Source: The East African
Monday, April 5, 2004
India is being swept by an epidemic of biopiracy ˆ 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.
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 ˆ not case-by-case challenges.
Far from an aberration in US patent law, the promotion of piracy is intrinsic to it.
A patent is granted as an exclusive right for inventions that 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 modifications 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 that 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 misnamed wheat and challenging the biopiracy, India's parliament and courts have been upholding and defending Monsanto's biopiracy.
Thus India is losing 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 soon become a plea to Monsanto, not God.
Vandana Shiva is an agricultural activist based in New Delhi, India