Sunday, December 04, 2005

India maps Basmati Rice in Bid to protect it from the west

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Indian scientists are mapping the DNA of one of the country's basic food
products: basmati rice. Concerned that Western corporations may try to
take out patents on the food, their aim is not to produce genetically
modified rice but to protect one of India's most treasured natural
products from a foreign takeover.

Basmati may be beloved of students because it is easy to cook, but to
connoisseurs, its long grains and natural scent make it one of the
world's most desired varieties of rice. It is one of the Indian
agriculture sector's prime exports.

Already the country has fought off an attempt by an American company to
copyright the name basmati for its own product, a crossing of American
rice and Indian basmati. True basmati rice, by contrast, is a natural
product still grown by highly traditional methods.

The project to prove that basmati rice is quintessentially Indian is a
sign of how GM methods are transforming the agricultural industry. Today,
traditional farmers are trying to fight off what is being called "gene
piracy". Everybody knows basmati rice comes from India, but lawyers are
warning that there is no way of proving it in a court of law. That is
where scientists come in.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Icar) is hoping to
genetically "fingerprint" 72 different varieties of basmati rice that are
grown in different regions of India.

KS Money, chairman of India's Agriculture and Allied Products Export
Authority, told the Indian Express: "It's always better to have records
of our biodiversity and germplasm so that if someone uses our variety and
claims intellectual property rights, we should be able to contest it."

JL Karihaloo, director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Research,
said: We develop a kind of barcode unique to the variety. In forensics,
DNA fingerprinting is used to identify criminals. The same application
has been developed for plants."

Countries have, in the past, fought off attempts by foreign companies to
copyright the names of their traditional products. France has been
successful in protecting the names of its cheeses and wine-growing
regions. The Czech Republic has had a harder time fighting off the
American Anheuser-Busch brewery's attempt to copyright Budweiser beer,
named after the Czech town of Budweis.

But the Indian DNA mapping is an attempt to patent not the name but the
produce itself.

The Icar hopes to complete mapping DNA of basmati rice within two years.
It has already fingerprinted 42 varieties of chillies, 243 varieties of
bananas, and 30 varieties of mangoes, including India's much sought after
sweet Alphonso mangoes. It is planning to start work on spices.
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A thorny issue to be sure, and once again the developing world finds itself in a bind. To gain access to the patented products of the West it has to not only respect patent law, but also be fast enough on the gun to patent it's own century old products before global Agro-business does so. Last year Monsanto managed to patent a type of wheat unique to the production of chapatis, essentially holding the survival of millions of people within it's now proprietary rights. What's more, up until the end of the last millennium, the EU disallowed patents on staple foods, a position that it no longer chooses to maintain. There is so much more research to do on this subject and it is an issue that affects us all. No matter where you live, soon Monsanto and friends will quite literally own the food that you eat. By growing staple crops that are owned by such companies, without their consent, you would be breaking the law. We may be able to afford our way around this problem, impoverished Indian farmers who depend on these crops for their very life and livelihood will most likely not.


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