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ZNet Commentary
Wheat Biopiracy April 24, 2004
By Vandana Shiva

WILL "GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD" BECOME A PRAYER TO MONSANTO?

Wheat the Golden grain, is called "Kanak" in North Western India. It is the
staple of a large majority. Wheat diversity has been evolved by Indian
farmers over millennia for taste, for nutrition, for ecological adaptation
to cold climates and hot climates, dry regions and wet regions.

Barely four years after starting work, in December 1909, the book entitled
"wheat in India" was published. By 1924 no fewer than thirty one papers
exclusively on wheat had appeared. A survey of work was presented to the
Royal Society of Arts in 1920.

In 1916-1920 indigenous Indian varieties won prizes in International Grain
Exhibitions. Indian Wheat was so important a crop for the British Empire
that an important Resolution of the Government of India no. I - 39-50 of
March 17th, 1877 was passed on the wheat question requiring the Governor
General to provide all information on Indian wheat including "local names
for the varieties of wheat cultivated and three description in English".
More than 1000 wheat samples in bags of 2 pounds each were sent to the
India office, examined by Forbes Watson, and a detailed report provided to
the Secretary of the State.

Sir Albert Howard, the founder of Modern Organic Farming and his wife
G.L.C. Howard started to document and systematize India's wheat diversity.
They identified 37 separate botanical varieties of wheat belonging to 10
sub-species.

The Ghoni, Kanku, Rodi, Mundli, Retti, Kunjhari, Sindhi, Kalhia,
Sambhergehna, Sambhau, Kamla, Laila, Dandi, Gangajali, Pissia, Ujaria,
Surlek, Manipuri, Anokhla, Tamra, Mihirta, Munia, Gajia, Mundia, Merdha,
Dudhia, Lurkia, Jamali, Lalka, Harahwa, Galphulia?..

An amazing diversity of indigenous wheat was evolved by farmers through
their indigenous innovation and knowledge. In 1906, the Howards began to
select and systematize Indian wheat in Pusa (Bihar) and Lyallpur in Punjab
(now Pakistan) and made Indian wheat known worldwide. Howard's work on
wheat paid full tribute to the genius of Indian peasants. As he wrote in
his plan to study and improve Indian wheat.

"The present condition of Indian agriculture is the heritage of experience
handed down from time immemorial by a people little affected by the many
changes in the government of the country. The present agricultural
practices of India are worthy of respect, however strange and primitive
they may appear to Western ideas. The attempt to improve Indian agriculture
on Western lines appears to be a fundamental mistake. What is wanted is
rather the application of Western scientific methods to the local
conditions so as to improve Indian agriculture on its own lines."

Millennia of breeding by millions of Indian farmers is however now being
hijacked by Monsanto which is claiming to have "invented" the unique
low-elasticity, low gluten properties of an indigenous Indian wheat, rice
lines derived from such wheat and all flours, batters, biscuits and edible
products made from such wheat.

On 21st May, 2003, the European Patent Office in Munich granted a patent to
Monsanto with the number EP 445929, with the simple title "plants", even
though plants are not patentable in European Law. The patent covers wheat
exhibiting a special baking quality, derived from native Indian wheat. With
the patent, Monsanto holds a monopoly on the farming, breeding, and
processing of a range of wheat varieties with low elasticity. Earlier in a
patent (EP 518577) filed in 1998 Unilever and Monsanto have claimed
"invention" of an exclusive claims to the use of flour to make traditional
kinds of Indian bread such as "chapattis".

And it is not just in Europe that Monsanto has filed and obtained patents
based on the biopiracy of Indian wheat. In the U.S on May 3, 1994 patent
number 5,308,635 was given for low elasticity wheat flour blends, on June
9, 1998 patent number 5,763,741 was given for wheat which produce dough
with low elasticity, and on January 12, 1999, patent number 5,859,315
another patent was granted for wheats which produce dough with low
elasticity.

Through these global patents based on biopiracy, Monsanto is literally
seeking to control our daily bread. The wheat variety which has been
pirated from India, has been recorded as NapHal in the gene banks from
which Monsanto got the wheat and in Monsanto's patent claims. The name
NapHal is not the name of an Indian variety. Indian varieties were fully
documented by Howard in Wheats of India. NapHal means "no seeds", and is
not, and cannot be an indigenous seed variety because farmers bred seed to
produce seed.

They did not breed "Terminator seeds" for which the Indian name could be
"NapHal". This is clearly a distortion that has crept into the gene bank
records because the original variety was stolen, not collected. NapHal is
the name given by W.Koelz, USDA. However Koelz clearly did not make the
collections himself, but was handed over the varieties, since the locations
are inaccurate. The altitudes and longitude / latitudes do not match.
According to our search, W.Koelz made the following collections :


Date of Collection Locality

10.4.48 Marcha, Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation - 3050 meters Latitude - 28o
mm N Longitude - 80o mm E
10.7.48 Subu Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation - 3050 meters Latitude - 28o mm
N Longitude - 80o mm E
19.7.48 Nabi, Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation - 2745 meters Latitude -
29.50o mm N Longitude - 79.30o mm E
21.7.48 Saro, Nepal Elevation - Not given Latitude - 28o mm N Longitude -
84o mm E


The latitude 28o N and longitude 80o E lies in the plains near Shajahanpur.
The elevation here is clearly not 3000 meters. This altitude is in the
higher Himalayan ranges with different latitude and longitude. In any case
Marcha is not the name of the village but a sub tribal category of the
Bhotias who are Tibetans speaking Buddhist living in the upper regions of
the Himalayas. The terms Bhotia came from Bo which is the native Tibetan
word for Tibet.

The discrepancy in the location and in the name indicate that the variety
referred to as NapHal was pirated, not collected. Probably the name is a
distortion of Nepal, since one sample was from Nepal and indigenous
varieties names Nepal are in the NBPGR collection.

We have challenged Monsanto wheat biopiracy both in the Indian Supreme
Court and in the European Patent Office in Munich with Greenpeace. As our
challenge submitted to the EPO on 17th February, 2004, stated,

"The patent is a blatant example of biopiracy as it is tantamount to the
theft of the results of endeavours in cultivation made by Indian farmers.
In the countries of the southern hemisphere, it is frequently the small
farmers who make a decisive contribution to agricultural diversity and
secure sufficient food supplies by freely swapping seeds and breeding
regionally modified forms of crops.

Monsanto is now unscrupulously exploiting the fruits of their labour. The
company is able to restrict not only the farming and processing of crops,
but also trade in them, in the countries for which the patent has been
granted. At the same time it can block the free exchange of the seed, thus
preventing other growers and farmers from working with the patented seeds.

The wheat exhibiting these special baking qualities is the result of the
labours of cultivators and farmers in India who originally grew these
plants for their own regional requirements, growing them to bake
traditional Indian bread (chapatis). As it is natural for these farmers to
freely swap seeds, it comes as no surprise that this wheat seed has been
stored in various international gene banks outside India for many years.

Thus, samples of the seed can be found in the collections held by the US
agricultural administration as well as in Japan and Europe. The patent
owner uses these features to achieve his own business goals in a way which

can only be regarded as indecent.

Unilever and Monsanto also have unrestricted access to these seed banks.
They took the wheat to their laboratories, where they searched for the
genes responsible for the special baking qualities. And, indeed, they were
able to find the gene sequences which they had been looking for in the
plant. In this connection, they were aided by the research results of
various scientists as the corresponding gene regions had been undergoing
examination for quite some time. It is this natural combination of genes
which has now been patented by Monsanto as an "invention"."

This patent needs to be challenged on the following grounds :

The traits of low elasticity, low gluten which are being patented are not
an invention, but derived from an Indian variety. The crossing with a soft
milling variety is an obvious step to any breeder. The patent is based on
piracy, not on non-obvious novelty, and hence needs to be challenged to
stop legal precedence being created on false claims to invention.

The broad scope of the patent covering products made with Indian wheat robs
Indian food processes and biscuit manufacturers of their legitimate export
market and could in future affect our domestic food sovereignty. The
Governments 2020 vision refers to making India a "global food factory".

However if Monsanto has the patent based on piracy of Indian wheat, India's
"food factory" will be controlled by Monsanto, not Indian food processors
and producers. The governments policy if it has to be successful, must have
the Monsanto patent revoked in order to bring market benefits for our
unique food products to the country's producers - both farmers and food
processors.

With an estimated annual turnover of US$ 1.5 billion, the baking industry
in India is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in India, production
of which has been increasing steadily in the country. The two major bakery
industries, viz. Bread and biscuit account for about 82 percent of the
total bakery products. With overall annual growth estimated at 6.9%.
According to ASSOCHAM India, a business support services firm, there are
almost 85,000 bakeries in the country. Approximately 75,000 of these
operate in the unorganised sector, which has a 60% market share. The
remaining 1,000 bakeries operate in the organised sector, which has a 40%
market share.

Packaged Food in India, a recently released report from Euromonitor,
recorded year 2000 volume sales of the organised biscuit sector at 500,000
MT, or approximately US$492 million in value terms. The unorganised sector,
which supplies 60% of total production, has an annual turnover of nearly
US$718 million. If combined, the two sectors would bring overall biscuit
sales to more than US$ 1.2 billion annually, or 1.3 MMT, making India the
world's second largest biscuit manufacturer and consumer behind the US.

Further, the patent covers not just biscuits but all edible products and
flours with low elasticity. India Chapatis are in effect covered by the
patent.

If such biopiracy based patents are not challenged, and crop lines and
products based on unique properties evolved through indigenous breeding
become the monopoly of MNC's, in future we will be paying royalties for our
innovations especially in light of the Patent Cooperation Treat and upward
harmonization of patent law.

Monsanto's wheat biopiracy patent should be a wake up call to citizens and
governments of the world. It is yet another example of why the Trade
Relate and why traditional knowledge and community rights need to be
legally recognized and protected.

 

 


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