Photo by Arne Hückelheim
According to an article published this month in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Monsanto is facing biopiracy charges in India.
In an unprecedented decision, India's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), a government agency, declared legal action against Monsanto (and their collaborators) for accessing and using local eggplant varieties (known as brinjal) to develop their Bt genetically engineered version1 without prior approval of the competent authorities, which is considered an act of "biopiracy."2
The journal of Nature Biotechnology reported
"An Indian government agency has agreed to sue the developers of genetically modified (GM) eggplant for violating India's Biological Diversity Act of 2002. India's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is alleging that the developers of India's first GM food crop—Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) partnered with St. Louis–based seed giant Monsanto and several local universities-used local varieties to develop the transgenic crop, but failed to gain the appropriate licenses for field trials.
At the same time, activists in Europe are claiming that patents on conventionally bred plants, including a melon found in India, filed by biotech companies violate farmers' rights to use naturally occurring breeds. Both these pending legal cases could set important precedents for biopiracy in India and Europe."
An excerpt from the NBA's official resolution giving effect to the decision, and released on August 11 2011, follows below:
"A background note besides legal opinion on Bt brinjal [GM egplant] on the alleged violation by the M/s. Mahyco/M/s Monsanto, and their collaborators for accessing and using the local brinjal varieties for development of Bt brinjal with out prior approval of the competent authorities was discussed and it was decided that the NBA may proceed legally against M/s. Mahyco/ M/s Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion."
[Official copy of these minutes may be accessed here.]
As reported by the Environment Support Group (ESG), the "alleged violation" referred to by the NBA was the ESG's complaint:
"...specifically charging these agencies for criminally accessing at least 10 varieties of brinjal in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu without in any manner seeking prior and informed consent from the National Biodiversity Authority, State Biodiversity Boards and applicable Local Biodiversity Management Committees as required. Such a rigorous process of appraisal is mandatory to protect loss of biodiversity due to misuse or overuse, theft of biodiversity and to secure biodiversity from contamination when transgencis are involved.
In addition, the law mandates that when biodiversity is to be accessed in any manner for commercial, research and other uses, local communities who have protected local varieties and cultivars for generations must be consulted and if they consent benefits must accrue to them per the internationally applicable Access and Benefit Sharing Protocol."
Ultimately the initiation of criminal action against Monsanto/Mahyco and their collaborators may result in an immediate suspension of all applications by any of the agencies involved in biopiracy seeking access to any biological resource of India. According to ESG "this would imply that NBA must stop processing Monsanto's application for accessing two varieties of Indian onions."
India has a strong tradition of thwarting the commercialization of indigenous knowledge associated with bio-prospecting, which includes biopiracy and the search for previously unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in traditional medicine, with the aim of obtaining lead and/or novel compounds for pharmaceutical patents.
For instance, in 1995, two expatriate Indians at the University of Mississippi Medical Centre were granted a US patent (no.5, 401,504) on use of turmeric in wound healing. After the Indian Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) filed a re-examination case with the US Patent & Trading Office challenging the patent on the grounds of its existing prior use in traditional Ayurvedic medicial practice, the patent was canceled.
Another example occurred when the Indian government took legal action against a pharmaceutical firm who received a patent for a technique to extract an anti-fungal agent from the neem tree, with the patent eventually being overturned in 2005
1The Bt gene is derived from a soil organisms known as Bacillus Thuringensis, and confers to the genetically engineered plant the ability to produce the pesticide Bt
2Biopiracy is defined as the commercial development of naturally occurring biological materials, such as plant substances or genetic cell lines, by a technologically advanced country or organization without fair compensation to the peoples or nations in whose territory the materials were originally discovered. [Source: The American Heritage Dictionary]Monsanto To Face Biopiracy Charges In India