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Monsanto Soybean Patent Alarms Chinese Farmers

Monsanto Soybean Patent
Alarms Chinese Farmers

Patent Application Raises Worries
Dec. 13, 2001

By ELAINE KURTENBACH
The Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) - A proposed patent by agro-giant Monsanto on genetic
blueprints of high-yield soybeans has caused alarm in China, where the
crop has been grown for thousands of years.

The argument over the patent - though the application was made in the
United States - reflects a growing awareness of intellectual property
issues in China and their bearing on the country's fate as it opens
its markets and moves into the World Trade Organization.

In China, as elsewhere in the developing world, fears have grown that
multinational corporations and Western researchers might use so-called
``patents on life'' to seize control of potentially lucrative
biological resources.

Such patents were established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and
reaffirmed this week by the same tribunal in a suit brought by
Monsanto.

``This could affect genetic research throughout the world. It's not
good news for anyone,'' said Chang Ruzhen, chairman of the China
Soybean Society and an expert on soybean varieties.

If history is any indication, Monsanto will wield significant
commercial power if its U.S. patent application on high-yield,
fast-growing soy DNA is granted.

Monsanto already receives royalities on about 60 percent of the U.S.
soy market with its patents on genetically engineered plants resistant
to herbicide, says biotechnology author Dan Charles. If it gets the
high-yield soy patent, its grip on the market could improve.

What's more, Monsanto could probably seek to splice the high-yield
gene into other crops as well, requiring additional royalties from
seed companies wanting to use the technology.

``Farmers around the world are upset with patents,'' said
anti-biotechnology advocate Jeremy Rifkin. He is suing Monsanto along
with several U.S. and French farmers, accusing the company of
antitrust violations by forcing farmers to purchase genetically
engineered seeds every year - prohibiting them from saving seeds for
future crops without paying for them.

Soy was first cultivated in north China's Yellow River valley more
than 4,000 years ago. It was not grown widely in the United States
until the 1930s. Since then, soy has invaded diets worldwide, becoming
a multi-billion dollar business.

If Chinese farmers were to unwittingly ignore a Monstanto patent, that
``might make it impossible to export some Chinese soy products and
could even result in international trade sanctions,'' the state-run
newspaper Southern Weekend said in a recent front-page story.

Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Missouri, contends that the technology
it developed to identify a genetic marker - or group of chromosomes -
linked to high-yield in soybeans will enable researchers in China and
elsewhere to improve commercial crops.

``Through research like this, scientists can unlock more of plants'
natural genetic potential in ways that can help farmers,'' Monsanto
said in a written statement. ``China has the most to gain from
applications of this technology.''

Monsanto is the biggest developer of genetically engineered crops and
aggressively prosecutes its patents related to crops and their genes -
of which it owns dozens in the United States and abroad.

The uproar over the high-yield soy patent application surfaced after
the environmental group Greenpeace launched a campaign against the
patent at a U.N. conference on biodiversity held in October in
Germany.

Greenpeace accused Monsanto of ``biopiracy'' - taking genetic
materials without providing a fair return to the people they are taken
from.

The proposed soy patent ``would prevent our competitors from using the
DNA segment containing the (high) yield gene in their own commercial
products in the United States without a license,'' Monsanto said in a
written reply to questions from The Associated Press after company
executives in China declined to comment. ``Since neither the methods
nor the specific information will be patented in China, researchers in
China can use this technology without restriction.''

But research is one thing and patented seeds are another, critics say.

``The whole idea of a patent is to get an exclusive right to that
property,'' said Greenpeace genetic engineering campaigner Lo
Sze-ping. ``Why should someone be entitled to transfer a resource from
the public domain to the private domain?''

Monsanto is already well known in China, where commercial use of its
Bollgard brand cotton seeds, genetically implanted with a bacterium
that is toxic to boll worms, began in 1997. Those seeds have been
widely pirated in north China.

Chinese researchers and state media reports have raised questions
about the source of the wild variety of soy used in Monsanto's
research.

Monsanto says it came from a publicly accessible U.S. Department of
Agriculture germ plasm bank and that the plant is not cultivated
anywhere in the world.

Chang of the China Soybean Society isn't so sure.

``What proof do they have that this genetic marker doesn't exist in
any other species? There's no way they could have fully determined
that. They can't even access all the varieties,'' he said.

Chang said he believes exchanges crucial for U.S. research could be
hurt by Monsanto's behavior.

Though the United States is the world's leading soy producer,
accounting for almost half of global output compared with China's
one-tenth, U.S. gene banks hold less than a quarter of all known
soybean germplasms.

China's own biotech research has been propelled both by the need to
devise ways to feed its 1.3 billion people and by an awareness that
intellectual property rights may limit its researchers' access to
cutting-edge work done in the West.

``We think that for the development of the biotechnology and
pharmaceutical industries this information must be generated not only
from abroad but also from within China,'' Chen Zhu, vice president of
the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told a recent seminar in Hong Kong.

On the Net:

Monsanto: http://www.monsanto.com

Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace-china.org.hk
--

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