Biopiracy: Let's BAG It!

Working with nature, farmers in the South Asian countries of Pakistan, India and Nepal have cultivated basmati rice for countless centuries. Rice is an integral part of many of the region's diverse cultures. In some of the ancient texts, rice has been associated with prana, or breath. Basmati literally means "fragrant earth" and is considered one of the most aromatic and flavorful rice varieties in the subcontinent. It is also one of the more lucrative export rice crops from South Asia. The Basmati rice exports of Indian farmers alone are worth over $270 million (US). Quite a sizeable amount for any transnational corporation to get their hands on.

In 1997, the powerful United States Patent Office gave Rice Tec, Inc., the patent on Basmati rice. Rice Tec, Inc. is an US-based corporation in Alvin, Texas and a subsidiary of the larger Rice Tec Group whose CEO is Hans-Adam 11, the prince of Leichtenstein. By cross-breeding two Basmati rice varieties the owners of Rice Tec insist that they have invented a "novel" variety of this age-old rice from South Asia. Their patent covers any Basmati variety crowd with a semidwarf strain grown anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. More ominously, the patent also covers any basmati rice that resembles the original plants they used in their cross-breeding methods. This could potentially extend their patent to South Asia.

What the Rice Tec patent covers are the breeding methods as well as the germplasm of the basmati rice variety Rice Tec claims to have "invented." Now, while the patenting of the breeding method is itself a theft of farmers' knowledge and a privatization of the common, age old practice of cross-breeding, the patenting of germplasms of plants amounts to nothing less than the colonization of life.

No matter what Western science, with its obsession to master nature tells us, it is nature that gives life. It is communities of people who nourish and shape this life, It is not a white-coated scientist or a blue-suited corporate executive who invents or creates basmati rice, but nature; and it is the farmers of South Asia who, through seed saving, have cross-bred different rice seeds over time to produce the distinctive Basmati rice.

Rice Tec's claims of "novelty" aside, it is clear that the Basmati rice for which Rice Tec holds a US patent has been derived from Indian and Pakistani Basmati rice lines crossed with semidwarf varieties. The Basmati varieties used to "invent" Rice Tec's 'Basmati 867,' then, are farmers varieties bred over centuries in South Asia.

However, the crux of the issue is not whether the rice variety bred by Rice Tec is "novel" and therefore patentable or not, for the facts clearly show that it is not. The issue, as far as those of us in the Basmati Action Group (BAG) are concerned, is that no one can in reality and no one should be able to in the fictive world of legalities, claim creation over life and hold a patent over a life form — be it a rice plant, a mouse resistant to cancer or a human being whose community over time has developed a resistance to a particular disease.

This is what it ultimately boils down to. There should be no patents issued on life to anybody or any group, anywhere.

Biopiracy: colonialism redux

The patenting of life is the most recent wave of colonialism. Even though much of biopiracy is the stuff of science fiction, biopiracy did not fall, unannounced, from the sky one day. The ecological devastation brought about by acts of biopiracy is possible because of the way the world is presently organized, possible only because of the continued existence of social injustices and social inequality. Whether it is genetic engineering, the patenting of fife forms or the rapid spread of socalled reproductive technologies, it is the on-going colonialism of indigenous peoples and the South, the ongoing practices of patriarchy, of racism and the spread and entrenchment of capitalism that makes these things possible.

After colonizing most of the world's peoples and their lands and ensuring capitalist control over how most people make a livelihood, the next stage for capitalists is to actually claim to have invented the very life they exploit-whether this life is plants, animals (remember Dolly the cloned sheep?) or humans. Placing patents on life is an act that Vandana Shiva, a globally respected Indian physicist and feminist, has aptly termed "biopiracy." Acts of biopiracy represent a continuation of the colonization of the people, their lands and the biodiversity of the South, and the issue of patenting needs to be placed firmly within this context of the North colonizing the South. Despite the formal end of colonialism in most parts of the world, the UN estimates that biological resources valued monetarily at over $5.4 billion (US) continue to be stolen from the people of the South every year. This is obviously an important facet of what is going on with Rice Tec's patent. For example, US corporations already control over 20% of the world's rice supply and this is expected to increase with developments like Rice Tec's patent. In India alone, corporations have taken out patents on the neem tree, the karela (bitter gourd), eggplant, jamun, the fruit of the rose-apple tree and others.

But, with the claim by corporations that they now create life, biopiracy also represents a profound cosmological shift. We are now living in a world where the creative capacities of nature, of women and of communities of people are being denied and pirated by private companies. This denial and theft is being sanctioned by and enshrined in both national and international law.

With this cosmological shift, biopiracy lays the groundwork for the monopolization of life itself by scientists, and ultimately, the corporations they work for. Through the issuing and acceptance of patents on life, local communities will be denied the benefits of the world's biodiversity, farmers will be made more dependent on transnational corporations and the practice of seed saving by women's communities will be destroyed.

Take the example of Monsanto (now owned by American Home Products Corp.), the largest biotech firm in the world and a recent "partner" of Canada's Industry Ministry. In 1996, it set a new precedent by requiring farmers who purchase their 'Roundup Ready Soybeans' to sign and adhere to the terms of its '1996 Roundup Ready Gene Agreement!

The terms include paying $5 per bag "technology fee," "giving" Monsanto the right to inspect, monitor and test his/her fields for up to three years, giving up the right to save and replant the patented seed and "agreeing" not to sell or give the seed to "any other person or entity." Fines are levied if the agreement is violated. As we can see, this is all couched in the language of contract, as if the two parties to the contract are somehow operating on an equal footing.

However, through First World so-called development programs and the push by biotech firms to monopolize food production in the South, farmers are not often given much choice in whether they will buy the products of these transnational agri-businesses. Importantly, Monsanto wants to introduce such "agreements" on all of its genetically engineered seeds brought to market.

It is of great significance, then, that Monsanto now owns what has been called the "Terminator Technology" — a genetic engineering technology that actually terminates the life cycle of seeds, so that farmers are unable to save the seeds they produce to plant next season, but are forced to return over and over again to the transnational agribusiness seed companies.

Ultimately, this is what biotechnologies, genetic engineering and patents on life are all about — breaking nature and farmer's cycle of creativity and ensuring that only corporate heads actually say what or whether anything can live! This corporate monopolization over the world's food supply represents a serious threat to the world's biological resources and a fundamental threat to biodiversity and people's ability to feed themselves.

The World According to Rice Tec

Now, Rice Tec has tried to divert attention away from where it should be-which is on the issue of patenting life-to get us to discuss either:

A. the quality of rice from Rice Tec vs. India and Pakistan: Rice Tec says that rice from South Asia is "often [of] poor quality [and] shipments [have been] held up at US ports due to infestation." A reporter from a local Vancouver daily newspaper obviously bought quite easily into this train of thought, for she recently said to one BAG member that she believed that "her readers would prefer to eat organic rice from Texas over rice grown in cholera infested water in India."

B. whether Rice Tec's patent means that they have a patent on the term Basmati. This is a diversion, because everyone, especially Rice Tec, knows very well that you can't patent but only trademark words! (Rice Tec currently holds trademarks on the names TexMati, JasMati, and Kasmati, which are obviously meant to conjure up images of basmati or Thai Jasmine rice.)

C. Rice Tec has also complained that given that US companies have been growing rice in the US and claiming that it is "Basmati" for over twenty years, it is unfair to protest Rice Tec's patent on 'Basmati 867.' Rice Tec would like us to believe that this means that no one has the right to raise the issue now. We are supposed to just lie down and die for them! Along these lines, Rice Tec CEO Robin Andrews has actually said, "History cannot be reversed in these matters and the principle of acquiescence applies. If someone is building a house on your land, brick by brick, in your presence, you can not wait until the house is complete to pull it down." Some principle that is! Sounds like every other attempt to justify colonialism to me! And time to pull Rice Tec's house down!

Furthermore, in its propaganda materials, Rice Tec claims that the whole furor over its patent is really a cover for the Indian government and Indian corporations who wish to monopolize the world market for Basmati. This is an incredibly narrow and misleading way of viewing the issue.

Ultimately, the struggle between rights over the world's food supplies, including Basmati Rice, must not be seen as one of favoring the corporations of one country over that of another (as if corporations have a country!) but that of farmers' rights, the rights of women and respect for nature's creative and regenerative capacities versus corporate control over our food.

Intellectual property wrongs

The regime fueling the whole rush to patent life forms is the same one trying to get laws to protect "intellectual property rights" or IPRs. The term "property" within this term refers to private property; this is of the greatest significance here to farmers, to women, to indigenous people, to people with disabilities and, of course, to nature.

We have been led to believe that the issue of intellectual property rights is only about music stars like Madonna trying to make sure she gets royalties from her record sales rather than having unlicensed copies being sold on the market. But the issue of IPRs is much bigger than Madonna. And the US, as well as other Northern governments, know this very well.

Indeed, one of the biggest struggles to take place within GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and now the WTO (World Trade Organization) in recent years has been over corporations' ability to privatize and own the common intellectual property rights of people, in particular that of farmers. The establishment of intellectual property rights within the WTO since 1995 focuses only on the commercial aspect of the patent. This is not surprising given that the WTO is nothing if not a vehicle for capitalist expansion into every area of life.

What IPRs are really about., then, is the privatization or enclosing of common spaces. We know that throughout history, the process of enclosing community space is done by those who have the ability to get those with authority and armies to recognize their spurious claims to common property and make it theirs exclusively, privately, to own and control. These authorities and armies then have the job of backing up these private property claims by squashing people's movements designed to regain what has been stolen from us.

As a Thai community activist puts it, patents on life allow "big firms with high technology from developed countries to come in and monopolize what local people have used their life experience to build up for generations." Indeed, many of the proprietary seeds of multinational seed companies are no more than genetically altered versions of older, reliable, traditionally bred strains that have been developed and used in the public domain for centuries.

The issue of patenting life, then, is a North/South issue. The South is where most of the world's biodiversity is held. The North is where most of the world's TNCs are headquartered. As with many of the struggles in the WTO that see Northern countries pitted against some Southern' countries, the US is leading the battle for accepting patents on life.

Life forms such as plants, animals and human genes can he patented under US law and have been for over a decade. They are using the existence of these laws to argue that "fairness" dictates that other countries should have them too! And it's working. Pressure from the US government and US-based corporations recently managed to overturn the European Union's ban on patents on life so that now it is legal under European law to grant and hold patents on life forms.

What this pressure is intended to do is to have a US-style patent law exist in every country in the world. The way that corporations frame the issue is that countries without laws that allow for the patenting on life are simply "acquiescing" to this process and are simply bitter that they didn't think of it first. They fault those governments who have actually listened to people's movements opposed to biopiracy for what they call "weak" patent laws.

But, from a people's, rather than from a corporate, perspective, it makes much more sense to see that it is the US that has "weak" patent laws — not countries like India that refuse to accept Rice Tec's patent on Basmati. It is the governments of the North that must change their patent laws, not those countries of the South which refuse patents on life.

It is on the basis of starting to ask some pretty simple questions, then, like "why 'should we give monopoly rights to a handful of plant breeders and corporations and deprive millions of farmers who over centuries have developed and nurtured the materials of their livelihoods"? that we can wage an anti-colonial struggle in food politics.

Fighting back

What are some of the alternatives and actions we can take? First, we need to ensure that the collective rights of farmers' and communities have precedence over the intellectual property rights regime set up through the WTO. In other words, we need to protect indigenous knowledge and ensure that it can never be privately owned but remains in the common, people's space.

In a Supreme Court case currently being fought in India over the government's failure to protect indigenous knowledge and farmers' rights, Vandana Shiva has said that "we must give due respect, recognition and support to indigenous knowledge systems so that the rejuvenation of our knowledge serves the basic needs of the poor.. and our indigenous knowledge is not reduced to be raw material for patent claims of TNCs or even Indian scientists."

In that court case, the Indian Supreme Court banned, "in the interim before a final ruling" field trials of genetically manipulated cotton unless rules and guidelines were amended to ensure protection of the environment, biodiversity and human health. In the lead up to the November, 1999 meetings of the WTO in Seattle, USA, the Indian government asked for additional protection for geographical indications of origin to include other products such as basmati rice and certain varieties of tea, apart from the limited wines and spirits. In regards to Rice Tec's abhorrent patent on basmati rice, the Indian government has recently hired the same law firm which successfully contested the US government's patent on turmeric.

However, this same government (led by the rightwing Indian ruling party, the BJP) has weakened India's protection against biopiracy by bringing in Patents Amendment Act with little opposition from other political parties. This legislation will allow Indian governments to ignore provisions permitted by WTO to member countries to deny patents to protect public health and nutrition. This was done to accommodate transnational corporations who wish to have exclusive marketing rights of the biological resources of South Asians. Suman Sahai, of Gene Campaign in India, recently said, "The people need to know how the new legislation failed to protect the interests of Indian farmers and Indian consumers and mobilize opinion before the WTO review this year."

Going in a much better direction is a group of African countries, led by Ethiopia, that have demanded a ban on all life patents. People's organizations from around the world have endorsed this demand. While fighting for the dismantling of the WTO, we also need an international campaign to challenge US patent laws that are currently too weak to prevent biopiracy.

To ensure our biodiversity and protect indigenous knowledge and farmers' livelihoods, what we need is a grassroots people's initiative on this issue. We need to see that this is much more than a health issue although, of course, it is that. We also need to see it as much more than a consumer's choice issue concerning whether genetically engineered foods are labeled or not, even though this too is part of the issue. The patenting of life forms is ultimately an issue that will affect our very future on this planet. Again, Vandana Shiva puts it best when she says that biopiracy is "a colonization of our futures." And nobody knows what this might entail.

With things like the Terminator Technology, which is also a beneficiary of the IPR and patenting of life regimes, we are talking about a possibly permanent, irretrievable, unrecallable disaster on nature. This is how basically a new phenomenon of capital, what Wall Street calls one of the most lucrative investment areas, is currently able to grow — by literally destroying the future.

It's time to take back our pasts and give our thanks and respect to indigenous knowledge systems. It is time to take back our present by taking back our lives, our lands, our labour, our food so that we are truly free to live on this planet. And it is time to take back our futures by stopping the patenting of life.


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