FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Life (Pat. Pend.)

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

 

More articles by:

Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19
Paul Ryder
Here Come the 1968 Mistakes Again
T.J. Coles
Fighting Over Kashmir Could Blow Up the Planet
David Macaray
Haven’t We All Known Guys Who Were Exactly like Donald Trump?
Conn Hallinan
What’s Driving the Simmering Conflict Between India and China
Joseph Natoli
American Failures: August, 2020
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?
Bruce Hobson
The US Left Needs Humility to Understand Mexican Politics
David Rosen
Easy Targets: Trump’s Attacks on Transgendered People
Ben Debney
The Neoliberal Virus
Evelyn Leopold
Is Netanyahu Serious About Annexing Jordan Valley?
Nicky Reid
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost In Portlandistan
Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj
The Power of the White Man and His Symbols is Being De-Mystified
Kathy Kelly
Reversal: Boeing’s Flow of Blood
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Framing Irish Complicity in the Slave Trade
Ariela Ruiz Caro
South American Nations Adopt Different COVID-19 Stategies, With Different Results
Ron Jacobs
Exorcism at Boston’s Old West Church, All Hallows Eve 1971
J.P. Linstroth
Bolsonaro’s Continuous Follies
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Right-Wing Populism and the End of Democracy
Dean Baker
Trump’s Real Record on Unemployment in Two Graphs
Michael Welton
Listening, Conflict and Citizenship
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump Is The Only One Who Should Be Going To School This Fall
John Feffer
America’s Multiple Infections
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Thinking Outside the Social Media Echo Chamber
Andrea Mazzarino
The Military is Sick
John Kendall Hawkins
How the Middle Half Lives
Graham Peebles
The Plight of Refugees and Migrant Workers under Covid
Robert P. Alvarez
The Next Coronavirus Bill Must Protect the 2020 Election
Greg Macdougall
Ottawa Bluesfest at Zibi: Development at Sacred Site Poses Questions of Responsibility
CounterPunch News Service
Tensions Escalate as Logging Work Commences Near Active Treesits in a Redwood Rainforest
Louis Proyect
The Low Magic of Charles Bukowski
Gloria Oladipo
Rural America Deserves a Real COVID-19 Response
Binoy Kampmark
Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC
Marc Norton
Giants and Warriors Give Their Workers the Boot
David Yearsley
Celebration of Change
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail