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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Boycott Called Against Rice-Tec Biopirates

Basmati Action Group (BAG)

Basmati rice has been grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan for centuries. Working with nature's own creative capacities, farmers in this area have, over time, crossbred and cultivated this distinct form of rice known for its fragrant aroma and unique taste. For the farmers of India and Pakistan, their basmati rice crops represent a vital source of income.

In 1997, the United States Patent and Trademark Office accepted Rice Tec's application to patent basmati rice (patent # 5,663,484). By cross-breeding two basmati rice varieties this corporation insists that it has "invented" a "novel" variety of basmati and has patented it as "basmati 867." The Rice Tec patent covers any basmati variety crossed with a semi-dwarf strain grown anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Despite Rice Tec's claims of "novelty," "basmati 867" has been derived from Indian and Pakistani basmati rice lines crossed with semi-dwarf varieties. The basmati varieties used to "invent" Rice Tec's "basmati 867" are farmers' varieties bred over centuries in South Asia. What Rice Tec has done with its patent is to pirate what until now had been communally shared and claimed it as its own private property.

The basmati varieties used to "invent" Rice Tec's "basmati 867" are farmers' varieties bred over centuries in South Asia.

The crux of the issue is not whether the basmati rice variety bred by Rice Tec is "novel" and therefore patentable because the facts show that it is not. The real issue is that no one should be able to hold a patent over a life form. By taking out a patent on "basmati 867" Rice Tec is participating in what has been described as "biopiracy."

Life-patents further the power of corporations.

Biopiracy is the theft of indigenous knowledge, the theft of the creative capacities of nature and the false claim by patent holders— mostly corporations—that they created the life form they have pirated. Biopiracy lays the groundwork for the colonization of creation—of life itself—by scientists and, ultimately, the corporations they work for.

Insecticide Use on Corn

by Charles Benbrook, Benbrook Consulting Services

In light of the interest in the effects of Bt-corn on insecticide use and European corn borer (ECB) management, I compiled official USDA data on insecticide use on corn for 1971, 1982, 1991, 1995, 1998. I divided all active ingredients into three "principle target pest" groups-rootworm complex, European corn borer, or rootworm plus (usually first generation) European corn borer. I attributed one-half the acreage treated with products applied for both rootworm and ECB to ECB management. I added the percent acres treated across products.

    Results show that:
  • About 1 in 6 acres treated were sprayed for ECB in 1971, but by 1998 about 1 in 3 acres treated were sprayed for ECB control.

  • Acres treated for ECB rose from 9.5% in 1995 to 10.5% in 1998, despite the planting of some 15 million acres of Bt-corn. As many entomologists have pointed out, the introduction of Bt-corn has heightened farmer attention to ECB damage, and many farmers are both planting Bt-corn on some acreage and spraying other acres that in the past would not have been treated. But clearly, Bt-corn has not reduced insecticide use, and indeed probably has and will continue to increase it. This is not the fault of the technology, nor a reason to condemn it, it is just a fact. It does raise questions with the continued claims of some manufacturers who seem determined to stick with the "reduces insecticide use" argument.

Life-patents further the power of corporations. Imagine a world where nothing is grown except crops that a corporation has claimed "invention" of and can profit by. Imagine if nothing is grown without farmers having to go to corporations to buy back seeds stolen from them in the first place. Or a world where nothing can even grow without the permission of corporations (i.e. the "Terminator Technology" that prevents plants from reproducing themselves). This is the world that biopirates, and patents like the one on basmati 867, are already helping to bring about!

We need to fight against this trend. BAG is part of a worldwide movement of people who are protesting the corporate claims of "invention" that patents on life represent. We are not resigned to living in a world where the creative capacities of nature, of women and of communities of people are systematically denied and pirated. BAG calls for an end to patents on life forms that are currently being sanctioned by the World Trade Organization and enshrined in both national and international law.

Victories have been won against corporations that have patented life forms! The US National Institutes of Health "disclaimed" its notorious US patent on the human cell line of a Hagahai indigenous person from Papua New Guinea (patent # 5,397,696) after popular outrage was organized. The Indian government revoked W.R. Grace Corporation's "species patent" on transgenic cotton. In other words, this boycott against Rice Tec can work!

BAG is opposed to the patenting of any life forms, anywhere, by anyone.

The Basmati Action Group is a grassroots organization that values life in all its diversity. BAG is opposed to the patenting of any life forms, anywhere, by anyone. This means supporting actions that value and protect ecological integrity, indigenous knowledge and lands, women's rights, the autonomy and self-determination of people and community-based action. Food forms the natural link between community and life. For this reason, recent developments in world trade and agricultural policy, life-patenting and genetic engineering strike us as attacks on the essence of those things we value most.

BAG has been formed to raise awareness about biopiracy, life patents and on-going acts of colonialism—and to work to end these practices. Along with many others, we see biopiracy as the "third wave of colonialism" and an entrenchment of sexist and racist practices. We recognize that women in the South ("Third World Women") continue to bear the brunt of acts of colonialism. For over 500 years the North (the "First World") has been enriched by stealing from nature and the peoples of the South (the "Third World"). Present global economic and political relations maintain this. Biopiracy is an attempt by corporations to privatize and "own" what is the common heritage of people in the South. BAG is also working to show that biopiracy is a form of class conflict with corporations trying to eliminate communal property, destroy farmers' control and supplant nature's creative capacities in order to increase their own private profits.

Boycotting Rice Tec and its products is one action in the movement to resist corporate control over life forms. Raising awareness of biopiracy and developing ways of producing and distributing food that are ecologically sound and socially just is something we can all contribute to in different ways. BAG has also initiated a petition campaign trying to get the Canadian government to refuse Rice Tec's US patent on basmati rice and enact strong legislation that prevents the patenting of life forms in Canada. This struggle cannot be won without global solidarity-a victory in Canada is impossible without simultaneous victories against the World Trade Organization, NAFTA etc. BAG is working with people's organizations in both the South and North to revoke Rice Tec's US patent on basmati rice and to stop biopiracy.

Hello all,

The Basmati Action Group (BAG) asks for your support in our campaign to bring an end to the practice of patenting life forms! We would appreciate your support in spreading the word. If your organization would like to endorse the campaign, please let us know! E-mail: basmati-action@sfu.ca or Tel. no. (604) 255- 4910 or mailing address: c/o 1957 Kitchener St. Vancouver, BC V5L 2W6.

In Struggle, Nandita Sharma, for the Basmati Action Group

Please circulate this notice to anyone you know of who would be interested in or affected by biopiracy, or by this boycott.

Update: Now corporate control over one of the staple foods of billions of people in the world, rice, is increasing. Rice Tec has entered into an agreement with Uncle Bens', the world's largest rice company, to sell its biopirated "Texmati" rice.

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