Sepia Tone

Thursday, March 24, 2005

News report published in Business Times - Singapore - 1998.

India to contest US firm's patent for basmati rice

US' Ricetec claims to have invented new way of growing crop

By Aruna Srinivasan

INDIA will challenge a US patent for an aromatic rice that is said to
be similar to the basmati strain grown in northern India and Pakistan.

The government, together with local rice traders, has decided to apply
to the US Patent Office for a revocation of the patent given to
Texas-based Ricetec.

The US company obtained the patent on the basis of its claim to have
invented a novel method of growing rice plants that are identical in
characteristics to the basmati.

Ricetec has branded its strain Texmati. The patent allows the company
to sell the new strain of rice under the generic name of basmati.

Indian rice growers contend that strains of rice developed outside the
traditional geographical area is not of the same quality as the
original ones even if they are claimed to have similar

Rice exporters argue that, in effect, the US company was trying to
pass off a spurious variety as the real one.

The patent threatens to rob Indian traders of their worldwide market.
America alone accounts for 10 per cent, or 45,000 tonnes, of India's
basmati exports.

According to R A Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research, the key issue is how the American
variety is being described. By using the generic name basmati,
consumers are likely to think that it is the same as that grown in the
Indian sub-continent.

What is at stake is India's half million tonnes of basmati trade, said
Dr Mashelkar.

Ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva said that if the US patent of
basmati is not challenged now, Indian farmers will eventually end up
paying royalties to corporations like Ricetec for growing a rice
variety which they have been cultivating for generations.

This is because, according to US laws, once a patent is granted for a
generic trait (in this case the aroma) all occurrences of that trait
will be deemed an infringement, irrespective of how they came to exist
in the first place, she said.

Meanwhile, there is talk that India's case may not be very strong
since basmati is essentially a generic name for a particular grain of
rice. Sources point out that it may not be as straightforward a case
as those for turmeric and neem. India won the cases last year against
US patenting of the healing properties of the herbs. But given the
success of these two earlier cases, Indian officials are confident of
winning this time round too.

Yesterday, US Ambassador to India Richard Celeste expressed surprise
over the granting of the patent.

Measures are underway in India to protect agro-products traditionally
grown in certain geographical areas by legislation, and the
Geographical Appellations Act, is expected to be in place when the new
government takes over.

Copyright Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, 1998. All rights reserved.

Aruna Srinivasan.
New Delhi.

India steps up action to counter bio- piracy and increase plant based production of drugs.

Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s state funded central research nerve cell is charting new courses to face the challenges in the future patent regime, which will have significant implications for the Indian pharmaceutical industry. Prime among the new strategies is the attempt to manufacture medicines from 160 rare herbs and patent them for global market. The properties of the identified plants will be researched and the scientists will produce molecules from the properties of these plants to treat 20 human diseases. Besides using the infrastructure of the 18 of the 40 laboratories of the central research agency, the ambitious programme called plant- based bioactives, will have an initial funding of Rs. 100 million ( S$ 3.7 million) and will be increased every year as the project progresses.

India’s share in the US$20 million global plant-based-drug market is a negligible percentage. But given the latent knowledge base, the country has the capacity of making a greater impact in plant-based medicines. In a Rs.9000 crore domestic market, the Indian production is pegged around Rs.2300 crores. CSIR envisages a significant increase in the figure to Rs. 4000 crores by the turn of the century.

The inclusion of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in the GATT agreement threw some significant challenges to India’s bio-diversity resources, and particularly to the Indian pharmaceutical industry, which hitherto relied largely on the traditional knowledge bank to produce many of its herbal-based drugs.

“ India is endowed with rich medicinal plants. The knowledge till now was essentially spread through word of mouth. But if left unprotected in the new patent regime, there is the danger of losing our knowledge to global competitors. However, our research is based not only on traditional knowledge bank, but we also combine our own intellectual prowess to give it a scientific base. We aim to develop a standardization and documentation of the traditional knowledge so that they are protected from a bio- piracy in future and we simultaneously research and develop new combinations to market at global level.” says Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, Director General, CSIR

One of the main concerns of the Indian scientists is that a situation in future should not arise where in a global competition gets patent rights for a discovery, which essentially was based on the Indian traditional knowledge or the new research base. Hence the urgency to protect them by patenting.

Besides aggressively going in for patenting every new discovery, the CSIR today has got down in a patent literacy campaign. “ There is a wrong perception among many Indians that the patent laws patent the plants themselves. It is not so. Only the specific constituents of the plants in relation to their efficacy and impacts are patented.,” explains Mashelkar.

The Indian research agency recently won a landmark case in August when the US Patent and Trade Mark Office( US PTO) rejected a patent earlier given to the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, USA, for the use of turmeric powder as a wound-healing agent. Since the wound healing property of turmeric was an existing knowledge in India, the Indians argued that one of the basic criterion for the grant - novelty, of a patent was not met. The US body accepted it and rejected the earlier claim by the University of Mississippi.

The success of the case has wider implications to the third world countries since most of them have an undocumented wealth of traditional knowledge.

As a member of WTO, India has agreed to amend its patent laws, by the year 2005, to synchronies with a global system of patenting. It recently faced an adverse verdict from the dispute settlement body of the WTO for not starting the process to meet the obligation by the target date.

Published in Business Times Dated: October 13, 1997.