Bio-pirates raid world's genetic bank

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IT ALL began with pepper, and it is to pepper that it has returned. The lure of the spice trade brought the first Western merchants over the Arabian Sea to the sun-baked bazaars of Trivandrum and Cochin for the fiery black pod, piper nigrum, for which the exquisites of Europe had developed a passion.

Five hundred years later, a new breed of merchants has come back to India for the same commodity - and many others. But this time it is to obtain ownership of the material in a new and, for many Indians, profoundly disturbing fashion: by taking out patents.

They call it "biopiracy", and the progressive patenting by international companies, mostly based in the United States, of plants, herbs, spices and foodstuffs commonly available in the subcontinent and in use as medicines and staple foods for centuries has caused wave after wave of disquiet.

Last year it was the patenting of turmeric and a tree called neem - this has a hundred traditional uses, including disposable toothbrushes - which was the focus of public anger, with large and vocal demonstrations in the capital.

Two years ago pepper was in the limelight, the patent having been granted to Sabinsa Piscataway of New Jersey for bioperine, a pure extract of pepper that was clinically tested in the US and shown to increase the bioavailability of nutritional compounds such as vitamins and amino acids.

Sabinsa has exploited the patent to claim exclusive marketing rights to the pepper extract, much to the consternation and fury of some 47 Indian growers and traders.

This year the US Patent Office cut even closer to the Indian quick when it granted the American firm Rice Tech a patent for basmati rice. The firm had earlier traded similar varieties of rice under names such as Texmati and Kasmati; but now it can sell basmati, a name and flavour synonymous with the finest Indian rice, as its own registered brand. Come next April, when India brings its patent laws into line with the World Trade Organisation's, it will also be able to impose its exclusive brand in India, too.

The patenting of everydayitems has galvanised a public whose memory is still raw from the insults of the colonial age. But it is only the most obvious manifestation of a new form of exploitation of the poor nations by the wealthy, from which, as ever, the rich will get the profit and the poor will get little or nothing.

The newest buccaneers to plunge into the Heart of Darkness in search of profit are botanists and biologists, armed with nets and syringes and good sharp knives and machetes for hacking off the leeches, and laptop computers, too. Enlisting the help of tribespeople, they prowl through dense forests in quest of unknown substances that have the potential to transform our lives.

They are acting on a recognition that all the medicines on which the West's hospitals depend are derived from a tiny proportion of the world's natural wealth. Genetic scientists now acknowledge that the genetic wealth of the world remains vast, almost entirely uncharted, and probably full of incredible potential.

That's why the new "bio-sleuths" are dallying with vampire bats (they have high hopes that their saliva contains a substance that may dissolve human blood clots), eyeing up the pygmy hog and amassing mountains of berries and plants and pieces of bark. As Helena Paul of London's Gaia Foundation says: "It's a prospecting fever, like how people used to go to the Yukon to pan for gold. You might just happen to patent the most valuable thing in creation."

The discovery of this extraordinary genetic material, and its development into medicines that could transform the lives of millions - most would agree that was an absolute good. But as with pepper, turmeric, basmati rice and neem, the same question arises: is not basmati rice indissolubly Indian? Whose bat saliva is it anyway?

The new explorers depend on local wisdom: it makes far more sense to sit at the feet of a witch doctor than to comb through every single weed in the forest. But how are the witch doctor and his tribe to be compensated for the intellectual property they so innocently hand over?

Activists in India and elsewhere fear that the biological heritage of the developing world is disappearing into the gene banks of the wealthy, from which it will return transformed, years later, as medicines or foods that put the traditional producers out of business - having given no benefit to the people from whom they were originally obtained.

It is, then, no accident that one of the rare exceptions to this exploitation is Indian. Ten years ago, in the rainforests of Kerala, in India's deep south, two botanists trudging through the hills with guides from the Kani tribe were massively reinvigorated by some pale green berries provided by their guides. Years later, tests proved the berries to be effective in fighting fatigue, and an Indian pharmaceutical company paid the institute for which the scientists worked pounds 15,000 for the formula, plus 5 per cent royalties on sales.

In an unprecedented gesture, the scientists decided to split the royalties 50-50 with the Kani tribe. There ensued a violent argument within the tribe about who was to get the money, but that's another story.