An Open Letter By Dr. Vandana Shiva
What follows is an excerpt from a longer open letter by Dr. Vandana Shiva to heads of state in both India and the U.S. outlining her case for seed sovereignty. The letter was written on the eve of a proposed agreement between the two countries that would threaten the rights of farmers to save seeds. It covers flaws in the logic behind countries offering seed patents, introduces the unequivocal concept that life is not an invention, and reviews several examples of companies attempting to claim and patent nature as their own invention. In many instances, civil society has fought back and won these “biopiracy” cases, but this open letter is a call for an end to the regulatory environment that allows patent applications and biopiracy in the first place, and for changes to restore the time-honored rights of farmers and home gardeners to save their seeds.
LIFE IS NOT AN INVENTION
BIOPIRACY IS NOT “INNOVATION”
Biopiracy is another example of false claims to “inventions.” Over the past decade, through new property rights, corporations have gained control over the diversity of life on earth and people’s indigenous knowledge. There is no innovation involved in these cases; they are instruments of monopoly control over life itself. Patents on living resources and indigenous knowledge are an enclosure of the biological and intellectual commons. Life forms have been redefined as “manufacture,” and “machines,” robbing life of its integrity and self-organization. Traditional knowledge is being pirated and patented, unleashing a new epidemic of biopiracy.
- Patenting of Neem: The patenting of the fungicidal properties of neem was a blatant example of biopiracy and indigenous knowledge. But on May 10, the European Patent Office (EPO) revoked the patent (No. 0436257 B1) granted to the United States Department of Agriculture and the multinational corporation W. R. Grace for a method of controlling fungi on plants by the aid of an extract of seeds from the neem tree. The challenge to the patent of neem was made at the Munich office of the EPO by three groups (the European Parliament’s Green Party, Dr. Vandana Shiva of RFSTE, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture) who challenged it on the grounds of “lack of novelty and inventive step.” They demanded the invalidation of the patent among others on the grounds that the fungicide qualities of neem and its use have been known in India for over 2,000 years, including to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics and contraceptives, and the neem patent was finally revoked.
- Biopiracy of Basmati Rice: On July 8, 1994, RiceTec, Inc., a Texas-based company, filed a genetic patent (No. 5663484) on basmati rice lines and grains in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) with twenty broad claims designed to create a complete rice monopoly patent which included planting, harvesting, collecting and even cooking. Though RiceTec claimed to have “invented” basmati rice, they accepted the fact that it had been derived from several rice accessions from India. RiceTec had claimed a patent for inventing novel basmati lines and grains. After protests, and a case in the Supreme Court of India, the USPTO struck down most sections of the basmati patent.
- Monsanto’s Biopiracy of Climate Resilience: Monsanto applied for blanket patents for “Methods of enhancing stress tolerance in plants and methods thereof.” (The title of the patent was later amended to “A method of producing a transgenic plant, with increasing heat tolerance, salt tolerance or drought tolerance.”) These traits have been evolved by our farmers over millennia, through applying their knowledge of breeding. On July 5, 2013, Hon. Justice Prabha Sridevi, Chair of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board of India, and Hon. Shri DPS Parmar, technical member, dismissed Monsanto’s appeal against the rejection of these patents that claimed Monsanto had invented all resilience.
Corporations like Monsanto have taken 1,500 patents on climate-resilient crops. The climate resiliency traits will become increasingly important in times of climate instability. Along coastal areas, farmers have evolved flood-tolerant and salt-tolerant varieties of rice, such as “Bhundi,” “Kalambank,” “Lunabakada,” “Sankarchin,” “Nalidhulia,” “Ravana,” “Seulapuni” and “Dhosarakhuda.” Crops such as millets have been evolved for drought tolerance and provide food security in water-scarce regions and during water-scarce years.
To end this new epidemic and save the sovereignty rights of our farmers and citizens, it is required that our legal systems recognize the rights of communities, including their collective and cumulative innovation in breeding diversity, and not merely the rights of corporations. It is the need of the hour to evolve categories of community intellectual rights (CIRs) related to biodiversity to balance and set limits along with boundary conditions for protection. The intellectual property rights as evolved are, in effect, a denial of the collective innovation of our people and the seed sovereignty or seed rights of our farmers …
… Seed saving is the foundation of Swaraj in our times. Seed saving is vital to our ability to address hunger and malnutrition. Seed saving is vital to bring back taste, nutrition and quality in our food. And without conservation and evolution of the biodiversity of our seeds, we will not be able to adapt to climate change.
Life forms, plants and seeds are all evolving, self-organized, sovereign beings. They have intrinsic worth, value and standing. Owning life by claiming it to be a corporate invention is ethically and legally wrong. Patents on seeds are legally wrong because seeds are not an invention. Patents on seeds are ethically wrong because seeds are life forms; they are our kin members of our earth family.
To join Vandana Shiva and democratic, concerned citizens of India and the U.S. in signing an open letter to Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, visit www.fairworldproject.org/sf.
To view the letter in its entirety and sign on, go to