by Diego Cevallos
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
Mexican government has stepped in to halt a patent for the maize variety known as Optium, produced by the agricultural biotech giant Dupont, arguing that the grain originated in this Latin American country and cannot be claimed as property.
Dupont is seeking rights over a maize variety that it developed through crossbreeding, a traditional crop improvement method.
The patent was to take effect June 1 in Europe, but at the last moment, the Mexican government filed an appeal of nonconformity with the European Patent Office (EPO), launching a discussion and deliberation process.
The Dupont maize known as Optium HOC/HO possesses traits that are similar to several Mexican varieties. Recognition of the patent of these traits could harm local farmers because it would give the transnational exclusive rights over a type of grain derived from older and widely cultivated varieties, say experts.
Dupont has responded to these claims saying that its maize, which has a minimum content of six percent oil and 55 percent oleic acid, does not exist in Mexico or in any other country. The transnational further asserted that its product was developed by crossing corn varieties that are unknown in Mexico.
"There are no scientific reports indicating that Mexico has a type of maize with the exact traits of the Dupont variety, but we are the country of origin of this plant species and -- sooner or later -- the plant breeders here will obtain a similar variety," Víctor Villalobos, Mexico's assistant secretary of Agriculture, told IPS.
The case has not yet been won but the government move at least halted the "rapacity" of a big transnational, said Liza Covantes, a spokeswoman for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace-Mexico.
If the Mexican government had not taken action before the June 1 deadline, when the EPO closed the period for accepting objections, the Dupont patent would have entered into full force.
Greenpeace, which sounded the alarm on the maize patent case, presented its own claim of nonconformity before the EPO.
The government, however, is still not assured of obtaining the annulment of the patent, which would be valid only in Spain, France and Italy, countries that do not buy Mexico's corn exports.
The authorities recognize that exact copies of the Optium variety do not exist in Mexico, explained Villalobos.
The maize dispute is a typical case of "biopiracy," maintains the non-governmental Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
Biopiracy is a term environmental groups use to describe the practice of companies from the industrialized North of registering as their own intellectual property the ancestral knowledge of plants and other organisms held by communities in the developing South.
and Mexican authorities alike believe that the patent the U.S.-based transnational is seeking must not be granted because the Optium maize is too similar to locally cultivated varieties.
But Dupont insists that its maize is unique. Optium "provides added values for health and nutrition, such as mono-unsaturated oil, which reduces 'bad' cholesterol while maintaining 'good' cholesterol."
The Mexican government's before the EPO occurred after Greenpeace had lobbied the Vicente Fox administration to take action on the matter.
"If the patent were to enter into force, the repercussions for Mexico would be very serious," warned the environmentalists in a letter sent to Mexico's Agriculture Secretariat (ministry) May 15.
If Dupont is able to declare property rights over Optium, Mexican maize with similar traits would be impossible to market, at least in Europe, and its producers would have to pay royalties to the transnational, Greenpeace's Covantes explained.
But the government does not see it that way. The Dupont patent would not hurt Mexico because it is valid only in countries that do not buy Mexican maize anyway, according to the secretariat.
Maize originated in the region that is now Mexico. Thousands of years ago the local population began to cultivate the plant, giving rise to an entire world-view and mythology that continues to permeate Mexican culture today.
The Dupont Optium dispute is not the first time this country has been caught up in a biopiracy case.
Under Mexico's previous governments, there was no internal coordination for handling these problems, which could soon involve requests to patent transgenic organisms (genetically modified plants or animals), pointed out Villalobos.
The Agriculture official announced that the government will create a special committee -- possibly by the end of September -- to study the biopiracy matter in general, and whether the government should pursue efforts to block patents involving living organisms.
"We must watch over the rights of the farmer, the peasant, the Indian, because they are the ones who have selected the breeds and varieties that have become the crops we know today, but that now -- with additional modification (through genetic manipulation) -- take on greater value" and can be patented, he said.
Agricultural authorities have been mired since 1999 in attempts to annul a patent granted in the United States for a specific variety of bean, a species that has been cultivated in Mexico for centuries.
The conflict dates back to 1994, when Larry Proctor, president of POD-NERS company, purchased a package of bean seeds in northern Mexico.
From the package, he selected the yellow-colored beans and planted them in the United States. After several crosses, he achieved what he describes as a uniform and unique population of the bean.
His company applied for a patent in 1996, which was granted three years later under the name "Enola." But Mexican producers maintain that the bean is very similar to the crop they grow on their farms -- and many have faced lawsuits from POD-NERS for patent infringement.
According to RAFI, the cases involving Mexican maize and beans demonstrate that international laws for regulating patents on living organisms are precarious or non-existent, and are an indication of just how vulnerable developing countries are to biopiracy.
July 16, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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