Biopiracy: Patenting Nature

Imagine having to pay ridiculous royalties for “Mah ki dal” (common lentil curry in India). It would be unacceptable even to think about it but time and again companies have tried to take advantage of indigenous practices and patented it to claim it as their own. In past, we were able to successfully revoke their patents on Turmeric (curcuma longa, which is a necessary ingredient in dal and many dishes in India. It is also used in Ayurveda and many home remedies).

We also were able to fight them off Neem (Azadirachta Indica indigenous  to India whose medicinal properties have been taught and used since 3000 years.) If these were not revoked millions in India would have to cough up royalties to greedy corporates. The traditional knowledge is also under threat. There are around 100 million forest dwellers in India and they possess the traditional know-how of herbs that has been passed on to them by ancestors. This knowledge is not patentable since it is not inventive by nature and is not held by any one single person but by a group. This information that is transmitted from generation to generation generally within the community or within families within the community in an oral form without any adequate documentation. This has caused traditional knowledge to be undervalued and marginalised which makes it a perfect target for corporate exploitation.

In Past companies have tried to take advantage of indigenous practices and native plants with well-known uses like Turmeric or Neem.

The story however sadly does not stop here. As we are mostly unaware, but our brave activists are always on their toes to protect the rights and knowledge of Indians which has been passed down generations from the piracy of big companies. It fits the saying in Hindi in India “Ek Toh Chori Upar Se Seenazori” (Committing Thievery and then demanding glory for it). The similar attempts have been made on Basmati Rice, Melon, Wheat and even the procedure of Atta Chakki. The cases are far from over:

 

basmati

(Left) : Indian  Basmati type of Rice, (Right): Texmati American Basmati type Rice  which seems just rebranding the Indian type

 

1. Basmati Rice: (RiceTec Inc.) – It is too ridiculous to even imagine that a company based in Houston, Texas US would file a patent ( Patent No. 5663484) on their “invention” of Basmati Rice which they were granted by US and European Patent office in 1994. This would have seriously affected the sales of the Basmati Rice grown in India and Pakistan. Lots of farmers would have lost their livelihood and the country’s nascent GDP would have been hit very badly. However, stiff opposition from the activists helped to revoke their patents in both US and Europe. However, RiceTec Inc. continues to exist and has rebranded the product as Texmati as “long grained American Basmati” and sells its products.

93% of all the cotton grown in India is from Bt-Cotton seeds which are not unusable after 1st generation of seeds. Most of the 300,000 farmer suicides in India since 1995, are concentrated in the cotton belt. And 95% cotton is now controlled by Monsanto.(the patent holder of Bt Cotton seeds)

India is today world’s leading cotton exporter and 2nd largest producer. 93% of all the cotton grown in India is from Bt-Cotton seeds which are not usable after 1st generation of seeds. Thus, the farmers keep buying costly seeds again and again. Fortunately, Monsanto does not have a patent on Bt cotton in India, it goes outside the law to collect royalties as “technology fees”. Most of the 300,000 farmer suicides in India since 1995 are concentrated in the cotton belt. And 95% cotton is now controlled by Monsanto. One can feel what devastation might be unleashed if seeds are considered “inventions”. This should be remembered as what could have happened to millions if activists did not put a stop on undeserving patents on the Wheat case and continue to fight the Melon case which we discuss below.

An Indian Farmer examines his Wheat crop in the outskirts of Amritsar, Punjab

2. Wheat:  (Monsanto) – Wheat varieties had been tabulated with care since the times of British as the officials realized that it forms a staple diet in North India. In India, the seeds of the crops are shared and cross bred very often in a collective way. therefore it is no surprise that many varieties of Wheat exist. In fact, the golden colour of the wheat crop is fondly called “Kanak” which feels as if fields have been covered in golden harvests. Monsanto filed a Patent( No. EP 0445929 B1) on NapHal seed which is a cross breeding between some of the varieties of wheat that can be traced to be from Shajanpur, Uttar Pradesh India. Thus it would have begun monopoly on seeds of wheat and demanded royalties on it (just as in Bt-Cotton case mentioned above, imagine the scenario of Indian Agriculture then). This was checked by vigorous individuals to fight the patent claim by Monsanto. Their persistent efforts revoked the Monsanto’s patent by European Patent Office in 2004.

 

blabla

Who owns Melons? Monsanto or the farmers

 

3. Melon:  ( Monsanto) – It is not a surprise when Monsanto filed and got the patent from European Patent Office for conventionally bred melons (EP 1 962 578) in 2011. CYSDV is a plant virus which affected Melons in North America and Europe. They used the Indian melon (which is resistant to this Virus) registered under   PI 313970 in the International Bank of seeds to cross breed with the melons to produce a virus resistant melon. This patent might discourage the breeding of this seed and development of new varieties. It has potential to affect many melon breeders and farmers in India. This is still being contested by many organizations since 2012.

4. Atta Chakki: (ConAgra)-  In 2000 ConAgra claimed that it had mechanised a ‘Novel’ procedure to produce Atta Flour and demanded a patent (US6098905) which it was granted in the US. The Concept of Attachakki is very old in South Asia. The Atta forms a staple food for millions of people on Indian Subcontinent and therefore, definitely should n’t be considered as a novel patent. One can have a look at the patent and the procedure they describe (http://www.google.ch/patents/US6098905)

It is really a sad state of affairs of companies trying to control the seeds or patenting them thus alienating the farmers from their rights to save, exchange and improve the seeds. Gaining the rights to own life-forms could be argued as a clear violation of WTO TRIPS Agreement. Art . 27.3.

“Life forms, plants and seeds are all evolving, self-organized, sovereign beings. They have intrinsic worth, value and standing. Owning life by claiming it to be a corporate invention is ethically and legally wrong.” – Dr. Vandana Shiva , a leading activist

We must, therefore, fight for a stronger National Biodiversity Act. National IPR Policy 2016 must be reviewed to ensure that traditional knowledge is well protected. The best way seems to introduce Community Intellectual Property Rights which has been suggested many a time by activists in the field. Community Intellectual rights have been introduced in many African, Asian and South American Countries. India is yet to formulate a strong law regarding it.  Many activists including Dr. Vandana Shiva, are worried about the influence that the corporates might have on US Government to force India to compromise her stance on the Biodiversity. It is not new since they have a history of lobbying the  US government. The US under the influence of corporations has neither ratified the Convention on Biodiversity nor signed the Biosafety Protocol. For the time being, we need to be vigilant.

 

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