December 2000


A global coalition of non-governmental organisations is supporting India’s challenge to the US corporation RiceTec in its patent claims on basmati rice. The NGOs call for a change in the TRIPS agreement allowing biopiracy patents to be granted on food crops grown mainly in developing countries and important to the food security of their farmers.

By Chakravarthi Raghavan

Third World Network Features

Geneva: A global coalition of non-governmental organisations has launched a sign-on letter and campaign against biopiracy and the patents on basmati rice granted to the US corporation RiceTec Inc.

The Indian government recently challenged the patents in the United States and as a result RiceTec has withdrawn four of its 20 claims and patents, leaving intact its exclusive rights to grow basmati in the Americas and the Caribbean.

RiceTec’s patented basmati has been derived from Indian basmati crossed with long-grain and semi-dwarf varieties. The NGO coalition says the patent is for a type essentially derived from a farmers’ variety, and was simply a case of cross-breeding and should not be treated as a novel invention. The patent claim falsely claims a derivation to be an invention.

      European NGO groups said that RiceTec was ‘exporting’ and selling in Europe its ‘basmati’, thus confusing consumers and the public. In the UK, as a result of NGO campaigns,   the  voluntary  code  of   conduct  was  being  applied  to  ensure  distinction between the ‘basmati’ from India and the RiceTec product. Campaigns were being initiated under consumer protection laws in other EC countries, they said.

      ActionAid said its investigations showed that in some 62 patents, there is evidence of biopiracy, and patent protection has been claimed in these cases for naturally occurring compounds, genes or gene sequences with a variety of functions.

      The patent applications, the report said, indicate that genetic engineering might intensify the problems of substitution.

      The NGOs are encouraging India, which successfully challenged some of the RiceTec patents, to go ahead and challenge the remaining patent claims of RiceTec.

      The global coalition of about 90 organisations from 20 countries demanded that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) revoke all of RiceTec’s remaining patent claims on basmati rice. The coalition includes the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Biology in India, ActionAid, the US Coalition against RiceTec patents, the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy, the WWF International and the Berne Declaration.

      The campaign comes on the eve of the meeting of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) Council, where among other items on the agenda is the issue of the review of Art. 27.3 (b) of the TRIPS agreement relating to the exclusion from patentability of plants and animals (but not micro-organisms), but requiring a sui generis system of protecting plant breeders’ rights.

      A large global coalition of NGOs has backed the proposal of the African group of countries that all life forms should be excluded from patenting.

      At a press conference by the NGOs, Vandana Shiva said the basmati patent issue was a test case for US-style intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes and the TRIPS review. If all the claims of RiceTec are not withdrawn, and the TRIPS review does not result in the prohibition of such patents, the US Patent Office and the World Trade Organisation would establish themselves as ‘protectors of biopiracy, not of innovation and creativity’.

      However, filing cases and challenging individual patents is a costly affair, and what is needed is to change the TRIPS agreement that enables countries to grant such patents, Shiva and Ruth Tripathi of ActionAid said.

      It is very expensive to challenge patents on a case-by-case basis, the NGOs noted, pointing  out  that  American  lawyers  demanded  a   deposit  of  nearly   $500,000  from Pakistan - another country whose farmers grow basmati - to challenge the patents.

In a preliminary report based on its investigations, ActionAid said as a result of an extensive database survey, it had discovered biopiracy patents involving cassava, cocoa, jojoba, millet, nutmeg, rice, rubber, sorghum and sweet potato - all crops grown mainly in developing countries and important to the economies of these countries, and the food security of farmers.

The patents and the claims to ‘seed patenting’ - as in the case of RiceTec - affect the livelihood of millions of small farmers in the developing world.

Aftab Alam, the food rights coordinator of ActionAid Pakistan, and Ghulam Madina, a woman farmer from Bahawalnagar in Pakistan, said in Pakistan that many small farmers grew basmati in a particular region, then sold the crop on the market and with the sale bought twice that amount of ordinary rice to feed their families.

Said Ghulam Madina: ‘I know how important basmati is as a vital source of income for many small farmers. If this patent is not defeated, it would be a serious threat to our living standards.’

Alam said that developing countries like India need support to face increasing WTO pressures to let business gain patents on staple food crops, ‘and this is nothing short of biopiracy’.

‘We urge India to stand firm and all those who care for the poor to demand that the USPTO revoke the rest of RiceTec’s patents,’ Alam said. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Chakravarthi Raghavan is Chief Editor of SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), a daily bulletin, and Third World Network’s representative in Geneva.