Biopiracy is the theft or usurpation of genetic materials especially plants and other biological materials by the patent process. To generalise, corporations of the western world have since the past two decades or so, been reaping immense profits by patenting the knowledge and genetic resources of Third World communities, which also form biodiversity hotspots. Very often, the knowledge, processes and resources that are patented are widely known within a community. Once patented, the patent owner can effectively prevent competitors from producing the product, occasionally even interfering with the lifestyles of the community which is the original source of the patented information anyway. In such cases, farmer and community livelihoods are threatened.
Among the India-specific cases of biopiracy and unfair patenting in the past few years has been the Texmati case where a Texas, USA-based company patented a strain of Basmati rice crossed with a semi-dwarf variety. RiceTec claimed the variety (named Texmati) was a type of the famed fragrant rice. Basmati is the communal property of rice growers in the northern sub-Himalayas in India. Hence, the patent ownership was not only illegal and unethical but also agriculturally incorrect. The process of producing ‘atta’ or wheat flour from whole wheat was also patented by an American company. There are innumerable patents on neem extracts for purposes which have been known to Indians for centuries. Patents on turmeric and numerous other Indian plants and processes have also been attempted and awarded.
The threat from biopiracy lies in four facts : that knowledge and / or genetic resources belonging to a region, community or country is stolen or claimed as one’s own; that the use of this knowledge or genetic resource in the area of its origin or traditional usage may be hampered or sought to be prevented; that the patent holder will unfairly profit from the patent; and that the patent claimed and awarded illegally and unethically is bound to disturb an established system somewhere in the world, be it related to food, medicine, livelihood or lifestyle.
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