Author: Alex Press
In March of 2009, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the biotech industry’s trade association and lobbying arm, submitted a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), which was in the early stages of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The letter came in response to USTR’s invitation for public comment to help develop negotiation objectives for the proposed trade deal, which at the time involved seven other Pacific Rim nations. The USTR broadly outlined the areas that it was interested in input on—the economic costs and benefits to the removal of tariffs, environmental and labor issues that should be addressed, trade-related intellectual property rights that should be considered—and BIO jumped at the chance to respond. “BIO will focus its comments on issues relating to (i) agricultural biotechnology and (ii) matters concerning intellectual property rights,” the six-page letter read. “BIO appreciates this opportunity to comment on the proposed TPP FTA, and we look forward to working closely with USTR as this initiative proceeds.”
And work closely they did. While the terms of the TPP were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, USTR negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government–appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs). A representative from BIO sits on ITAC-15, the committee that focuses on intellectual property (IP) rights, and BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for “patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.”
The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year. Signed on February 4 and awaiting ratification by its 12 member countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand—the TPP is the largest regional free-trade deal in the world. While many have scrutinized its potential for offshoring jobs, lowering wages, and raising drug prices, few have paid attention to the TPP’s impact on the sector BIO prioritized above any other: agricultural biotechnology. Experts have called the TPP a “big win” for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.
Agricultural biotechnology refers to a range of tools used to alter living organisms, including the tools of genetic modification. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the major product of these tools, which are commonly known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are produced through techniques that alter the genetic material “in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”