Patent mess

Wheat's the problem

Published: Wednesday 31 March 2004

after the Basmati rice row, a similar controversy has cropped up involving an Indian wheat variety. On February 23, the Supreme Court (sc) directed the Union government to contest the patenting of wheat by us food and seed manufacturer Monsanto. The Munich-based European Patent Office (epo) had granted the patent to the transnational company on Galatea -- a wheat variety crossbred from the native Indian type, Nap Hal -- in May 2003. In its order on a petition filed by New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (rfste), the apex court gave the Indian government two weeks to file its objection.

According to a senior official, the government hasn't yet filed a petition. In any case, it has a tough task ahead, adds the official. The fact is that even if the sc edict spurs the Indian authorities into action, it would be akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. This is because under epo rules, a patent has to be challenged within nine months (the stipulated period ending in February 2004).

But what might still save the day for India is an application opposing the patent, filed by several non-governmental organisations (ngos) on January 27 this year. The ngos include global pressure group Greenpeace and rfste. Ashish Tayal, scientific adviser to Greenpeace India, says the Union government can be a party to this application if it so desires. Tayal also points out that there are enough grounds to make out a strong case as European patent laws do not allow intellectual property rights over a whole plant.

Monsanto officials, for their part, have been making contradictory statements about the matter. The company's director of public affairs, Europe-Africa, Thomas McDermott, has reportedly said it would defend the patent. But media reports quoted his Indian counterpart, Ranjana Smetacek, as saying that Monsanto is least interested in the patent since it is exiting cereal markets in some European countries. Smetacek told Down To Earth that the claim is not on the Nap Hal variety, but on Galatea. "If someone chooses to use wheat having all of the specific qualities incorporated in Galatea then they will be required to license the associated patent rights," she said.

The patent currently works only in France, Denmark, Germany and the uk. Monsanto argues that it would not prevent Indian farmers from growing similar wheat varieties, or Indian researchers from conducting scientific research on them. But Tayal rubbishes the reasoning, observing: "It is quite like an outsider keeping a valuable object of yours and saying that you are free to come and use it at any time."

Nap Hal has a specific gene sequence that helps it to produce less gluten (a protein base) than other wheat varieties. This makes it perfect for making crisp breads and biscuits. Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company, had filed the claim with the epo in 1991 and Monsanto was granted the patent as it bought over the cereal division of this company in 1998.

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