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Monday, April 18

Better Pirating through Chemistry: Monsanto patents the chapati

Pundita begins the week not in the best of moods. Saturday we spent an hour wrestling a thimbleful of Old Bushmill's into a hysterical squirrel. I put this question to a certain segment of my European readers: If you want to travel to Washington, DC to protest at the IMF-World Bank Spring meetings, what part of this ritual necessitates hopping up and down and screeching in a manner to scare the dead?

Things went from bad to worse when Pundita received a letter from Boris in Jackson Heights:

"Pundita, dear, the next time you stop off in Kargil for rice, beans and chapatis, you might have to pay a surcharge for the chapati patent. See the attached.[ Guardian Unlimited report Monsanto's chapati patent raises Indian ire]"
Monsanto, the world's largest genetically modified seed company, has been awarded patents on the wheat used for making chapati - the flat bread staple of northern India. The patents give the US multinational exclusive ownership over Nap Hal, a strain of wheat whose gene sequence makes it particularly suited to producing crisp breads.

Another patent, filed in Europe, gives Monsanto rights over the use of Nap Hal wheat to make chapatis, which consist of flour, water and salt.

Environmentalists say Nap Hal's qualities are the result of generations of farmers in India who spent years crossbreeding crops and collective, not corporate, efforts should be recognised.

...Monsanto inherited a patent application when it bought the cereals division of the Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever in 1998, and the patent has been granted to the new owner.

Unilever acquired Nap Hal seeds from a publicly funded British plant gene bank. Its scientists identified the wheat's combination of genes and patented them as an "invention."

Greenpeace is attempting to block Monsanto's patent, accusing the company of "bio-piracy". "It is theft of the results of the work in cultivation made by Indian farmers," said Dr Christoph Then, Greenpeace's patent expert after a meeting with the European Commission in Delhi.

"We want the European Patent Office to reverse its decision. Under European law patents cannot be issued on plants that are normally cultivated, but there are loopholes in the legislation."

A spokesperson for Monsanto in India denied that the company had any plan to exploit the patent, saying that it was in fact pulling out of cereals in some markets.

"This patent was Unilever's. We got it when we bought the company. Really this is all academic as we are exiting from the cereal business in the UK and Europe," said Ranjana Smetacek, Monsanto's public affairs director in India....
The UK Guardian report is inaccurate in that the chapati is not the staple in north India, it's the staple Indian bread, period.

Note that the spokesperson did not say Monsanto is exiting from the cereal business in India--and bread not being a cereal, the spokesperson actually dodged the entire issue.

If you think this is a tempest in a teapot, a Texas company managed to patent basmati rice, which has only been around for zillions of years. What's particularly upsetting is that Monsanto's two-faced stand plays into China's excuses for not adhering to international patent laws.

Yet India--in this case clearly the victim of patent law gone berserk--is now making an honest attempt to play by the rules. In March, the upper house in India's parliament approved a patents bill that is very controversial and carries high political risk. For an overview of the issues, see the Reuters report on the bill passing the lower house.

The patents issue is enormously serious; much is at stake with regard to US trade relations, not to mention trillions of dollars over time. So let us hope that someone at ranking level in the American government has a heart-to-heart talk with the Monsanto CEO. Else your special homemade bread recipe could be next.

For more on the shocking chapati affair as reported by the Guardian Unlimited, click here . The story, datelined January 31, 2004, is old news to activists--of just the kind who gather to protest at IMF-Bank meetings. But the details are enough to cause even a very reasonable person to consider hopping up and down and screeching.

Which is why Pundita begins the week on a grim note. It was, after all, the European Union that granted the patent. So one would think there's quite enough to protest in Europe.
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