Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Protection of organic, traditional food crops and medicines from commercial patenting!

A major concern of NGOs and governments in recent years is protection of traditional inventive and creative activity against misappropriation. There is a widespread feeling that Western corporations should not profit from traditional knowledge at the expense of the indigenous communities from which it originates.

Initiatives from China
Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) preparations are mainstream in China.As reported by certain group of Intellectual Property right consultants, it is accounting for 30 to 50 per cent of the total Chinese medicinal consumption. Moreover, many important medical advances are based on traditional knowledge: for instance, aspirin (originally derived from the willow tree which itself was used for pain relief), and the anti- malarial artemisinin, based on a traditional chinese herb.

Western science has tended to be wary of traditional medicine.With the growing awareness of TCM in the West, and global sales of herbal medicines in 2000 alone reaching $30 billion, it is easy to see why corporations want to patent traditional medicines. Accordingly, chinese companies are investing in the science underpinning TCM, with a view to identifying new patentable pharmaceutical leads based on compounds discovered in the natural world and used in traditional/ folk medicine.

What are the India Government initiatives?
Just search through freepatentsonline.com to see for instance, paddy, turmeric etc. and you could see that as existing patent laws are designed to protect "new innovations", traditional medicine does not fit comfortably into most existing systems.Fed up with foreign companies patenting traditional medicine from India, the country's top scientific body is compiling a giant database of everything from yoga positions to medicinal fruit juice.

While contribution of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR) in engineering research had lagged behind,it had done well in life sciences research and applications.CSIR has established close linkages with the university system for basic and applied research. In order to encourage research in universities, CSIR funds research projects in universities. Around 10 out of 12 new drugs developed in India comes from CSIR.

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL)
US Patent Office has been granted access to the TKDL that stores information on ancient Indian medicine, so that none can patent products like 'haldi (turmeric)' and make commercial gain.The initiative has had early success since going public in February 2009, repelling two foreign patent applications in July - one for a skin cream based on melon extract and another for a cancer medicine based on pistachios.Many other cases are being examined worldwide, drawing on the database which aims to prove medical precedents and therefore undercut attempts by companies to patent knowledge that has been passed down over generations in India.This library, provides the database that would provide a cheap and easy system to prevent "wrong patents" based on Indian naturopathy.

The TKDL already contains 30 million pages and more than 200,000 medicinal formulas derived from herbal and mineral-based treatments originating in India and abroad, such as ayurveda, unani, siddha, as well as yoga techniques.Researchers are combing through and translating thousands of pages from India's canon of ancient texts - including Ayurveda. The most important parts of the books which were prone to be patented were identified and converted into coded language and stored into the database.

Few 'biopiracy' issues
As cited in wikipedia and authoritative reports, in Europe and the United States, patent applications for a treatment containing the leaf of the neem tree in 2005 and the yellow spice turmeric in 1997 attracted huge media interest in India and accusations of "biopiracy.Various organisations, including the CSIR, challenged their validity and the patent requests were refused on the grounds that the anti-fungal properties of neem and the therapeutic value of turmeric were hardly original ideas. In July 2009, the European Patent Office (EPO) withdrew a patent granted to a Spanish company for the use of melon extract to treat the skin disease vitiligo after discovering naturopaths had used it for thousands of years in India. Also, see citations given in MLPC research documents.

Other research work and instituitions
There are many more organisations and research institutes like MS Swaminathan Research Foundation(Mssrf). It is an instiute which works on the thematic areas of coastal systems, biotechnology, biodiversity, ecotechnology, food security and information, education and communication.

Also, heard from many sceptics and eco activists on how some government research organisations and scientists had betrayed national interests and capitalised monetary benefits and awards by giving away key information and bio sources to foreign countries.Cannot be cited due to lack of precise information.Your comments are welcome.

As MIPLC reports, upon closer inspection, the current patent system functions well. Even in the case of the disputed neem patent, it was clear that the patents were not issued for substances that were similar to those found in nature. If a western patent was obtained through misappropriated knowledge, a local community should be able to continue to use their traditional medicine or food crop.

All for a good future!

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