Genetic research has existed for a while now and it is becoming more sophisticated. For a lot of people, this is good news. Improved genetic research means we can potentially use plants and animals to either develop a new drug or modify crops to be more resistant and meet food security needs. A lot of this vital information on plants and animals are often drawn from local people’s cultural and traditional knowledge. These local indigenous people have a wealth of information that has been passed down generations. They understand how every plant and animal in their surrounding ecosystem interact with each other and what properties they have.
So, what happens when these researchers don’t credit or get the permission of indigenous people to use this traditional knowledge? What if they exploit this indigenous knowledge, make a commercial profit from this “new invention”, claim it as their own and not pay any royalty to these people who have practised it for hundreds of years? This phenomenon is called Biopiracy.
Biopiracy or Bioprospecting, a term that was originally coined by ETC group is defined as follows
“The appropriation of knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions that seek exclusive monopoly control (patents or intellectual property) over these resources and knowledge”.
Biopiracy is both a complicated and controversial topic for many people. It is hard to draw any concrete conclusion on this topic because there are so many variabilities within each biopiracy cases. Therefore, rather than make a general conclusion on biopiracy, let us explore some of the major biopiracy cases individually. For this article, I will explore the biopiracy of neem.
Biopiracy of Neem
The neem tree can be found in roughly 50 countries and often grow in dry zones. They have many uses thanks to its unique healing chemical properties. Its chemicals have been used by indigenous people to produce contraceptives, laxatives, toothpaste, pesticides, and more for thousands of years. In India, the tree is commonly referred to as the “tree that cures everything”. While using its healing properties, none of the indigenous people were interested in obtaining the formula for the tree’s chemical composition. For them, coexisting with the trees and sharing its resources matched their community-oriented ideology.
However, a lot of this started to change in the early 70s. In 1971, a US timber importer by the name of Robert Larson was blown away by the properties of the neem tree. Wanting to explore more, he began importing neem seed to his company in Wisconsin, US. The next 10 years, Robert Larson conducts tests on one of the neem’s pesticidal properties called Margosan-O. He received clearance for this extract from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
3 years after getting the clearance from EPA, Robert Larson sold his patent to the multinational chemical corporation, W R Grace and Company. The said patent was filed for the method of controlling fungi on plants, which comprised of contacting the fungi with a Neem oil formulation. This set-in motion a series of patents that would eventually ruin Indian local farmers. Starting in 1985, nearly a dozen patents were taken by the US and Japanese firms on the formula for stable neem-based solutions and emulsions.
India’s Neem Patent Fight
Soon after the patent was filed, there was a sudden demand for neem seeds. How did this happen? Well, all the seeds were bought up by companies like W R Grace and Co., which caused the price to explode. What this did was make the seeds inaccessible to local farmers, who were now deprived of their traditional plant material. The farmers were forced to now by the patented products, thus becoming dependent on the company who stole their resource and made a patent out of it. It created a monopoly. Adding to this, the profit made by these multinational sales was never paid back to the Indian government or its farmers.
Many Indian associations and activists like Vandana Shiva were not happy with this. They felt that these patents were stealing ancestral indigenous knowledge from farmers and Indian researchers, while also depriving its people of traditional plant material. To combat this, legal opposition to this patent was lodged by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) in co-operation with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and Magda Aelvoet, former green Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
For its defence, India provided ayurvedic texts that described how the seeds were known to its people for centuries and how it was used for curing skin related diseases in humans and how it was used to protect plants from fungal infections. After 10 long years of legal proceedings, the patent was finally revoked in the year 2000. It was done so because India was able to prove that the knowledge existed in Indian culture for centuries and the patent was not innovation or an inventive solution.
Should Patenting Culture Be Allowed in Nature?
Even though this case study has a relatively happy ending, there is an important question to explore here. From a legal standpoint, a patent is about excluding others from making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing an invention. But, can this apply to nature? After all, we all share nature’s resources, we all benefit from it and we all deserve equal access to it. Even if you want to commercialise what is essentially a common resource, shouldn’t you at least share its wealth with its people?
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