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Biopiracy- a Blessing or Curse for Developing Countries?: V.V.Hariprasad (Rtd DCF)

While the term “Biopiracy” is not defined under international law, it is conceptually founded in the principle of state sovereignty over natural resources. Principle 02 of the 1992 Rio Declaration affirms that “states have  the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies.”   As genetic research becomes more sophisticated, so does our ability to use plants and animals to develop new drugs or modify crops to meet food security needs.

Often, in the search for new bioresources, researchers draw on local people’s traditional knowledge about the properties of a particular plant, animal or chemical compound. When researchers use traditional knowledge without permission, or exploit the cultures they are drawing from – it is called biopiracy.

As such “Biopiracy” may be defined as the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.

Biopiracy happens when researchers or research organizations take biological resources without official sanction, largely from less affluent countries or marginalized people.

Biopiracy is not limited to drug development. It also occurs in agricultural and industrial contexts. Indian products such as the neem tree, tamarind, turmeric, and Darjeeling tea were patented by foreign firms for different lucrative purposes.

Scientific colonialism

Although biopiracy might happen within a country, with elite groups or government officials taking resources from less influential citizens, it has more of a reputation for occurring between different countries. Biopiracy often accentuates power inequalities between wealthy, technology-rich countries and less affluent, yet bio resource-rich, countries.

Biopiracy and Colonialism:

Historically, biopiracy has been linked to colonialism, with formerly colonized countries having many of their resources forcibly removed. Pepper, sugar, coffee, quinine, or rubber did, and still do, have significant impact on the world economies. All of them have a colonial past.

At the heart of the matter is the idea of ownership. Patents and trademarks are hotly defended by international trade organizations and multinational groups.

Biological patent

A biological patent is a patent on an invention in the field of biology that by law allows the patent holder to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing the protected invention for a limited period of time.

Whereas a patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem. To get a patent, technical information about the invention must be disclosed to the public in a patent application

BIOPIRACY – WHEAT:

WHEAT

Midle of the post
  • Wheat the golden grain is called KANAK in north western India
  • In December 1909 the book titled “Wheat in India” was published
  • During 1916-1920 Indian wheat varieties won prizes at international grain exhibitions
  • On May 3rd1994 U.S gave patent to MONSANTO for low elasticity of flour blends of wheat(exclusive ownership over use of Nap Hal a strain of wheat)
  • On 21st May 2003 European patent office in Munich granted patent on wheat to Monsanto titled “plants”(use of Nap Hal a strain of wheat in making chapathis)
  • India has challenged wheat biopiracy of Monsanto in European patent office on 17th February 2004
  • The patent is a blatant example of biopiracy as it is tantamount to the theft of the results of endeavors in cultivation made by Indian farmers
  • A patent on Indian wheat, held by multinational corporation Monsanto, has been revoked by the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO).
  • The EPO’s decision is in response to a petition filed by three organizations–Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS), Navdanya and Greenpeace, Germany–challenging Monsanto’s patent on Indian wheat variety Nap Hal.
  • Monsanto could not file a contest against the petition. BKS president Krishan Bir Chaudhary said Monsanto had got the patent by transferring genes from Nap Hal to its Galatea wheat variety.

BIOPIRACY-TURMERIC

In 1995 two expatriate Indians at the university of Mississippi medical Centre were granted U.S patent on the use of turmeric in wound healing.TURMERIC

  • In India turmeric has been applied to cuts of children as anti-parasitic agent
  • In 1996 CSIR Delhi, India requested U.S patent and trademarks office to revoke the patent on the grounds of existing prior art.
  • CSIR could provide documentary evidence of traditional knowledge including Sanskrit text and a paper published in 1953 in the journal of Indian Medical Association.
  • The patent was revoked in 1997 after ascertaining that there was no novelty.

BIOPIRACY-ONGOLE BULL

  • These animals known for their resistance to diseases like mad cow disease and extreme hot climate due to their protective and reflective coat, have been exported since more than four decades and have been bred in Brazil, especially for meat.
  • For long the animals and their semen were exported from India and used for breeding in Brazil. But this was happening indiscriminately in violation of biopiracy laws,
  • Brazil has number of Ongole bulls much more than those which India has been possessing now which resulted because of biopiracy.

CONCLUSION

Biopiracy is not likely to disappear any time soon. As climate change threatens, many large agri-businesses and researchers are patenting drought-resistant, heat-resistant, and salt-resistant genes from plants for future use in crop species.

To counter this, many researchers are attempting to collect genes and publish them in scientific domains (such as the NIH’s online Gene Bank or various seed banks). By sharing genetic sequences, scientists can prevent big firms from claiming uniqueness and novelty, two criteria for patents.

While patents were first used to protect inventions and stimulate innovation, many anti-biopiracy activists and some academic and scientific circles are pushing for changes in the system, as it is now thought to hinder research in many important areas. For now, the issue of biopiracy remains at a stalemate.

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL)

In just under two years, in Europe alone, India has succeeded in bringing about  the cancellation or withdrawal of 36 applications to patent traditionally known medicinal formulations. The key to this success has been its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a database containing 34 million pages of formatted information on some 2,260,000 (2.26 million) medicinal formulations in multiple languages

  1. A) . Designed as a tool to assist patent examiners of major intellectual property (IP) offices in carrying out prior art
  2. B) Searches, the TKDL which is a unique repository of India’s traditional medical wisdom. It bridges the linguistic gap between traditional knowledge expressed in languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil, and those used by patent examiners of major IP offices. All TKDL information is structured along the lines of a patent application. India’s TKDL is proving a powerful weapon in the country’s fight against erroneous patents, sometimes referred to as “biopiracy”

(The author of this article a retired Deputy conservator of Forests,  who is presently practicing as an Advocate is a guest faculty  and teaches Cyber laws and IPR in the Central University Hyderabad).

 

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