June 25, 2000
The battle over who controls the world's food supplies has escalated dramatically with the Indian government launching a legal challenge in the United States against an American company which has been granted a patent on the world-renowned basmati rice.
It is thought to be the first time a government in a developing country has challenged an attempt by a US company to patent -- and thus control the production of -- staple food and crops in what campaigners dub the 'rush for green gold'.
Basmati rice, sought-after for its fragrant taste, was developed by Indian farmers over hundreds of years, but the Texan company RiceTec obtained a patent for a cross-breed with American long-grain rice.
RiceTec was granted the patent on the basis of aroma, elongation of the grain on cooking and chalkiness. However, the Indian government last week filed 50,000 pages of scientific evidence to the US Patents and Trademarks Office, insisting that most high quality basmati varieties already possess these characteristics. The US Patent and Trademarks office accepted the petition and will re-examine its legitimacy.
The patent -- granted only in the US -- gives RiceTec control over basmati rice production in North America. Farmers have to pay a fee to grow the rice and are not allowed to plant the seeds to grow the following year's crops.
India fears the patent will severely damage exports from its own farmers to the US. In 1998, they exported almost 600,000 tonnes of basmati rice.
India has also objected to RiceTec calling the rice 'basmati', insisting the name should be used only for rice grown in the Basmati region of India. The Indian government is claiming similar status for basmati rice as that granted to Champagne, Cognac and Scotch whisky.
India's legal challenge is being support by ActionAid, which is launching a campaign to highlight the issue next week.
Ruchi Tripathi said: 'The basmati patent exposes the mounting threat posed by multinationals to crops devel oped and grown by poor farmers for generations.'
There are currently more than 200 patents granted on rice, almost exclusively to US and Japanese companies.
It is currently not possible to patent staple foods and crops in Europe or developing countries but a European directive is about to change that in the EU. At World Trade Organisation talks which start tomorrow, rich nations are expected to put pressure on developing nations to allow the patenting of crops in their own countries. Tripathi said: 'If rich countries abuse their power to get their way in the World Trade Organisation, developing countries like India will lose the right to challenge patents on crops.'
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Last Updated on 6/27/00
By Dan Ellis