Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Biopiracy

by Dr. Vandana Shiva
Winter 2001

Rice is central to Asian cultures and farming systems, so important as sustenance that its name has come to mean "prana," or life breath, in India.

Before the Green Revolution of the sixties, more than 200,000 varieties of rice were grown in India alone. These indigenous strains had evolved to survive floods and droughts, to thrive in uplands and coastal ecosystems, and to offer enhanced taste and medicinal value. One of these is Basmati rice – centuries old and referred to in ancient texts, folklore and poetry.

Years of research and development by Indian and Pakistani farmers have resulted in a diverse range of Basmati with superior qualities that are a direct result of the farmers' innovation. The native-seeds conservation program, Navdanya Farm, nestled in India's Doon Valley between the Himalayan and Sewabh ranges and the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, has saved, collected and distributed 14 of these strains. When the monsoons arrive, the farm becomes home to tremendous biodiversity that spans tropical and temperate ecosystems and includes over 250 varieties of rice, more than 50 varieties of pulses and oilseeds, and hundreds of medicinal plants.

In recent years, Basmati has become one of India's fastest-growing exports, with hundreds of thousands of tons of rice being exported annually. An estimated 80 percent of the country's Basmati is grown for this purpose. A recent U.S. patent, however, threatens to both monopolize the lucrative trade and deny the innovation of farmers. On September 2, 1997, Texas-based RiceTec, Inc. was granted patent number 5,663,484 for 20 claims ­ ranging from seed to plant to grains ­ to Basmati. This patent allowed the company to sell internationally under the Basmati name what it says are new rice lines and grains.

Patents are meant for novel industrial inventions. Basmati's aroma, which RiceTec is claiming is new, is not novel.

The RiceTec Basmati patent is indicative of the problems inherent in patenting living resources. Claiming invention for plant varieties denies the creativity of nature and farmers. If this claim to invention is upheld, Indian farmers who grow Basmati may lose income and Indian exporters of Basmati may be forced to pay royalties to RiceTec.

A group of nongovernmental organizations, including the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, launched a campaign in the late nineties against the Basmati patent. In 2000, RiceTec gave up four of the potential 20 claims and was denied another 13 claims in 2001.

While the campaign has been successful in helping roll back the Basmati patent, corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto are rushing ahead with mapping the rice genome and taking new patents out on rice. Take Golden Rice, for example. A genetically engineered rice that uses genes from flowers and bacteria to produce beta-carotene, Golden Rice is now being touted as a miracle for blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency.

One of the many problems with Golden Rice is that it is an inefficient source of vitamin A, providing only a minimal percentage of the recommended daily amount. Richer, safer sources of the vitamin exist in our biodiversity; greens like amaranth, coriander and drumstick are more productive vitamin A sources.

If the money spent to develop Golden Rice was spent on distributing vegetable seeds for vitamin-A-rich plants in the Third World, we could substantially diminish vitamin A deficiency while at the same time rejuvenating biodiversity. What the world needs to sustainably feed a growing population is biodiversity intensification, not chemical intensification or genetic engineering.

Real creativity is embodied in the diversity of species, in farming systems that conserve biodiversity, and in cultural diversity. Biodiversity-based systems are high-yielding, high-productivity systems. We need more biodiversity for ecological, economic, cultural, spiritual and aesthetic reasons. Biodiversity is the real indicator of abundance. Its erosion is the real measure of poverty.

Über den Verfasser

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, philosopher and environmental activist, known for her involvement with the ecological, social and economic struggles of Indian subsistence workers. She is the founder and director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in India, a group of researchers who specialize in sustainable agriculture. In 1993, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize.