The New Biology
Queen Mary Studies in Intellectual Property series
Edited by Matthew Rimmer and Alison McLennan
Chapter 1: Of Plants, Pills and Patents: Circulating Knowledge
Eva Hemmungs Wirtén This chapter considers the old and new ‘bio-contact zones’,1 where exotic plants, pharmaceutical application and patents co-inhabit a historically contested universe. Both eighteenth-century exploratory travels into the tropics as well as instantaneous (or stalled) sharing of bio-information in the global biotech industry of today constitute, I argue, a space for circulating knowledge. The geopolitics of movements within this sphere, the travels, routes, and ﬂows that enable (or disable) encounters and exchanges, must not, however, be interpreted only in terms of a conventional one-way only model of centre and periphery, neither when it comes to the British Empire during the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, nor when situated within the intricacies of the present-day Empire of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the TRIPS Agreement 1994.2 Exchanges of biological material and the knowledge of their uses enter a new phase with Western expansionism, but have transpired between tropical countries as much as from them to temperate zones only.3 Utter depletion at one end and total accumulation on the other is too simple a précis of the movements within this colonial exchange.4 1 2 3 4 Drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s well-known notion of ‘contact zone’, Londa Schiebinger coins ‘biocontact zones’ to describe the exchange of plants and their cultural uses. Schiebinger, Londa (2004), Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 83. Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, opened for signature 15 April 1994, 1867 UNTS 3 (entered...
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