Biopiracy - Monsanto Style

Monsanto's chapati patent raises Indian ire

Randeep Ramesh in New Delhi
Saturday January 31, 2004
The Guardian

Monsanto, the world's largest genetically modified seed company,
has been awarded patents on the wheat used for making chapati -
the flat bread staple of northern India.

The patents give the US multinational exclusive ownership over
Nap Hal, a strain of wheat whose gene sequence makes it
particularly suited to producing crisp breads.

Another patent, filed in Europe, gives Monsanto rights over the
use of Nap Hal wheat to make chapatis, which consist of flour,
water and salt.

Environmentalists say Nap Hal's qualities are the result of
generations of farmers in India who spent years crossbreeding
crops and collective, not corporate, efforts should be
recognised.

Monsanto, activists claim, is simply out to make "monopoly
profits" from food on which millions depend. Monsanto inherited
a patent application when it bought the cereals division of the
Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever in 1998, and the patent has been
granted to the new owner.

Unilever acquired Nap Hal seeds from a publicly funded British
plant gene bank. Its scientists identified the wheat's
combination of genes and patented them as an "invention".

Greenpeace is attempting to block Monsanto's patent, accusing the
company of "bio-piracy".

"It is theft of the results of the work in cultivation made by
Indian farmers," said Dr Christoph Then, Greenpeace's patent
expert after a meeting with the European Commission in Delhi.

"We want the European Patent Office to reverse its decision.
Under European law patents cannot be issued on plants that are
normally cultivated, but there are loopholes in the legislation."

A spokesperson for Monsanto in India denied that the company had
any plan to exploit the patent, saying that it was in fact
pulling out of cereals in some markets.

"This patent was Unilever's. We got it when we bought the
company. Really this is all academic as we are exiting from the
cereal business in the UK and Europe," said Ranjana Smetacek,
Monsanto's public affairs director in India.

Campaigners in India say that there are concerns that people
might end up paying royalties to Monsanto for making or selling
chapatis.

"The commercial interest is that Monsanto can charge people for
using the wheat or take a cut from its sale," said Devinder
Sharma, who runs the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in
Delhi.

The potential market in developing countries is huge. Rice
production in India alone exceeds that of the American maize
market.

The number of patents relating to rice issued every year in the
US has risen from less than 100 in the mid-1990s to more than 600
in 2000.

Mr Sharma says there is little hope of the Indian government
intervening to prevent the chapati being patented by Monsanto.

It simply cannot afford the legal fees, having spent hundreds of
thousands of dollars fighting a US decision to grant a Texan
company a patent on basmati rice in 1997.

That case became a cause celebre for the anti-globalisation
protests of the 1990s, and was only settled when the patent was
watered down.

"The ministry of commerce sent a circular out last year which
said that there is no money to fund these cases any more," said
Mr Sharma.