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Wheat Biopiracy


WILL “GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD” BECOME A PRAYER TO MONSANTO?

Wheat the Golden grain, is called “Kanak” in North Western India. It is the staple of a large majority. Wheat diversity has been evolved by Indian farmers over millennia for taste, for nutrition, for ecological adaptation to cold climates and hot climates, dry regions and wet regions.

Barely four years after starting work, in December 1909, the book entitled “wheat in India” was published. By 1924 no fewer than thirty one papers exclusively on wheat had appeared. A survey of work was presented to the Royal Society of Arts in 1920.

In 1916-1920 indigenous Indian varieties won prizes in International Grain Exhibitions. Indian Wheat was so important a crop for the British Empire that an important Resolution of the Government of India no. I – 39-50 of March 17th, 1877 was passed on the wheat question requiring the Governor General to provide all information on Indian wheat including “local names for the varieties of wheat cultivated and three description in English”. More than 1000 wheat samples in bags of 2 pounds each were sent to the India office, examined by Forbes Watson, and a detailed report provided to the Secretary of the State.

Sir Albert Howard, the founder of Modern Organic Farming and his wife G.L.C. Howard started to document and systematize India’s wheat diversity. They identified 37 separate botanical varieties of wheat belonging to 10 sub-species.

The Ghoni, Kanku, Rodi, Mundli, Retti, Kunjhari, Sindhi, Kalhia, Sambhergehna, Sambhau, Kamla, Laila, Dandi, Gangajali, Pissia, Ujaria, Surlek, Manipuri, Anokhla, Tamra, Mihirta, Munia, Gajia, Mundia, Merdha, Dudhia, Lurkia, Jamali, Lalka, Harahwa, Galphulia….

An amazing diversity of indigenous wheat was evolved by farmers through their indigenous innovation and knowledge. In 1906, the Howards began to select and systematize Indian wheat in Pusa (Bihar) and Lyallpur in Punjab (now Pakistan) and made Indian wheat known worldwide. Howard’s work on wheat paid full tribute to the genius of Indian peasants. As he wrote in his plan to study and improve Indian wheat.

“The present condition of Indian agriculture is the heritage of experience handed down from time immemorial by a people little affected by the many changes in the government of the country. The present agricultural practices of India are worthy of respect, however strange and primitive they may appear to Western ideas. The attempt to improve Indian agriculture on Western lines appears to be a fundamental mistake. What is wanted is rather the application of Western scientific methods to the local conditions so as to improve Indian agriculture on its own lines.”

Millennia of breeding by millions of Indian farmers is however now being hijacked by Monsanto which is claiming to have “invented” the unique low-elasticity, low gluten properties of an indigenous Indian wheat, rice lines derived from such wheat and all flours, batters, biscuits and edible products made from such wheat.

On 21st May, 2003, the European Patent Office in Munich granted a patent to Monsanto with the number EP 445929, with the simple title “plants”, even though plants are not patentable in European Law. The patent covers wheat exhibiting a special baking quality, derived from native Indian wheat. With the patent, Monsanto holds a monopoly on the farming, breeding, and processing of a range of wheat varieties with low elasticity. Earlier in a patent (EP 518577) filed in 1998 Unilever and Monsanto have claimed “invention” of an exclusive claims to the use of flour to make traditional kinds of Indian bread such as “chapattis”.

And it is not just in Europe that Monsanto has filed and obtained patents based on the biopiracy of Indian wheat. In the U.S on May 3, 1994 patent number 5,308,635 was given for low elasticity wheat flour blends, on June 9, 1998 patent number 5,763,741 was given for wheat which produce dough with low elasticity, and on January 12, 1999, patent number 5,859,315 another patent was granted for wheats which produce dough with low elasticity.

Through these global patents based on biopiracy, Monsanto is literally seeking to control our daily bread. The wheat variety which has been pirated from India, has been recorded as NapHal in the gene banks from which Monsanto got the wheat and in Monsanto’s patent claims. The name NapHal is not the name of an Indian variety. Indian varieties were fully documented by Howard in Wheats of India. NapHal means “no seeds”, and is not, and cannot be an indigenous seed variety because farmers bred seed to produce seed.

They did not breed “Terminator seeds” for which the Indian name could be “NapHal”. This is clearly a distortion that has crept into the gene bank records because the original variety was stolen, not collected. NapHal is the name given by W.Koelz, USDA. However Koelz clearly did not make the collections himself, but was handed over the varieties, since the locations are inaccurate. The altitudes and longitude / latitudes do not match. According to our search, W.Koelz made the following collections :

Date of Collection Locality

10.4.48 Marcha, Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation – 3050 meters Latitude – 28o mm N Longitude – 80o mm E 10.7.48 Subu Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation – 3050 meters Latitude – 28o mm N Longitude – 80o mm E 19.7.48 Nabi, Uttar Pradesh, India Elevation – 2745 meters Latitude – 29.50o mm N Longitude – 79.30o mm E 21.7.48 Saro, Nepal Elevation – Not given Latitude – 28o mm N Longitude – 84o mm E

The latitude 28o N and longitude 80o E lies in the plains near Shajahanpur. The elevation here is clearly not 3000 meters. This altitude is in the higher Himalayan ranges with different latitude and longitude. In any case Marcha is not the name of the village but a sub tribal category of the Bhotias who are Tibetans speaking Buddhist living in the upper regions of the Himalayas. The terms Bhotia came from Bo which is the native Tibetan word for Tibet.

The discrepancy in the location and in the name indicate that the variety referred to as NapHal was pirated, not collected. Probably the name is a distortion of Nepal, since one sample was from Nepal and indigenous varieties names Nepal are in the NBPGR collection.

We have challenged Monsanto wheat biopiracy both in the Indian Supreme Court and in the European Patent Office in Munich with Greenpeace. As our challenge submitted to the EPO on 17th February, 2004, stated,

“The patent is a blatant example of biopiracy as it is tantamount to the theft of the results of endeavours in cultivation made by Indian farmers. In the countries of the southern hemisphere, it is frequently the small farmers who make a decisive contribution to agricultural diversity and secure sufficient food supplies by freely swapping seeds and breeding regionally modified forms of crops.

Monsanto is now unscrupulously exploiting the fruits of their labour. The company is able to restrict not only the farming and processing of crops, but also trade in them, in the countries for which the patent has been granted. At the same time it can block the free exchange of the seed, thus preventing other growers and farmers from working with the patented seeds.

The wheat exhibiting these special baking qualities is the result of the labours of cultivators and farmers in India who originally grew these plants for their own regional requirements, growing them to bake traditional Indian bread (chapatis). As it is natural for these farmers to freely swap seeds, it comes as no surprise that this wheat seed has been stored in various international gene banks outside India for many years.

Thus, samples of the seed can be found in the collections held by the US agricultural administration as well as in Japan and Europe. The patent owner uses these features to achieve his own business goals in a way which can only be regarded as indecent.

Unilever and Monsanto also have unrestricted access to these seed banks. They took the wheat to their laboratories, where they searched for the genes responsible for the special baking qualities. And, indeed, they were able to find the gene sequences which they had been looking for in the plant. In this connection, they were aided by the research results of various scientists as the corresponding gene regions had been undergoing examination for quite some time. It is this natural combination of genes which has now been patented by Monsanto as an “invention”.”

This patent needs to be challenged on the following grounds :

The traits of low elasticity, low gluten which are being patented are not an invention, but derived from an Indian variety. The crossing with a soft milling variety is an obvious step to any breeder. The patent is based on piracy, not on non-obvious novelty, and hence needs to be challenged to stop legal precedence being created on false claims to invention.

The broad scope of the patent covering products made with Indian wheat robs Indian food processes and biscuit manufacturers of their legitimate export market and could in future affect our domestic food sovereignty. The Governments 2020 vision refers to making India a “global food factory”.

However if Monsanto has the patent based on piracy of Indian wheat, India’s “food factory” will be controlled by Monsanto, not Indian food processors and producers. The governments policy if it has to be successful, must have the Monsanto patent revoked in order to bring market benefits for our unique food products to the country’s producers – both farmers and food processors.

With an estimated annual turnover of US$ 1.5 billion, the baking industry in India is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in India, production of which has been increasing steadily in the country. The two major bakery industries, viz. Bread and biscuit account for about 82 percent of the total bakery products. With overall annual growth estimated at 6.9%. According to ASSOCHAM India, a business support services firm, there are almost 85,000 bakeries in the country. Approximately 75,000 of these operate in the unorganised sector, which has a 60% market share. The remaining 1,000 bakeries operate in the organised sector, which has a 40% market share.

Packaged Food in India, a recently released report from Euromonitor, recorded year 2000 volume sales of the organised biscuit sector at 500,000 MT, or approximately US$492 million in value terms. The unorganised sector, which supplies 60% of total production, has an annual turnover of nearly US$718 million. If combined, the two sectors would bring overall biscuit sales to more than US$ 1.2 billion annually, or 1.3 MMT, making India the world’s second largest biscuit manufacturer and consumer behind the US.

Further, the patent covers not just biscuits but all edible products and flours with low elasticity. India Chapatis are in effect covered by the patent.

If such biopiracy based patents are not challenged, and crop lines and products based on unique properties evolved through indigenous breeding become the monopoly of MNC’s, in future we will be paying royalties for our innovations especially in light of the Patent Cooperation Treat and upward harmonization of patent law.

Monsanto’s wheat biopiracy patent should be a wake up call to citizens and governments of the world. It is yet another example of why the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) of W.T.O needs to be changed, and why traditional knowledge and community rights need to be legally recognized and protected.

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