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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1914


Senator WOODLEY (6.01 p.m.) —I speak with some concern about the Plant Breeder's Rights Bill because it is very difficult to get much of this debate on the record. The framework in which the debate is conducted is often so narrowed that, in the end, many concerns are excluded from the debate. In the inquiry conducted by the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, some of the questions I asked made it plain that many of the witnesses really wanted the debate to be conducted within a very narrow framework indeed—one in which their concerns would be addressed but one in which the concerns of other people would be excluded. So I want to put before the Senate tonight a framework which is much wider than that which is usually addressed in this particular debate and one which is wider than the legislation itself addresses.

  It is too easy to so narrow the framework of the debate that the concerns which I have are largely ignored. The issue of plant breeder's rights raises fundamental ethical questions which go to the basic questions about the meaning of life. During the Senate inquiry on 13 May, I raised the issue of ethical starting points by stating:

. . . the opposition to plant breeders' rights, I believe, comes out of the philosophical and ethical position. What I need to know is, what starting point you—

the supporters of plant breeder's rights—

have for establishing those rights. For instance, if you claim rights, in most instances in human society, then you need either an ethical starting point or a convention—for instance, the United Nations convention on human rights—that establishes universally agreed rights in a particular area.

  As I listen, I find it hard to find a starting point. As I read the letters and submissions from industry, I can understand that the legislation answers all of the needs that industry has, but that really does not establish the right of industry to make that claim.

  The old scientific claim that was often proffered, that if it can be done then it should be done, is also for me unacceptable as an ethical starting point. One of the comments made this morning was you cannot put a dollar value on the increased production provided by plant variety rights. For me that is not an adequate ethical starting point, either. For me to support plant variety rights I need to get some understanding of how you arrive at a claim, or how you can establish what a farmer's or a breeder's right is over living things.

I need, therefore, to state my own starting point, an ethical and a theological starting point. One of the claims made by many people in this place is the claim to be Christian. But what does that claim mean? I reject the claim of a Christian, ethical or theological starting point if it means an exclusive claim to be the only truth. In a pluralistic society it is more critical to make these sorts of claims as one starting point amongst many—a claim which deserves to be heard in this forum as in other forums but not an exclusive claim to be the only truth. So it is that I need to explain what I believe a theological or ethical analysis of plant breeding rights would look like.

  In the first instance, if it is a theological analysis, there needs to be a divine starting point. That starting point is that God is lord of everything in the universe. In that kind of universe, human beings at best can only claim a limited ownership of things—and even that has its limits—but not of life.


Senator Boswell —We can't domesticate sheep.


Senator WOODLEY —I am getting to it. I would like Senator Boswell to be patient. The only ownership that human beings can claim over life must always be one of stewardship rather than an absolute and exclusive ownership. This is a fundamental principle. If one accepts the idea of creation—particularly that explained in the biblical book of Genesis—then one needs to enter the debate about the meaning of such passages as Genesis 1:28 in which human beings are given rule or dominion over all living things. That can never be interpreted as domination and can only be seen as `to be responsible for'.

  It was only after human disobedience and sin that the rule of human beings over all living things turned in any sense into domination. The act of creation is described in the first two chapters of Genesis, which contains the passage about ruling and having dominion over. In the descriptions in the two stories of creation there are a number of instances, in fact the whole of the two stories, which underline that the rule of human beings is to be seen only in terms of stewardship.

  If we read the first chapter, we will see that a circle of relationships is established in which each living thing and the earth itself are seen to be in relationship to every other living thing, and each stage in the creation is declared to be very good. So, in other words, the creation is not something to be despised or exploited or dominated, but something which God declares to be given and to be very good.

  There is established an interdependence. This is established in a number of ways: in the naming of the animals which, in Hebrew understanding, really meant that the person naming the animals was thereby made responsible for them; in the way in which Adam and Eve are seen to be in a complementary situation, not one superior to the other but rather only as a unit as they complement one another; and in the way in which the earth is said to bring forth all living things. The word for `to bring forth' is really the word `birth'. In other words, the earth is seen to be the mother of all living things.


Senator McGauran —What is your view on abortion?


Senator WOODLEY —I ask Senator McGauran not to be ridiculous, please. The interdependence of all living things is established. I can answer Senator McGauran about abortion on another occasion. It is only after human sin and disobedience that domination becomes the paradigm for the human relationship to living things. The domination of the human over earth and plants is seen as a struggle; the human domination over animals and the ability to deliver death to animals is seen as part of human domination; the domination of man over woman and the domination of sibling over sibling all become part of human disobedience, the ability of human beings to dominate living things.

  It is in this context that we need to understand any claim to ownership of life, any claim that human beings can in any exclusive sense own other living things. In the creation, the establishment by God is of a relationship of stewardship. We are responsible for living things. It is only in terms of human disobedience that human beings claim a right to own or dominate living things.

  I want to read to honourable senators from an ethicist for whom I have great respect, the late Professor Roly Busch. In a document which he produced some years ago he wrote words which I think we need to hear. He said:

. . . we need an evaluation of the new technology which presents us with two faces, one that is full of hope and promise for humankind, and another that is full of threat. For technology is two edged—it may humanise and improve; or it may dehumanise and destroy. We need some common agreement about the extent to which nature, both human and non-human, can and should be manipulated and controlled. Where are we to draw the line?

We cannot inhibit scientific research without denying to humankind the blessings of God's creation as yet unknown or untapped. For God is experienced within the processes of nature as well as through the history of mankind. In the ongoing unfolding purposes of creation He continues to reveal Himself to His world and to His creatures.

Humankind has the capacity to disobey God's will and to thwart His purposes. The world in which we live often rebels against the will and purposes of God. Scientists no less than the rest of us act from mixed motives. Compassion and the desire to heal, the thirst for knowledge, recognition or fame, financial incentive, even power over the powerless, all contribute to the confusion of motives that prompt research into reproductive and other . . . technologies.

This dual relationship to God as Lord of History and Sustainer of the creative process gives human beings both their freedom and their responsibility. As christians understand it, participation in creation requires that they conform to a given "order" of process and change which adheres to established rules and principles. Recognising their relationship to God in creation and history, they are to act creatively in accordance with their knowledge of God and their knowledge of the world which He created and still sustains.

However we who live in a pluralistic and multicultural society cannot expect governments to legislate in ways that preserve only the insights, needs and rights of christians. There is no absolute right to rights. Those of other religious persuasions or none have their rights also.

That is why I have said that this framework which I want to establish is one amongst others that need to be considered. There is the framework, for example, in which the respect for all living things, which needs no divine starting point, is also worthy of our consideration. Even for those who do not accept divine origins for created life, the same principles apply. Respect for all living things means that all forms of life have value for their own sake, not because they are in any sense owned or to be given worth only as a commodity to be traded and given a dollar value.

  I now want to return to the starting point, which I believe was put by those who supported plant breeders rights when I asked the question of them: what is your ethical starting point? There seemed to be three starting points. The first was the right to protect the profits of those who developed particular plant varieties; the second was the right to ownership of product development; and the third was the need to develop new forms of plants to feed the expanding world population. Even though I do not agree with all Dr Lloyd's assumptions, I think he answered very well the question that I asked him. It will be worth putting on the record some of the things he said. In answer he said:

I think it has been established for well over a hundred years now that there is some right for innovators who invest their time and intellect in innovation to get a return—some reward or some encouragement.

I think plant breeders rights are no more than that. A breeder makes an intellectual and financial investment in innovation. Dr Lloyd also said:

The purpose of plant breeders rights is to encourage innovation so that man is assured of new, better quality, sustained food production for the benefit of mankind.

So it seems to me that Dr Lloyd and other witnesses established three starting points. But I believe that none of these are adequate, for a number of reasons. I do not negate the value of people receiving profits for the work that they do; there is no problem with that. But profits need to follow ethics. They are not a starting point; they do not give an ethical framework to establish plant breeders' rights. Although product development is a worthy goal and those who develop intellectual or other products need to have protection, I do not agree that simply developing a product is a sufficient reason to give that person exclusive and unlimited rights over that product for an unspecified time.

  The idea that we need to develop these seeds for the benefit of humankind is certainly a very worthy ethical starting point, but I wonder whether Dr Lloyd was not saying that with tongue in cheek a little. The problem in feeding the people in this world who need to be fed today is not whether we can produce enough food to feed them. That is not the problem. Throughout the world we have vast stockpiles of food. The problem is that we are unable to deliver that food to the people who need the food. And the problem is not whether we have sufficient development of particular seeds to enable sufficient amounts of food to be produced; the problem is the financial system which puts a block in the way of delivering food to those who need it. I would suggest that that is the biggest problem that we have. (Time expired)