Biopirates at Large

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Africa FocusIn one of the latest cases of biopiracy, Tanzania is being pressured to do battle in court to stop the United States and Brazil from patenting a gene isolated from a variety of sorghum grown by farmers in southern Tanzanian.

The gene enables sorghum plants to neutralize the toxic effect of aluminum in soil, allowing them to absorb nutrients and grow to normal size. Its potential commercial value is huge, as it may be used to enhance other crops, such as maize, wheat, rice and even tree plantations. Aluminum toxicity affects upwards of 20 percent of arable land in many parts of the world, including the United States and Latin America. Sorghum varieties already released to U.S. plant breeders by a U.S. Agency for International Development program operating in Africa reportedly benefit the U.S. economy by $680 million per year.

Sorghum is a staple food in Tanzania. In Kenya, scientists are working to enhance its nutritional value by adding zinc, iron and protein, as well as to improve its digestibility, in hopes of substituting it for corn as the country’s staple food. Persistent drought is changing much of Kenya’s growing areas to semi-arid land, which is more conducive for growing sorghum, a drought-resistant plant. Considered an African “heritage” crop, sorghum is protected by the November 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which provides for “the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use.” The United States signed the treaty, but has yet to ratify it. Brazil has already ratified it.

Under the treaty, the Tanzanian farmers’ variety is held in trust by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India, which prohibits patent claims on the varieties and genes of plants held in its trust. In December, however, the African Centre for Biosafety, an aggressive South African nonprofit dedicated to protecting Africa’s genetic resources and indigenous knowledge and technologies from pillage by foreign interests, reported that researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation and Texas A&M University not only patented the gene with the U.S. Patent Office in September 2009, but they also filed an international patent application to seek patents on the gene worldwide, including in Africa. The center’s report “Privatisation of Tanzanian Sorghum Protected by the Seed Treaty” reveals that The Dow Chemical Co. is negotiating to license the gene from the U.S. government for use in maize and sorghum and that Oji Paper Co. Ltd., Japan’s giant paper products company, is seeking to license it for use in eucalyptus plantations.

In a time of grave food security concerns in Africa, the center is pressing Tanzania and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which administers the treaty, to take legal and political action against the United States and Brazil. “These companies are interested in sub-licenses and will be the financial beneficiaries. “The first course of action lies against the patent holders,” the East African Standard newspaper quotes her as saying.

Biopirates, who illegally appropriate indigenous plants and knowledge, appear to be swashbuckling more brazenly throughout Africa. In 2007, the African Centre for Biosafety reported seven possible new biopiracy cases, based on its preliminary study of patent applications lodged and patents granted, including in the United States and European Union. The cases include claims from universities, government departments and companies and cover products for anti-aging, skin-care, skin-whitening, sexual dysfunction, viruses and vaccines, insect repellents and possible cancer treatments — all based on plant species used in African traditional medicinal practices.

On Feb. 3, Tanzanian lawmakers ratified the revised International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, saying it’s high time the government began to protect local researchers and plant breeders against piracy. The convention prohibits the multiplication, sale or marketing, exporting and importing and stocking of a protected variety without the authorization of the breeder.

“The problem is so serious in Tanzania. We have people coming from foreign countries pretending to assist local researchers but end up stealing their works … It is better we do something so that our country can start enjoying its resources,” press reports quote one member of parliament as saying.