Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
In a move to demonstrate the defects of international patent laws, the British non-governmental organization ActionAid is applying for a patent on the famous British "chip," a french-fried potato that is a key part of one of the country's favorite fast food dishes, fish and chips.
In cooperation with Professor Leo Pyle, a food scientist at Reading University, the London-based organization created a brand of "ready-salted" chip that it calls the ActionAid Chip. In February, the group filed an application for registering the "invention" with the British patents office.
To be granted a patent, applicants must prove that the product they have created is their "invention," or that they have altered the product in some way that makes it "novel." All of the ingredients used to make the ActionAid Chip -- namely salt and potatoes -- are natural, but putting salt on top of chips and combining the two foods in such a "novel" way should be enough to be granted a patent, the group said.
"This is no joke," said Maya Vaughan, an ActionAid spokeswoman. "We are able to make this claim under new patent rules that allow companies to get exclusive rights over basic foods and even nature itself," she added.
If ActionAid is granted a broad patent, its legal advisors say that it could win the rights over any chips sold commercially that have the same properties as the ActionAid Chip, i.e. those with added salt. Although the group has no intention of doing so, with a patent it could control how the product was produced and sold, and require chip-shop owners in the United Kingdom to pay it license fees for permission to add salt to their chips. Over 300 million servings of chips with added salt are sold commercially each year.
There are almost one thousand patents on rice, wheat, maize, soybean and sorghum -- the five staple crops that constitute 70% of the world's food supply. Six major agrochemical corporations -- Aventis, Dow, DuPont, Mitsui, Monsanto and Syngenta -- own 30% of the global seed market and 98% of the global market for genetically engineered crops.
By modifying genes of plants or cross-breeding varieties and "allowing patents on plants that are clearly not 'inventions,' the current patent system is giving agrochemical corporations unprecedented control over the food chain," the group commented.
ActionAid explains that patents can have a serious impact on the 75% of people in poor countries whose livelihoods depend on agriculture -- totaling millions of people worldwide. Under companies' licensing agreements, farmers using patented seeds cannot save, exchange or replant them, and must buy new seeds every year or risk prosecution.
"Farmers in poor countries are faced with the prospect of having to pay for the right to grow food that they have been growing for generations or risk infringement of the patent. This is an outrage," commented Salil Shetty, ActionAid's chief executive.
Citing the example of agrochemical companies in Pakistan that have succeeded in removing their liability under national laws for any "hazardous effects" of their patented crops, ActionAid criticizes companies for wanting control over crops but refusing to take responsibility for any negative consequences.
The gathering and patenting plants and food crops from poor communities across Asia, Latin America and Africa by scientists from U.S. and European companies amounts to more than what the U.N. calls "the silent theft of knowledge from developing countries," according to ActionAid.
Instead, the group explains, there is also the potential for developing countries to lose vital export earnings. ActionAid notes the example of the Mexican yellow bean patented by Larry Proctor, the president of a U.S.-based seed company, after bringing some of the beans back to the U.S. following a trip to Mexico.
Proctor applied for and won an exclusive monopoly patent on the seed, making it illegal to grow beans in the U.S. or import them without paying royalty payments to the patent holder. The export earnings of Mexican farmers who had been growing and exporting the beans for generations came under threat, as demonstrated by Proctor's legal action against two U.S. seed importers who tried to do business with Mexican farmers.
The international rules that allow the patenting of food and agriculture are currently under review. Part of the World Trade Organization, the rules are enshrined in the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, or "TRIPS," agreement. ActionAid is calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British government to withdraw their support for food patenting.
For more information, see http://www.actionaid.org/ourpriorities/foodrights/foodrights.shtml.
Sources: ActionAid Press Release, February 11, 2002; OneWorld UK, February 12, 2002.
Contact: Action Aid, Hamlyn House, Macdonald Road Archway, London N19 5PG, U.K.; phone (44-20) 7561-7561; fax (44-20) 7272-0899; email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.actionaid.org.