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Genetic Commandeering
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