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
NEW DELHI

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
characteristics.

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.

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