Manipulating a patent

Published: Friday 15 August 1997

quinoa ( Chenopodium quinoa ) is a high protein food crop which is eaten by millions of people in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Now two us agronomists, Duane Johnson and Sarah Ward of Colorado State University have been granted a patent on a particular variety of crop known as Apeiawa, by the us Patents & Trademark Office ( pto ). The patent not only gives them exclusive monopoly control over the male sterile plants of Apeiawa, but also on its use in creating other hybrid quinoa varieties. This means that if Johnson and Ward wish they can force the Bolivian farmers to pay royalty every time they use the Apeiawa seeds - even take them to court if they fail to seek their permission before doing so. The two patent holders make no secret of the fact that they did nothing to create male sterile varieties of the Apeiawa. "It's part of the native population of plants. We just picked it up," says Johnson. In fact, it is the indigenous communities dwelling in the mountainous terrains of the Andes who have, for centuries, toiled to develop quinoa plants that can tolerate high altitude, low temperature, little rainfall and poor soils.

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