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Rights to Life: On Nature, Property, and Biotechnology

A dramatic change is under way in the crops farmers grow and hence the food we all eat. At the core of this change is the emergence into the mainstream of transgenic plants and animals -- those that have been engineered to include the genetic material of more than one species. This change is taking place with breathtaking rapidity. To understand and evaluate this change requires that we situate it within the philosophy of the liberal state that has fostered its development. While the science of genetic engineering itself is not necessarily dependent upon a liberal regime, both its head-spinningly swift development and many of its particular applications are largely a consequence of the practice of granting exclusive private property rights -- patents -- to genetically engineered life forms. These patents represent a significant extension of the reach of an absolutist conception of liberal property rights, an extension that for the first time subjects forms of life -- not merely individual plants and animals -- to ownership and commodification in the dominion of the market.

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