Sunday, August 27, 2006

Texmati Shexmati

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.


Blogger Benji said...

"Americans taking out a patent on Basmati rice is like Indians taking out a patent on fat Bon Jovi fans with mullets"

Rob Newman

9:32 AM  
Blogger ion said...

Patenting hybrids, and patenting DNA are disgusting examples of robbing the commons. Especially with plants, many of whom (e.g. Brassicas) demonstrate a kin selection for outbreeding (i.e. preferring pollination from non-identical species).

You're blog's looking great, Kebz.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Kebz said...

Cheers ion. Not sure, if I will have the time to update it as often as I do at the moment, as I am in the middle of a career change and will be very busy over the next 12 months. I am leaving the world of science research (at last) to pastures new.


10:49 AM  
Anonymous Tim Roberts said...

One or two points:

The Syngenta patent hasn't been granted yet - not in UK, anyway. The date quoted is the date of filing. Quite likely it won't be granted (at least in its present form), as the Examiner's search has turned up three prior documents that suggest what is claimed isn't new.

'Basmati rice'. The US company never had a claim to Basmati rice in general. They had a claim to crosses of Basmati rice with other varieties, which (they said) had the special advantage of being photoperiod-insensitive (so that they didn't have to be grown at Indian latitudes). The patent was attacked (by the Indian government, I think) and reduced to cover only two or three specific rice varieties. At no time did it ever cover what had been grown in India.

If (which I doubt) you are serious in wanting to file patents in Asia on Yorkshire pudding and Cornish pasties, I will be happy to represent you (the advance payment will be considerably less than $300K). However, I would warn you that you should not consider filing such patents unless you have made significant unobvious improvements to the traditional recipes. Also, the attempt to cover a new version of the Cornish pasty may lead to accusations of biopiracy: an essential ingredient of the pasty, the potato, was originally procured from Peru.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Kebz said...

Thanks for the update. I assume you are in the trade. Right now Tim, I couldn't afford you if you cost $30 never mind the several hundred you would charge to file the patents. Also, I don't think the peruvians would persue me for biopiracy because the original pirates have long since gone and I don't think cornwall has ever been threatened with legal action since. As for the basmati rice, the company were using genetic material the originated from basmati, no matter what the crosses were. They were exploiting the unique distinctive properties of a native indian plant as well as using the name. Where it is grown is important if you use that name. The basmati name is given to the rices that grow in particular places such as the Punjab and have a distinct character. I assume those rices are also exported by India (and Pakistan) and that this patent would have damaged the export trade of native basmati rices. This is probably why they lost the rights after legal action. The fact that they are now using bastardised versions of the name only emphasises my case. Do you think the patents would have been challenged if they had marketed it as a non-basmati rice?

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Tim Roberts said...

Yes, as you say, I'm in the trade.

Clearly a factor in the rice furore was the use of the name Basmati (and the perception that Indians were being deprived of it), but mostly there is no problem with names. Look at the Edmonds Institute site: - a great fuss about a peanut variety collected 50 years ago and subsequently found to contain disease-resistant genes.

Yes, RiceTech were using the distinctive genetic properties of basmati rice - in a new way. You think that was wrong, but I'm not clear why. It's hopeless to assign permanent ownership of genetic resources on the basis of where they originated (ignorance, geopolitical factors, multiple origins - compare Cornish pasties again). The Convention on Biological Diversity tries to tackle this, by controlling access - but even when (if?) this is completely sorted out, it won't be retrospective (how far back would you go?). The loss of the patent (if it was completely lost - I believe some claims remain) was nothing to do with the use of the name (except to the extent that it helped to provoke the opposition). Patent law is not concerned with what you call things - that's trade mark law (typically). You can reasonably argue that they were suggesting their product was like Basmati - indeed they were, and so it was. If they started to sell a new soft drink, they might call it TexaCola. Sales of Texmati may or may not damage exports of Basmati from the Indian subcontinent (it might increase sales, if it increased demand for long-grain rice). If it does damage, that's unfortunate - but it's a downside of Competition (deserves the capital) which can do more to increase living standards in the longer term than almost anything else (except maybe Innovation?)

4:44 PM  

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