Japanese biopiracy of our Ballia barley

Japan’s Sapporo brewery patents Indian barley gene without giving benefit to farmers

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Friday 28 February 2014


Ballia district, the easternmost part of Uttar Pradesh, is a flood-prone area that extends towards Bihar from the confluence of the Ganga and the Ghaghra. Over decades, its farmers, mostly marginal and small, have been cultivating barley, exchanging its seeds, improving the varieties and giving these to a government project to cull the best of the lot. The gene from these traditional varieties is now adding to the profits of Japan’s oldest brewery Sapporo, which is among the top three beer manufacturers in the country with revenues of ¥492.4 billion (US $4.82 billion). The Ballia farmers get nothing for having nurtured this barley for more than a century at least. Worse, it has become the intellectual property (IP) of this Tokyo-based brewery.

Sapporo has patented the gene which improves the malting quality of the beer and gives it a longer shelf life. In fact, it is said to be working with global grain giant Cargill and Canada’s University of Saskatchewan to develop proprietary barley varieties that contain this gene. The first such, called PolarStar, is now being grown in Canada under license for Sapporo’s breweries in Japan and Canada. According to Edward Hammond, who researches cases of misappropriation of genetic resources by large corporations, this brewer’s delight of a gene came about as a result of the work put in by the farmers of this Uttar Pradesh district and public sector scientists.

In a paper prepared for the current meeting (February 3-7) of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Hammond says that although Sapporo does not mention Ballia barley in its patent claim, it is undeniably sourced from the varieties traditionally grown in this barley- growing district of Uttar Pradesh. Here’s why this gene is so important for beer makers. Barley lipoxygenase-1, or LOX-1, is a naturally occurring enzyme in most barley grain and gives brewers a hangover. LOX-1 is what causes beer to develop a stale taste when stored for long. The Indian germplasm, on the other hand, is a boon to brewers. It is termed ‘defective’ because it is free of the LOX-1 gene but it aids better malting and ensures a long shelf life for beer.

Sapporo discovered the LOX-less variety by screening gene bank samples for seeds with low LOX-1 enzyme levels. It found the best of these among Indian barley seeds held by Okayama University, a national university. The gene bank identifies the source seed merely as OUI003 or SBOU2. So where do the farmers of Ballia figure in this heady brew of Japanese beer, Canadian contracting farming and global seed trade?

Although Sapporo’s patent claims do not admit this, Hammond says these are the very same Ballia barley landraces. The US-based researcher traces the origin of the LOX-less to a plant selection made in the mid-20th Century by Indian crop scientists working with Uttar Pradesh farmers’ varieties. He points out that in scientific publications Sapporo’s scientists acknowledge the gene’s Indian origin. In a 2010 paper, they say: “The LOX-less barley lines are landrace lines cultivated in Asia, which have been used as food for a long period of time in that area. Therefore, the LOX-less barley can be safely used in brewing.” (A landrace is a local variety of a plant species which has developed over time by adapting itself to the natural and cultural environment in which it lives.)

In Uttar Pradesh, a project to improve barley varieties began in 1916 that “was confined to the development of improved varieties by selection from the indigenous material”, says a scientific paper on Indian barley research presented at an international conference in 1981. The result of this research was high-quality malting barleys, the type used by brewers. It was recommended for sowing in 1956.

The unfortunate part is that such germplasm was made available freely to all nations in a more innocent time when IP rights over genetic material was practically unheard of. Some 30 to 40 years ago plant genetic resources were considered a common heritage of mankind. It was believed that such exchanges of seeds and plants would benefit all of humanity through research and breeding.

It was only in the last three decades or so that developing countries have realised that the common heritage notion was, perhaps, too naive since the industrialised world and its corporations were appropriating and exploiting their natural resources without so much as seeking their consent, much less compensating them for these resources. The first of the legal steps to stem misappropriation was the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) that was agreed upon in 2001 as a multilateral system to regulate access and benefit-sharing. But the Ballia germplasm used by Sapporo came from a Japanese gene bank at a time when Japan was not a member of ITPGRFA.

So what can India or the farmers of Ballia do while Sapporo aggressively patents their gene and its many uses? Nothing. All that the case does is to highlight once again the weakness and limitations of the multilateral agreements intended to protect biodiversity.

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