FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Life (Pat. Pend.)

by STAN COX

As cloning and genetic engineering grab headlines in the American media, it’s easy to miss the anger that America’s biotech companies are stirring up around the globe with more low-tech tactics.

In the most recent such dispute, Greenpeace, along with Indian research and agricultural groups, seeks to overturn a patent involving an Indian wheat variety called Nap Hal. St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. vows to defend its patent. The company appears to be reflexively pushing the boundaries of what can be called an invention, while the scientists, farmers and activists accuse it of stealing an indigenous variety.

Monsanto representatives stress, correctly, that the patent does not restrict anyone’s right to grow Nap Hal or use it for flour. So what does Nap Hal have that attracts the biotech giant? In a word, nothing — it’s all about what Nap Hal doesn’t have.

Because of a rare genetic defect, its grains can’t produce a particular gluten protein for dough elasticity. Raised bread requires highly elastic dough. Chapatis, the ubiquitous Indian flat bread, need moderate elasticity. Nap Hal’s weak, inelastic dough has never been commercially important. But it is of interest to geneticists and cereal chemists who want to study the molecular basis of flour quality.

When it bought the British company Unilever’s wheat business in 1998, Monsanto came to own various patents that Unilever had obtained in the United States and Europe. They included claims on the missing-protein trait in any wheat variety descended from Nap Hal.

That’s right: Monsanto owns a patent claiming that a scientist invented the absence of something — an accident of nature. It’s as if I found a telephone with a broken ringer at a thrift store and filed for a patent on “a voice-communications device impervious to telemarketing calls.”

Activists in India and Europe are exaggerating the short-term threat the patent poses to India’s farmers, cooks and chapati-lovers, none of whom even need a wheat variety that lacks the gluten protein. But they are rightly outraged at Monsanto’s determination to claim as its own any future wheat variety that carries Nap Hal’s genetic legacy.

Nap Hal’s genetic flaw is no “invention.” It is a discovery, first made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and should remain freely available to any scientist.

The company’s executives should drop this patent like a hot chapati. Their research on flour quality could continue unimpeded, and the move would bring the company some much-needed favorable press. Instead, Monsanto’s claim on Nap Hal reinforces the image of America as global kleptomaniac.

In Monsanto’s view, the patent must be defended. To withdraw it would be to admit that there are limits to what can be patented — a precedent that the biotech industry will not tolerate.

In the end, Nap Hal belongs neither to Monsanto nor to India, but to the species Triticum aestivum. For millennia, farmers and breeders around the world — with no help from biotech companies — have dipped into T. aestivum’s gene pool to develop many thousands of varieties. They have succeeded partly because that gene pool has been the property of no one and accessible to anyone.

A natural hybrid, T. aestivum was first seen on this planet about 5,000 years ago, as a few seed lay in the palm of an observant farmer’s hand, somewhere in the vicinity of northwest Iran. Luckily for us, she didn’t work for Monsanto.

STAN COX is a senior research scientist and member of the Prairie Writers’ Circle at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He has worked in wheat genetics, first for the Department of Agriculture, since 1984. He lived in India for almost seven years, is married to an Indian citizen and eats chapatis daily. He can be reached at: t.stan@cox.net

 

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013). Contact him at t.stan@cox.net.

May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
Dave Welsh
Hunger Strikers at Mission Police Station: “Stop the execution of our people”
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail