Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A U.S.-based company is suing Mexican bean exporters, charging that the Mexican beans they are selling in the U.S. infringe the company's U.S. patent on a yellow-colored bean variety. The patented bean, "Enola," originates from bean seeds the company's president purchased in Mexico. These Mexican yellow beans have been grown in Mexico for centuries, developed by generations of Mexican farmers and more recently by Mexican plant breeders.
In 1994, Larry Proctor, the owner of a small seed company and president of POD-NERS, L.L.C., bought a bag of commercial bean seeds in Sonora, Mexico, and took them back to the United States. He picked out the yellow-colored beans, planted them and allowed them to self-pollinate. Proctor selected yellow seeds for several generations until he got what he described as a "uniform and stable population" of yellow bean seeds. Proctor applied for a U.S. patent on November 15, 1996, barely two years after he purchased the beans in Mexico.
In April 1999, Proctor won a U.S. patent on the Enola bean variety. The patent claims exclusive monopoly on any dry bean having a seed color of a particular shade of yellow. POD-NERS claims that it is illegal for anyone to buy, sell, offer for sale, make, use for any purpose including dry edible or propagation, or import yellow beans of that description. On May 28, 1999, Proctor also won a U.S. Plant Variety Protection Certificate on the Enola bean variety.
In late 1999, Proctor brought legal suit against two companies that sell Mexican beans in the U.S., charging that they infringe his patent monopoly. The companies buy yellow beans from Mexican farmers and sell them in the United States. POD-NERS is demanding royalties of six cents per pound on the yellow beans entering the U.S. from Mexico.
Beans are the principal source of vegetable protein consumed by Mexicans, and one of Mexico's basic food staples. Yellow "Azufrado" beans are especially popular in the Northwest region of Mexico where 98% of surveyed Mexicans eat them. Mexico's National Research Institute for Agriculture, Forestry and Livestock (INIFAP) recently conducted a DNA analysis of POD-NERS' patented bean that indicated the Enola variety is genetically identical to Mexico's "Azufrado" bean.
Outraged by the appropriation of Mexican germplasm and legal attempts to block Mexican bean exports to the U.S., the Mexican government announced in early January that it will challenge the U.S. patent on the Enola bean variety. "We will do everything necessary, anything it takes, because the defense of our beans is a matter of national interest," declared Jose Antonio Mendoza Zazueta, Under-Secretary of Mexican Rural Development. The patent challenge will cost at least US$200,000 in legal fees.
According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) an NGO that has been closely following the case, the Enola bean patent is technically and morally unacceptable. The Mexican government is now forced to devote scarce financial resources to challenge a patent that should never have been granted. RAFI says that it is difficult to decide who is more at fault -- the patent owner who claims that Mexican beans are infringing his U.S. monopoly patent on seeds of Mexican origin or the U.S. patent examiners who determined that Proctor was eligible to win an exclusive monopoly patent.
Last year RAFI released a report, "Plant Breeders' Wrongs" which documents 147 suspected cases of institutional biopiracy. The Enola patent is only the most recent example of a long line of abuses. Mexican beans, South Asian basmati, Bolivian quinoa, Amazonian ayahuasca, Indian chickpeas -- all have been subject to intellectual property claims that are predatory on the knowledge and genetic resources of indigenous peoples and farming communities.
The Enola controversy starkly illustrates the danger of life patenting and the power of exclusive monopoly patents to block agricultural imports, to disrupt or destroy export markets for Third World farmers, and to legally appropriate staple food crops or sacred medicinal plants that represent the cultural heritage of millennia.
Source: RAFI Geno-Types, "Mexican Bean Biopiracy," January 17, 2000; available at http://www.rafi.org.
Contact: RAFI, 118 E. Main St., Rm. 211, Carrboro, NC 27510; http://www.rafi.org.