Biopirates Ahoy?

Did you know that Basmati Rice and Rooibos are owned by companies?

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!

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8 thoughts on “Biopirates Ahoy?

  1. What an outrage! I knew about the whole GM / Monsanto garbage (how can one company claim ownership on a piece of genetics?) but not about this. Quite disturbing. (Its also reducing the list almost daily of items I will buy)

    • I know that attempt of trying NOT to buy these things and Nestlé is first on that list… not my proudest days as a Swiss. I’m glad though that there is a lot going on back home against these kind of things…

      • Don’t worry about it Rahel, we are all feeling ashamed of our countries leaders and large corporations. In Australia we are selling ourselves down the river to the highest buyer (or to our largest trading partner, China). Whatever they want we appear to be giving them. Who cares if coal seam gas is killing people, who cares if we are adding enormous quantities of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere with our mining and raping the earth in the process. We, in Australia, don’t appear to have a voice with our government any more and it is running rampant with our “vote” until we next get a say. I actually voted (inadvertantly) for this government so can you begin to imagine how ashamed “I” am as an Australian? The terrible thing is that this government is the best of a very bad lot!

  2. Allowing genetic material to be patented has done less to protect investments than simply to fuel voracious litigation. If GMOs are indeed designed with the humanitarian intentions that the companies claim, then the companies should have no problem with time-limited patents, much like the ones used in the pharmaceutical industry. Drug patents are limited to ten years, during which the patent owner sells the drug and recoups the R&D costs with profit. After that ten years the patent expires and low-cost generic versions of the drugs become legal. It is my belief that genetic material should never receive a patent, but until then a time-limited patent model such as used in the pharmaceutical industry might serve as a reasonable compromise. It would also force the patent owners to show their true colors within that time period.

    • I definitely think that innovation is possible without IPRs, let’s just look at history. But since the neoliberals believe they need this incentive I guess your idea of a short time-span is a acceptable solution. Then again I agree that there should be no patents for genetic material, never.

    • I totally agree with you. The concept of genetic ownership had done nothing but make fat wallets get fatter at the cost of the farmer, the environment and the health of the consumers. As the song goes “The rich getting richer and the poor get the picture”. Id like to see a shelf life on these claims. Or better still, ban future genetic manipulations until we know what the long term consequences for both the environment and consumer health are likely to be.

  3. I agree with Know thank you, its all about the money. They could care less about it if they were not able to use their “ownership” to their own effects to add massive profits to their coffers (much like speed cameras do to the police budget). Monsanto is making it possible to sterilise our food crops and remove our right to grow our own food and biopiracy is removing entire species from that list for profit! Who grants approval for this sort of “ownership?”. It’s funny how we don’t hear anything about this sort of thing in the news isn’t it? Funny how when an enormous company is having their nefarious way with the worlds resources or effecting change to their own ends it gets hushed up.

  4. Pingback: Freedom of Seeds | Kosmos 9

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