countries, including India have chosen not to support the proposal of the Africa Group. The Africa Group is asking for an outright ban on patents on all life forms, a position they have held consistently since 1999. This is a proposal very much in the interest of developing countries since patents on life forms at this early stage of development of key technologies, would strike at self-reliant development in the fields of agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

Developing countries  should raise the issue of patents on life forms at Cancun and join other countries and civil society groups in supporting the Africa Group position to oppose patents on all life forms. Having this flexibility is important to give domestic industries a chance to grow and develop their own technologies and become globally competitive. Since the patent system is being introduced for the first time on biological materials, we should give ourselves space to grow, in a patent free environment for some time. Accepting patents on life forms today, will hand over the advantage to the foreign companies who are at present technologically stronger and well versed in the exercise of life form patents.

The draft Cancun declaration simply ignores several injunctions of the Doha declaration.

The Doha Ministerial had provided a mandate to address the outstanding implementation issues on a priority basis by end 2002 but this has not happened yet and there does not seem to be any effort on the part of developed countries to advance this issue. The Doha declaration was explicit. It instructs the Council for TRIPs, in pursuing its work program including the review of article 27.3(b) (the article under which biological materials are handled) and Article 71.1 (review in the context of any new developments), to examine inter alia the relationship between the TRIPs Agreement, the CBD and the protection of traditional knowledge.

It further instructs that in pursuing this work, the TRIPs Council will be guided by Articles 7 and 8 of the TRIPs Agreement. Article 7 provides that IPR protection rather than becoming an instrument of unfair monopoly, should contribute to technology transfer and be mutually advantageous to producers and users of technology in a way that is conducive to social and economic welfare. Article 8 enjoins members of WTO to adopt measures to protect public health and nutrition and promote the public interest in vital sectors like food and medicine.

The draft Cancun declaration simply ignores these injunctions of the Doha declaration and moves ahead with an agenda that benefits the economies of the industrial countries while being largely oblivious to the interests of the developing world.

Another matter, which suffers neglect in the Cancun draft text, is the subject of Geographical Indications (GI), which is of great interest to the economies of agriculture dependent developing countries. The Cancun draft text mentions the need to work on GI for wines and spirits but does not mention expanding the scope of GI protection as the developing countries have been demanding. These countries, which are largely agriculture based, have several specialty products on which they wish to seek the form of IPR called Geographically Indicated Rights. Countries will have their own set of special products for which they will claim GI protection. India for example, is interested in protecting a range of products like Basmati rice, Darjeeling tea, Shahi lychees, Ratnagiri mangoes etc.

Geographical indications identify a product as originating in the territory of a member country or a specific region within it, to which a given quality; reputation or other characteristic of the product can be attributed. Basmati rice for example can be distinctly attributed to the low foothills of the Himalayan region, which used to constitute the greater Punjab. After partition, this region has been divided between India and Pakistan, so geographically indicated rights over Basmati rice belong to India and to Pakistan.

Provided in Articles 22 and 23 of GATT/ TRIPs, GI protection at present has been afforded only to specialty products belonging to the category of wines and spirits, products of the western world. Despite the efforts of developing countries, to expand the scope of the protection in Article 23, to include other products of special relevance to them, the industrialised nations have refused to allow GI protection for anything except the alcoholic beverages. The move to expand the scope of GI is supported by the European Union since it has a number of processed foods of its own, like cheese, ham and other dairy and processed foods for which it seeks exclusive rights under GI.

Paragraph 18 of the Doha Ministerial Declaration states: 'With a view to completing the work started in the Council for Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights on the implementation of Article 23.4, we agree to negotiate the establishment of a multilateral system of notification and registration of geographical indications for wines and spirits by the fifth session of the Ministerial Conference. We note that issues related to the extension of the protection of geographical indications provided for in Article 23 to products other than wines and spirits will be addressed in the Council for TRIPs pursuant to paragraph 12 of this Declaration.'

Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, India, Thailand, Peru and Venezuela must move aggressively at Cancun to garner support for the commitment made in this declaration, to increase the ambit of protection offered under Article 23 of TRIPs. Other countries too have an interest in protecting their (agricultural) products so mobilising support should not be very difficult. The US remains a staunch opponent of enhancing the scope of GI protection, supported by Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom are major agriculture exporting countries of products like cheese, ham and other processed meats. The strategy of the group wanting a broader scope of protection under GI should be to isolate the US with the support of the EU and other countries with a common interest.

There is some good news on the coordination front to pressure the EU-US combine. On the eve of the Cancun Ministerial, India along with China and 15 other countries have formed a block to oppose the EU-US pact in agriculture, concerned that the new proposal from EU-US pact could become the basis of negotiations on agriculture. The new group consists of members from Asia and Latin America and includes members of  the Cairns Group which are major food exporting nations. This group will reiterate the demand of developing countries to access the agricultural markets of the developed countries by introducing a decrease in domestic and export support for agricultural products in  both the US and EU.
(The author is president of Gene Campaign, a New Delhi based research and advocacy organisation working on the issues of bio-resources, intellectual property rights, indigenous knowledge, farmers rights and community rights.

Gene Campaign, J-235/A, Sainik Farms, Khanpur, New Delhi - 110 062. Ph: +91 11 26517248. Fax: +91 11 26965961. Email: [email protected].
Website: http://www.genecampaign.org)
3.Pirates of the Caribbean
The WTO in Cancun
CounterPunch Aug 30 2003

Members of the World Trade Organization worry that their Sept. 10-14 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, might turn into a rerun of the tumultuous Seattle gathering in 1999.  To defuse one of several high-profile controversies, the United States agreed to relax some pharmaceutical patents so poor countries could produce or import inexpensive generic drugs to fight AIDS and other diseases. But when the compromise reached the WTO's General Council, it promptly fell apart under the weight of additional demands by several member nations.  The deal may still go through before Cancun, but independent aid groups were already calling the proposal a sham. A representative of the relief agency Oxfam said the deal was "watered down so much that it isn't really anything to cheer about"

For months, trade representatives from the United States, prodded by the pharmaceutical industry, have demanded that U.S. patents on lifesaving drugs be enforced in all countries, rich or poor. Meanwhile, Congress connected patented drugs with patented corn and soybeans by passing President Bush's Global AIDS Initiative. Somewhat jarringly, the new program links medical assistance for AIDS-stricken countries to their acceptance of food aid produced from genetically engineered crops.

Seed and pharmaceutical companies, which are intertwined in what they like to call the "life sciences" industry, sell many products that can be reproduced cheaply and on a huge scale. They share that problem with the software and entertainment businesses. Without governments and international bodies like the WTO to back up their patents, all of these industries could say goodbye to their hefty profits.

The stormier the world economy, the more big business insists on claiming information -- both humanity's and nature's -- as its own property. The fewer tangible goods that corporations are able to sell abroad, the more they depend on the sale of ideas, words, symbols, knowledge and brands. And once price tags are attached to these intangibles, sharing them is redefined as piracy.

Every year, we Americans import and consume more of the kinds of goods you can actually lay your hands on, like clothes and appliances -- and, of course, oil. Our annual balance-of-trade deficit has swollen alarmingly in the past decade to around $400 billion -- the equivalent of importing the entire economy of India every twelve months.

That deficit would be a lot bigger without the continued broadening of intellectual property rights. In the words of Michael Perelman of California State University, Chico, "Intellectual property rights have become the financial counterweight to deindustrialization (in the United States),  because the revenues they generate help to balance the massive imports of material goods."

When cracking down on pirated DVDs and shoes marked with a stolen "swoosh" becomes a cornerstone of our global economic strategy, we're in trouble. And it's downright embarrassing when the world's only superpower tries to pay for its bloated consumption by extracting seed and medicine royalties from some of the world's hungriest and sickest people.

The uninhibited flow of information is a long human tradition It has been crucial to seed, drug and computer companies, among others. They didn't pull their ideas and data out of thin air. The information they call private property has its roots in taxpayer-funded research. University and government researchers, in turn, draw on centuries of ideas hatched by others. The information that nature encoded in patented genes is far more ancient.

The Constitution views patents as a way to spur creativity, not block access to the basics of life. And that distinction is becoming more crucial. The Earth's inhabitants will face serious scarcities in the decades to come. Because of these limits on matter and energy, we must let information follow its natural tendency to move and multiply freely. To keep the planet livable, we'll need to draw on the entire pool of human knowledge, as well as the plant, animal and microbial gene pools that, until recently, were our common inheritance.

People risk being hunted down as pirates when they share music files, save seed from patented crops or bring back a suitcase full of medicines from Mexico. But, whatever their legal status, these are strictly small-time activities. You'll find the big-time pirates operating openly starting Sept. 10 along the coast at Cancun.

(Stan Cox is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. From 1984 to 1996, he was a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

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