To you and me they seem like well-known types of rice and tea which grow in Asia and Africa. Nowadays, however, their ownership is claimed in the US and Switzerland. How so?
The act of stealing the right to use plants from (mainly developing) countries by companies is called biopiracy. “Biopiracy is the theft or usurpation of genetic materials especially plants and other biological materials by the patent process. To generalise, corporations of the western world have since the past two decades or so, been reaping immense profits by patenting the knowledge and genetic resources of Thirld World communities, which also form biodiversity hotspots. Once patented, the patent owner can effectively prevent competitors from producing the product, occasionally even interfering with the lifestyles of the community which is the original source of the patented information anyway”, Satavic explains.
The Basmati patent was a famous case back in 1997. It created a lot of outcries by anti-globalizers and farmers alike. In that year, the US company Rice Tec Inc. won a patent on the rice. However, Basmati is originally from the Panjabi region between India and Pakistan. “The patent applies to breeding crosses involving 22 farmer-bred basmati varieties from Pakistan and India. The sweeping scope of the patent extends to such varieties grown anywhere in the Western Hemisphere (although the patent is valid only in the US)“, Berne Declaration explains. How can a company own something as deep in the heritage of a country (or two) as rice is for the Punjab region?
Not only farmers and altermundistas were upset in 1997. India did not like the US decision either. It lead to a “challenge by the Indian government and igniting demonstrations against what was termed a piracy of emerging nations’ indigenous products” (NY Times). Finally, the patent given to Rice Tec was reduced and India settled with that agreement. Vandana Shiva, who was at the forefront of the fight said: ”the battle against Ricetec is just the beginning of India’s battle against biopiracy and theft of indigenous plant wealth.”
A newer case of biopiracy brings us to South Africa. Berne Declaration explains: “In 2009 Nestec S.A., a subsidiary of Nestlé, filed five patent applications on specific uses of Rooibos and Honeybush for certain medicinal/cosmetic compositions.” Many farmers in South Africa fear that this would limit the use they can make of these traditional plants. Find the whole case in this document or watch the following documentary:
Half way the movie actually explains how these acts could possibly be stopped so be sure to stay put until that point. You can also read more about the fight over intellectual property rights in the above cited NY Times article.
Think about it, you can like intellectual property rights or not but if it gets to this stage, it is undisputably unfair. Champagne and Emmenthaler are in the hands of the French and the Swiss, but what about Basmati and Rooibos?
Picture by Joriel “Joz” Jimenez, gracias!