Uncategorized | Columnist Service

Opinion

AGRIBUSINESS, THE PATENT SYSTEM, AND BIOPIRACY

This column is available for visitors to the IPS website only for reading. Reproduction in print or electronic media is prohibited. Media interested in republishing may contact romacol@ips.org.

NEW DELHI, Mar 1 2004 (IPS) - India is being swept by an epidemic of biopiracy — the patenting of indigenous biodiversity and traditional knowledge by global corporations, writes Vandana Shiva, author and international campaigner for women and the environment who received the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993. First it was the neem plant, then basmati rice. Now our wheat has been patented, Shiva writes in this article for IPS. Biopiracy is both legally and morally wrong. By allowing indigenous innovations to be treated as \’\’inventions\’\’ of the patent \’\’owner\’\’, biopiracy patents amount to the outright theft of India\’s scientific, intellectual, and creative achievements and must be challenged. The economic consequences are serious. In the short run, a biopiracy patent robs us of markets overseas for our unique products. In the long run, if these trends are not challenged and intellectual property rights systems changed to prevent biopiracy, we will end up paying royalties for what belongs to us and is necessary for everyday survival.

India is being swept by an epidemic of biopiracy — the patenting of indigenous biodiversity and traditional knowledge by global corporations. First it was the neem plant, then basmati rice. Now our wheat, our ”atta” (whole wheat flour), our ”chapatis” (flat unleavened bread) have been patented.

Conagra, the US agribusiness, was granted Patent No. 6,098,905 for ”atta” in August 2000. In 1996, Unilever/Monsanto were granted a patent (EP 518577) for claims to have ”invented” the use of flour to make traditional kinds of Indian bread such as chapatis. On May 21, 2003, the European Patent Office in Munich granted a patent with the number EP 445 929 and the simple title ”plants”.

The patent holder is Monsanto, better known as the world’s largest trader in genetically-engineered plants. The patent covers wheat exhibiting a special baking quality of low elasticity. Wheat with these characteristics was originally developed in India; now Monsanto holds a monopoly on farming, breeding, and processing it.

Biopiracy is both legally and morally wrong. By allowing indigenous innovations to be treated as ”inventions” of the patent ”owner”, biopiracy patents amount to the outright theft of India’s scientific, intellectual, and creative achievements and must be challenged.

The economic consequences are serious. In the short run, a biopiracy patent robs us of markets overseas for our unique products. In the long run, if these trends are not challenged and intellectual property rights (IPR) systems changed to prevent biopiracy, we will end up paying royalties for what belongs to us and is necessary for everyday survival.

If there were only one or two cases of such false claims, it could be attributed to mere error. But this is not the case. The problem is deep and systemic and calls for deep, systemic change — not case-by-case challenges.

Far from an aberration in US patent law, the promotion of piracy is intrinsic to it. IPR regimes in the context of trade liberalisation become instruments of piracy at three levels:

1. Resource piracy in which the biological and natural resources of communities and the country are freely taken, without recognition or permission, and are used to build up global economies. For example, the transfer of basmati varieties of rice from India to build the rice economy of US corporations like RiceTec for export.

2. Intellectual and cultural piracy in which the cultural and intellectual heritage of communities and the country is freely taken without recognition or permission and is used for claiming IPRs such as patents and trademarks even though the primary innovation and creativity has not taken place through corporate investment. For instance, the use of the trade name ‘basmati’ for their aromatic rice, or Pepsi’s use of the trade name Bikaneri bhujia.

3. Economic piracy in which the domestic and international markets are usurped through the use of trade names and IPRs, thereby destroying the local and national economies where the original innovation took place and wiping out the livelihoods and economic survival of millions: for example, US rice traders usurping European markets and Grace usurping the US market from small-scale Indian producers of neem-based bio-pesticides.

A patent is granted as an exclusive right for inventions which fulfil the criteria of novelty, non-obviousness, and utility. Traditional knowledge and the collective, cumulative innovations which it embodies clearly do not qualify as ”novelty”. Trivial and obvious modifications that can be undertaken by people skilled in the field of innovation violate the non-obviousness requirement and hence should not be patentable.

The biopiracy patent taken by RiceTec on basmati and the biopiracy patent taken by Monsanto on wheat were both achieved by using trivial, obvious modification of unique Indian crop varieties with unique characteristics to then claim sweeping rights over the characteristics, properties, traits in plants and products derived from them.

The decisive patent claims concern soft-milling wheat in which the relevant genes are either not present or not active. The patent means in fact a monopoly on the genetic characteristics of Nap Hal plants and on all wheat plants which are crossed with this Indian variety. In addition, it covers the flour gained from this wheat as well as ”dough produced from flour” and ”biscuits or the like, produced from flour”.

In its patent, Monsanto got the name of the wheat strain wrong, calling it ”Na phal”, which in Hindi means ”No fruit”. Instead of correctly identifying the mis-named wheat and challenging the biopiracy, India’s parliament and courts have been upholding and defending Monsanto’s biopiracy.

Thus India is loosing its sovereignty over its seeds and biodiversity and the collective innovation embodied in them. It is also losing access to European markets for wheat products with unique qualities provided by our traditional wheats, which are in high demand.

If unchallenged, the wheat biopiracy patent will insure that the prayer ”Give us this day our daily bread” will become a plea to Monsanto. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
Republish | | Print |

Related Tags