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Biopiracy threat to traditional crops

Thousands of crop varieties grown for hundreds of years by the world's resource-poor farmers are under threat - not from new diseases or insect pests, but something much more insidious. They are being targeted by western companies, eager to develop new products based on the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Patents protecting the companies' intellectual property rights are being taken out on traditional crop varieties and landraces. This 'biopiracy', critics argue, reduces the possibility of developing countries reaping the benefits of their rich crop diversity and their ethnobotanical knowledge. Although no part of the globe is immune, because of the number of patents being taken out on traditional crops from the Andes region of South America, it has been called the 'biopiracy capital of the world'.

One of the first examples involved 'Apelawa' quinoa, which was patented by scientists from Colorado State University and named after a village on Lake Titicaca from where the researchers initially obtained the seed. After receiving complaints from Bolivia's National Association of Quinoa Producers and international organisations such as the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (now known as the ETC Group), the University backed down and, by not paying the patent office fee, allowed the patent to lapse.

Yellow beans

Yellow beans
Credit: CIAT

The ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) are also involved in another patent battle, this time concerning controversial yellow beans. In April 1999, the US patent office granted a patent filed by Colorado-based Pod-ners LLC who claim to have "invented" a yellow bean. In fact, Pod-ners admit that the original beans were actually purchased in a pack of mixed beans in Mexico. By growing and self-pollinating only the yellow beans for three generations, the trait was stabilised and the patent for the "Enola" bean that "produces distinctly yellow coloured seed " was submitted.

CIAT, the Peru-based international research institute that has a mandate for beans, has officially challenged the patent. Not only does it maintain several yellow-coloured bean lines in its germplasm collection, so the patent cannot be 'novel', but it claims that the initial samples were "misappropriated" from Mexico, violating that nation's sovereign rights over its genetic resources, as recognised by the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.

Last year, in response to the challenge, Pod-ners added 30 new claims to the patent and, to date, the US Patent Office has yet to decide on the issue.

Popping beans

CIAT is also deliberating whether or not to challenge another US patent taken out on the "Nuna" popping bean. The bean that 'hops when it pops' is virtually unknown in the USA, but has great potential as a snack food. The patent, filed by Appropriate Engineering and Technology, therefore explains how it crossed the popping trait into varieties suitable for growing under US conditions.

"Continued development of the Nuna bean in the Andes and elsewhere is threatened by this patent," claims Lucia Gallardo of Accion Ecologica in Quito, Ecuador. "Giving a US company this much control over an Andean resource is absurd!"

Support for ruling against the Enola and Nuna bean patents comes from a 1994 ruling by the FAO, which declared that the germplasm collections of all the CGIAR institutes (of which CIAT is one) were held 'in trust', meaning that their use could not be restricted by monopoly patents. The popping bean patent clearly describes the use of nine accessions from CIAT's germplasm collection, all collected from farmers' fields in Peru, in developing the new varieties.

"One idea behind the FAO-CGIAR agreement on designate collections was to promote plant-breeding worldwide," explains CIAT's Dr. Daniel Debouck. "The patent granted on popping beans with bush growth habit in the US and on a breeding process to produce such beans does not provide any incentive for other US breeders to ask for more designate germplasm, and in that sense limits the scope of the FAO-CGIAR agreement. This could provide some ground for a legal action by CIAT."

Maca

Maca roots
Credit: CIP

Over the past three years, two US companies have also taken out patents on maca, another traditional Andean crop used for centuries as a sexual stimulant. Examples of maca germplasm are held in trust by another CGIAR institute, the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru. In this case, though, the companies have steered clear of patenting any particular variety. Instead, they have identified and patented the active ingredients present in the roots.

Although maca exports to these companies have risen rapidly in the past few years, as maca production increased, its price has fallen, so reducing the returns to the Peruvian farmers who feel they have lost 'control' of their crop.

In a recent demonstration in Peru, farmers organisations called on the two US companies to renounce their patents and asked the Peruvian government to investigate and condemn the monopoly claims.

Again, their claims have a basis in international law. In April this year, the Biodiversity Convention was ratified, giving countries the ability to make money from genes, drugs and other products developed from their native plants and other wildlife. In an ideal world, therefore, companies developing products such as yellow beans or 'natural Viagra' from traditional crop varieties should be paying royalties to the originators of the product - the farmers of the Andes and other regions of the world whose 'prior art' is currently being exploited and 'pirated'.

Article submitted by Peter McGrath, freelance journalist.

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