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Instances and Issues

Biotechnology companies work hard and long, researching and experimenting, to find products that will alleviate human suffering and improve quality of life on several different facets such as medical and pharmaceutical, agricultural and ecological. While such intentions and efforts warrant complete public support, the industry itself needs to keep its social responsibilities foremost in all its efforts, instead of letting greed overtake ethics. There are ever so many instances that turned out to be court cases; all of them avoidable had not commercial benefits overtaken social interests in the business models of biotechnology companies. Some famous ones are listed here.

  1. US patent number 5663484 on Basmati rice, granted to RiceTec Inc in 1997. This patent meant that the company could claim monopoly on not only the famous aromatic rice variety, but also the name Basmati that had thus far been unique to the Indian sub-continent. India and Pakistan are fighting together against the USPTO to have this patent revoked.
  2. U.S. patent on turmeric granted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1995 for the use of turmeric in healing bruises. Who would have thought that brat companies would be allowed to claim age-old knowledge of curative properties of natural resources like turmeric (and Neem) as inventions and discoveries? This patent was successfully contested by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research CSIR, and the patent got revoked in 1997.
  3. US patent granted to Loren Miller on a variety of Ayahuasca or Yage (Banisteriopsis caapi), a plant of hallucinogenic properties held sacred by some 400 indigenous groups in nine countries of South America. This patent was revoked in November 1999.
  4. Lucrative patent grants on life-saving drugs like Cipro (that counters Anthrax) granted to the multinational Bayer AG. Many such drugs can be made available in abundance by cheaper means.
  5. The notorious case of Monsanto Company trying to claim a patent on Chinese Soya just because it discovered that substance’s gene sequence.
  6. US Department of Agriculture attempted to patent Thailand’s Jasmine rice violating a trust agreement on donated seed samples. It’s like taking someone’s recipe for cake, subsequently, make, eat and sell the cake, and thereafter tell the original owner to buy back the recipe.

Several relevant issues have come to the forefront on the subject of patents on life forms. All these issues have national and international significance, since they pertain to several ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ hitherto accepted as such and considered unquestionable:

  • The World’s regions have local richness of species, some very plentiful in variety, others showing hardly any diversity of flora and fauna.
  • Regions possess traditional knowledge of the properties and uses of local plant varieties.
  • Natural heritage belongs to no one yet belongs to all.
  • Regions have their own religious / non-religious faith in Nature’s bounty.

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