The Observer today brings up the issue of Biopiracy (sometimes called bioprospecting by those involved). This article focuses on how European companies are exploiting the natural resources of third world countries for their own profit. The benefits of exploiting natural resources for developing medicines are obvious, yet some people see nothing wrong with patenting plants that have been grown for hundreds of years in other countries, or simply robbing plants without giving a shit about the welfare of the local farmers and peasants:
With great fanfare in April last year Syngenta [ a swiss origin biotech/pharma company] launched the Spellbound Busy Lizzie. The company claimed that 'after many years of research' it had produced a Busy Lizzie that 'can achieve, at maturity, trails of 70cm [about 28 ins with] masses of large flowers throughout the summer until the first frost'. ....
But behind the marketing glitz and talk of magical creatures, an analysis of the British patent taken out by Syngenta for its new floral 'invention' reveals that Spellbound's magical secret comes from a rare African plant, the Impatiens usambarensis. This grows in the unique ecological habitat of the Usambara mountain range in Tanzania, just south of Mount Kilimanjaro. In its patent Syngenta describes this plant as having 'no commercial significance'.
Syngenta's botanists discovered that by crossing the two plants, the Busy Lizzie displayed the much sought after 'trailing growth habits'. Despite admitting that such hybrids happened naturally in Tanzania, Syngenta claimed the new plant was its 'invention' and the British authorities granted the company a patent on 6 February 2004. The patent reveals that Syngenta obtained the seeds of the African plant from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh that had cultivated them 'from a wild collection from Tanzania'. A botanical gardens spokeswoman said it had received the seeds in 1982 from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. They had been deposited there in 1976 by Christopher Grey-Wilson.
This kind of opportunism is bad enough, but Syngenta have the temerity to excuse this by likening it to british gardeners growing foreign plants in their gardens. Funnily enough, I can't find one instance of a british gardener getting rich by growing foreign plants in their own garden. Maybe they are just too stupid to take out the patents.
However, this is not the first time Syngenta have been fingered (in the legal sense) in a case of biopiracy. In 2002, Syngenta tried to gain access to a collection of 19,000 strains of locally grown indian rice varieties, from Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (link). Unfortunately there are always individuals and institutions who are open to the possibility of a few 'donations' to their coffers by western biotechnology companies. In another case involving the same university, the head of forestry allegedly handed over local jatropha plants ( a valuable source of oil-rich seeds) without his employer's permission, to London-based D1 Oils. A short time later, this entrepreneurial spirit coincidentally found himself employment as the technical director of D1 Oils' Indian operations.
On its website D1 Oils states:
India is a key location for D1[no shit]. The Indian government has one of the most developed biodiesel promotion programmes in the world, and is encouraging the planting of jatropha as a biodiesel feedstock. The objectives of the programme include increasing fuel security, reclaiming waste and marginal land, and raising the living standards of rural communities.
D1’s first Indian joint venture, D1 Mohan Bio Oils Limited, was established with Mohan Breweries & Distilleries Ltd, a leading Indian brewer based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. D1 Mohan is planting jatropha in southern India on a contract farming model with financial support for farmers provided in the form of loan finance from the State Bank of India and Indian Bank. We recently entered into an agreement with Williamson Magor & Co. Limited, part of the largest tea plantation group in India, to form a joint venture company to develop jatropha plantations with farmers in North East India. We also have a number of jatropha seed purchase and oil supply agreements with Indian partners.
Funnily enough they neglect to mention how they acquired their technical director or the original plants.
In another case that I found particularly infuriating, Texas-based company Rice Tec, was granted a patent (1997) for basmati rice which has been grown in India for centuries. The patent applied to breeding crosses involving 22 basmati varieties from Pakistan and India. Whilst I believe the claim had to be withdrawn for most of the indian varieties following legal action, I am not sure whether the company still has a claim to the Pakistani varieties. According to a Parliamentary report, Pakistani rice growers were thwarted from challenging Rice Tec's patent on basmati rice when American lawyers demanded a deposit of £300,000. (The Guardian, 15 September 1999). The company now boasts of the following products on its website:
Kasmati Rice : Great tasting Indian-style rice grown in the United States. Delicious flavor. Exotic aroma. Fluffy texture. Long slender grains. Kasmati® is an essential ingredient for Indian or curry dishes, and will add a gourmet touch to any meal.
Texmati Rice: Texmati® is the most widely recognized brand of aromatic rice in the US and is frequently requested by name in recipes. Unlike regular rice, Texmati® when cooked, has the appetizing aroma of popcorn and a subtle nutty taste. It cooks up fluffy and separate in 15 minutes (our brown takes 45 minutes while our light brown takes 20 minutes). It can be served alone as a delicious side dish or can be used to enhance any recipe.
Jasmati Rice: Jasmati® is the American Jasmine Rice. Its appetizing aroma and soft texture make it ideal for a variety of Asian cuisines. Equally at home in desserts or Oriental foods, Jasmine Rice is a delicious alternative to ordinary rice.
Right that's it! I am applying for a patent on Yorkshire pudding and Cornish pasties in all south asian countries from Friday. Expect to see Rajshire® pudding and Karachish® pasties advertised on my blog soon.