Food Patents—Stealing Indigenous Knowledge?
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Intellectual property rights2 are supposed to help protect investments into research and development and stimulate innovation by providing incentives to invent, progress, develop etc. The promise of just reward for one's efforts are important. Yet, there are criticisms that the way intellectual property rights related texts have developed, they put more emphasis on protecting ones creations and stifling other's ability to compete.
In the area of biotechnology there are further debates and issues3 on the right to patent living organisms, especially resources and seeds that have been developed or passed on as traditional and public knowledge. This Capitalizing on public knowledge4 often comes into conflict with indigenous knowledge and the rights of indigenous people, sustainability of local ecosystems, and even the ability of nations to provide food security and protection of the global environment. As a result, this has also raised many philosophical questions.
Large transnational corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and others have been investing into biotechnology in such a way that patents have been taken out on indigenous plants which have been used for generations by the local people, without their knowledge or consent. The people then find that the only way to use their age-old knowledge is be to buy them back5 from the big corporations. In Brazil, which has some of the richest biodiversity in the world, large multinational corporations have already patented more than half the known plant species. (Brazil is estimated to have around 55,0006 species of flora, amounting to some 22% of the world's total. India, for example, has about 46,0007.)
A patent gives a monopoly right to exploit an invention for 17-20 years. To be patentable an invention must be novel, inventive and have a commercial use. Controversially though, the US and European patent offices now grants patents on plant varieties, GM crops, genes and gene sequences from plants and crops. The current WTO patent agreement, TRIPs - Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights - has been very controversial in this respect for many developing countries who want to have it reviewed, but are being somewhat blocked by the wealthier nations from doing so.
As reported10 by Environment News Service, "Knowledge is proprietary. It belongs to corporations and is not accessible to farmers," [Dr. Altieri] said. Altieri feels that biotechnology has emerged through the quest for profit, not to solve the problems of small farmers. "Scientists are defending biotechnology ... but at the same time there's a lot of money from corporations going into universities, influencing the researchers in those universities in the wrong direction," Altieri said.
The cost to developing countries in "pirating" their knowledge has been considerable:
In Texas, a company called RiceTec took out the patents on Basmati rice (which grows in the Indian and Pakistan regions) and have created a genetically modified Basmati rice14, while selling it as normal Basmati -- and it was not against the law, either. In fact, four of the patents were withdrawn in June 2000, when the Indian government formally challenged the patent. However, it, and other incidents continue to raise controversy15 on patenting indigenous plants. Eventually though, 15 of the 20 patents were also thrown out16 by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) due to lack of uniqueness and novelty. However, towards the middle of August 2001, three patents were awarded to RiceTec -- to variants called Texmati, Jasmati and Kasmati, all cross breeds of Basmati and American long grain rice, while RiceTec was also given permission to claim that its brands are "superior to basmati" as reported by17the Guardian, who also point out the uproar that has caused in Indian political circles. The article also points out how RiceTec CEO doesn't understand why there is such a fuss over this, yet he perhaps doesn't see ActionAid's point (also mentioned in the news article) that "[t]here is growing concern that corporations are taking advantage of traditional Indian crops developed over thousands of years by farmers, without any recompense for the poor people who do all the work." (It is a further irony that the CEO is Indian in ancestry, himself.)
There has also been an unsuccessful attempt18 by RiceTec with Thailand's Jasmine Rice as well in 1998.
A US Patent Authority ruling did manage to prevent20 another company from using turmeric to create bi-products because there intentions were not novel and turmeric had been around for a long time. They also canceled21 a patent on the Ayahuasca plant, a sacred plant for many indigenous people in Latin America.
In India, these and other events have led to much criticism23 on the ability to patent24 many indigenous plants so easily by big corporations. Another patent causing outrage has been a remedy for diabetes involving eggplant, bitter gourd and jamun, the fruit of the rose apple tree extract. It has been common knowledge in India for centuries, yet again there is an attempt25 to patent it.
There were also fears in India that Europe would follow USA and Japan's examples of bio-piracy26, by allowing patents of indigenous plants and life-forms, which have already led to genetically modified versions of these without sufficient proof that they are safe to consume. Well, they do not need to worry any longer, because it has actually happened27.
A number of food ingredients and plants in India have been, or have seen attempts to be, patented by various biotech firms. As this article suggests, US patent laws28 may be part of the problem.
As Inter Press Servicereports29, "Over the last 10 years, for examle, [sic] the US-based chemical giant DuPont has filed approximately 150 applications for patents on genetic resources with the European Patent Office."
While many biotech companies claim that genetically engineered foods will help alleviate hunger and increase food security, their acts of patenting the knowledge and food that has been developed over centuries itself may be a threat to food security30, due to more concentrated ownership and the political advantages that goes with that. The large biotech firms are mainly from western nations, especially America. (Such control over basic resources can and has been used as a foreign policy leverage tool, as seen in the food dumping31 section on this web site.)
An International Undertaking to tackle the issue?
The concerns about things like farmer's rights, genetic resources and its ownership (private patents or public ownership, as these resources have been developed traditionally by small farmers for the public), access for all to these resources, sharing the benefits etc, were being discussed in an international agreement called the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the IU). There was potential for the IU to lead to a legally binding international agreement to tackle these concerns very positively.
According to a report by ITDG, at the beginning of June 2001, titled, Who will own the genes in our food?33
"The International Undertaking is the principal international agreement which could:
- Protect the rapidly eroding resources which underpin global food security, and encourage their sustainable use;
- Put pressure on governments to keep these genetic resources in the public domain, and where patents and other forms of intellectual property claims on them limit availability, facilitate access to these resources for current and future generations;
- Ensure that farmers - especially the world's smallholder farmers on whom the food security of billions of people rests - can save, use, exchange and sell seeds and other propagating material in their customary man