UNITED STATES: Basmati rice patents rejected

June 6, 2001

@box text intr = A global campaign to overturn a US patent on basmati rice has scored a further and near-fatal victory with the announcement that the US Patent and Trademark Office has thrown out 13 of 16 remaining claims from US-based RiceTec's controversial patent.

A senior USPTO re-examiner rejected 13 claims from patent US 5,663,484 "Basmati rice lines and grains" in a 46-page letter to the Texas-based company.

RiceTec voluntarily withdrew four claims in June 2000 when the Indian government formally challenged the patent through the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority. The USPTO judged that rice lines, plants and grains that RiceTec claimed were "prior art" or substantially identical to basmati varieties grown in India and Pakistan, and hence could not be patented.

Farmers throughout South Asia protested when the US patent was granted in 1997. Led by a campaign in India by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, the patent was condemned as "biopiracy" by a worldwide coalition of 90 civil society organisations.

The coalition included the Swiss-based Berne Declaration, the development agency ActionAid and the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International, who also launched a global campaign to pressure RiceTec's owner, the Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, to abandon his company's controversial monopoly claim.

Campaigners argued that RiceTec's patent should never have been awarded and that RiceTec could not claim a "novel" variety of basmati for the Western Hemisphere and the Caribbean after crossing long-grain and semi-dwarf rice lines with 22 Indian and Pakistani farmers varieties of basmati.

Campaigners are now urging the USPTO to strike off the last three remaining claims and take measures to prevent patents that are predatory on the knowledge and resources of farmers and indigenous people.

Alex Wijeratna, ActionAid UK food rights campaigner, said: "We've always known that RiceTec's basmati patent is unacceptable because it usurps the basmati name and the accumulated knowledge of South Asian farmers. The action by the US patent office indicates that the patent has little chance of surviving on legal grounds as well. We eagerly await the patent's total demise."

[From ActionAid UK.]

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