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Synthesis/Regeneration 24   (Winter 2001)

Stop Biopiracy—Drop Basmati Patent

by Ben Lilliston, Communications Coordinator,
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

In 1997, Texas-based RiceTec was granted US patent 5,663,484 on basmati rice lines and grains. This patent allows the company to grow and sell a "new" variety, which it claims to have developed under the name of basmati, in the US and abroad.

RiceTec's patented basmati has been derived from Indian basmati crossed with long grain and semi-dwarf varieties. The coalition says the patent is for a type that is essentially derived from a farmers' variety. It is simply cross-breeding and should not be treated as a novel invention. The patent falsely claims a derivation as an invention. This is a clear example of biopiracy which the US government, perhaps unwittingly, supports.

A global coalition of non-governmental organizations is urging the Indian government to fully challenge a patent on basmati rice held by the US corporation RiceTec Inc. So far the Indian government has challenged and forced RiceTec to withdraw only four claims out of twenty from its patent in September. It leaves RiceTec with exclusive rights to grow basmati in the Americas and the Caribbean.

The coalition demands the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) revokes all of RiceTec's remaining claims on basmati rice. The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, ActionAid, the US Coalition Against the RiceTec Patent (CARTP), the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, WWF International and the Berne Declaration will be encouraging the public to write to urge the USPTO to drop the remaining claims from this contentious patent.

Dr Vandana Shiva, the foundation's director, said: "The basmati case is a test for US-style IPR (intellectual property rights) regimes…If all claims to basmati by Ricetec are not withdrawn, the USPTO and the WTO (World Trade Organization) will establish themselves to be protectors of piracy-not of innovation and creativity."

Aftab Alam, ActionAid Pakistan food rights coordinator, said: "Developing countries like India need support to face increasing WTO pressure to let business gain patents on staple food crops which are nothing short of biopiracy. We urge India to stand firm and all those who care for the poor to demand the USPTO revokes the rest of RiceTec's patent."

Genevieve Vaughan, from CARTP, said:

Many Texan citizens are protesting RiceTec's patent and the movement is growing. We do not want to be coopted into exploiting the people of the global South, stealing and privatising their indigenous plant species and causing devastation for the livelihoods of farm families. We have stopped buying RiceTec products and are promoting a state-wide postcard and fax campaign to persuade RiceTec to give up all its basmati claims.

Ghulam Madina, a woman farmer who grows basmati rice and runs a learning center for producing organic crops in Bahawalnagar, Pakistan, said: "I know just how important basmati is as a vital source of income for many farmers in the developing world. If this patent is not defeated, it could be a serious threat to our living standards."

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