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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.

About the Author

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.