Grain drain

A US company has acquired the patent to what it claims is a new variety of basmati rice

Published: Sunday 15 March 1998

-- (Credit: Soumen Bhowmick)haldi , neem, and now our very own basmati -- us companies are getting smarter by the day in the game of plundering the genetic resources of the tropical world. The latest is Rice Tec, a us seed company, which has acquired a patent on "new lines and grains" of basmati rice and also the method of breeding these lines. That these are an "improvement" over the previous types of basmati and can therefore be patented is the line of defence adopted by Robin D Andrews, chief executive officer, Rice Tec.

He is now busy dodging the brickbats being hurled by incensed Indian government officials. Unfortunately, that is all that India can do now. Rice Tec has assessed -- quite correctly -- that the legal system in India is just not equipped to counter the onslaught of patent-savvy corporations.

This is not the first time that Rice Tec has embarked on a collision course with Indian authorities. In February 1996, the Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (apeda) had found that Rice Tec had registered for a trademark for exporting what they called "Texbasmati" in the uk and had lodged a case against Rice Tec in a uk economic court. According to J S Raju, the then director of apeda , the authority's "strategy" had been "to file such cases in all the countries that Rice Tec approa-ches for trademark." This way we hope to prevent it from usurping our export market, he had said.

Obviously, the ploy did not work. Although Rice Tec was stopped from exporting to the uk , they applied for a patent that not only makes it impossible for the apeda crew to block its entry into any market in any part of the world but also keeps Indian basmati exporters out of the gigantic us domestic market.

The Union ministry of commerce has set up a "high level ministerial group" for an "in-depth examination" of the issue. This group would include representatives from the ministries of industry, commerce and external affairs, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar) and the apeda. Its mandate? "We will try and establish the patent claims protection for plant varieties and grains that already exist. So they cannot be patented," says Gabriel of the law firm Sagar and Suri, which is representing the government against Rice Tec since 1996.

"Our official breeders are developing new varieties of basmati every year. Rice Tec just cannot get away by claiming that their variety is new," argues P S Dhillon, assistant director general, food crops division of the ministry of agriculture.

But does India have documented evidence to back up its claim? "When such a mammoth body like the icar is at the helm of affairs, we must be possessing comprehensive databank of all the inventions made by our breeders till now," says R L Saha, senior official of the department of science and tech-nology. Do we have such a databank? "We are going to hold a meeting later this month to take stock of the kind of information we have," says S P Tewari, assistant director general, seeds division, icar. In other words, the icar is shaky about the evidence it can actually produce. According to Tewari, apeda is going to take the lead in the legal battle once again.

So what is the strategy this time? "We shall fight it out in the us. We shall challenge the trademark and the patent acquired by the company there," reveals D Rajagopalan, chairman, apeda .

Obviously the government is still not viewing the Rice Tec episode as a symptom of the larger problem: India is still hopelessly trailing on the legal front when it comes to patents. In the last two years, two successive governments have failed to take any decision on restructuring the outdated Indian Patent Act. And the two crucial legislations that could have provided the Indian government firm legal ground to take on Rice Tec are yet to be enacted: the national biodiversity legislation, which could be used to assert the sovereign authority of the government over all the genetic resources found within its territory; and the Plant Varieties' Protection (pvp) Act, which would give legal protection to the basmati rice breeders in India.

Rice Tec has already applied for plant breeders' rights with the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (upov), a body of 27 nations (mainly from the industrialised world) that seeks to give exclusive property rights to the "creator" of plant varieties. India will need a strong pvp at home to fight Rice Tec if it is granted the rights by the upov.

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