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

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman