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by Diego Cevallos

Mexico Blocks Corporation From Bid To Patent Corn

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Patenting an invention in the United States and benefiting from the patent rights is, in theory, an incentive for innovation and scientific discovery. But in practice it can spur theft, as occurred with a variety of Mexican bean.

After eight years of red tape and legal efforts, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in late April revoked the patent for a type of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) that it had granted to U.S. citizen Larry Proctor, whose claims to have invented the bean were backed by dubious empirical evidence.

Although these beans may differ in size and coloring, they are all of a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris L.

It was a case of biopiracy that serves as an example of how the U.S. patent system "can end up having perverse effects," Jorge Mario Martinez, with the Mexican office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told Tierramerica.

It cost more than one million dollars in lawyers' fees to get the patent overturned. Also involved in the fight against the patent were social activists, the Mexican government and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in the Colombian city of Cali.

The patent granted to Proctor, president of the seed company POD-NERS, meant losses for Mexican farmers, who were blocked from selling an identical bean in the United States.

Meanwhile, as the case dragged on, the alleged inventor enjoyed profits from beans that he bought at a market in Mexico in 1994.

From the packet he purchased, he selected the yellow beans and planted them. Then he chose the best ones from that harvest and, through cross-breeding, produced what he described as a uniformly yellow crop. In 1996 he applied for a patent, which was granted in April 1999 under the name Enola.

In this case, the standards of the U.S. Patent Office were "a clear incentive to misbehavior, to profiting through fraud," said Martinez, who coordinated the edition of the book "Knowledge Generation and Protection: Intellectual Property, Innovation and Economic Development," presented by ECLAC in April.

The book states that the U.S. patent system, the most advanced in the world, was created to foment innovation and scientific research.

However, with the passage of time, many patents have turned into currency of exchange among corporations and aspects of a market in which the countries of the developing South are on the losing side, both for lack of innovative capabilities and lack of knowledge and use of the instruments of intellectual property.

"I know of a Costa Rican who was robbed of his invention and who asked what he could do, because they had then patented it in the United States. He was advized to forget about it unless he was willing to spend years and money on attorneys and travel, with no guarantee of getting the patent revoked," said Martinez.

According to Silvia Ribeiro, researcher and head of the non-governmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), the case of the Mexican bean clearly demonstrates how "despicable" the U.S. patent system can be.

"In this case they acted without any rigor, because from the beginning we saw as a group that this patent didn't make sense. It was the stealing of a Mexican bean," Ribeiro told Tierramerica.

The patent demonstrated that biopiracy can reach extremes, she added. The term "biopiracy" was coined by environmental groups to define the harmful registration of the knowledge of others, or ancestral knowledge, about plants or living beings, usually originating in the developing South. The practice is generally attributed to scientists and corporations of the wealthy North.

Getting the Enola patent overturned at first appeared simple, so the first year, after receiving the complaint from the farmers and from ETC, the Mexican government took a hand in the matter. But the attempt failed, despite the 250,000 dollars spent on lawyers.

CIAT then took up the issue arguing that it was necessary to defend the rights of the millions of small farmers in Latin America who have grown this crop for centuries.

The Center holds the world's largest collection of the bean in question, with 35,000 varieties, 260 of which are yellow, and six of which are identical to Enola.

CIAT director Geoffrey Hawtin is pleased with the repeal of the patent, but disappointed that it took so long. The defendant, Proctor, used appeals to delay the decision and to continue profiting from the bean in the meantime, he said.

Hawtin said farmers suffered threats of lawsuits and intimidation for years simply for planting, selling or exporting a bean that has been cultivated for generations.

However, the available data indicate that the Proctor case has not caused an economic debacle in Mexico, because the yellow bean is not widely exported or consumed, unlike the black bean.

Bean production -- mostly black beans -- in Mexico expanded from 887,800 tons in 2000 to 1.36 million tons in 2006. In that period, exports to the United States grew from 5,525 to 12,203 tons.

As for imports, between 2000 and 2006, they more than doubled from 61,900 to 130,700 tons.

In Mexico, 1.8 million hectares are planted with beans and 570,000 farmers grow the crop. Although it is an age-old practice, the average yield here is 731 kilograms per hectare, compared to 1.6 tons per hectare in the United States.

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Albion Monitor   May 22, 2008   (

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