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Biopirates on the Run in Malaysia

Activists urge action on "biopiracy" patent laws

LONDON - New laws are needed to control Western companies patenting plants grown by indigenous communities and thereby preventing their use, a European patenting official said yesterday.

Such patents on medicinal plants and traditional food crops, dubbed "biopiracy" by pressure groups, are at the centre of a U.N. biodiversity convention in Malaysia this week.

"It's generally acknowledged that biopiracy is a problem," said Rainer Osterwalder, spokesman at the European Patent Office in Munich. "We have to work at creating an instrument to get a grip on it."

Companies must prove that a product is new, innovative and can be commercialised to be granted a patent. But indigenous communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America have long protested that many patents violate these criteria.

They say the patents cover food crops and medicines developed from plant varieties originally bred by indigenous people.

Environment group Greenpeace last month challenged a patent that the European Patent Office had granted to U.S. agro-chemical giant Monsanto.

The patent covers a type of wheat which Greenpeace said was developed from an Indian variety called Nap Hal, particularly suited for baking crisp breads such as Indian chapatti.

"Nap Hal is the result of a communal effort by Indian farmers, so we see Monsanto's patent as a kind of theft," Greenpeace activist Christoph Then told Reuters by telephone from Hamburg.

Monsanto spokesman Chris Paton said the patent protected the Galatea wheat variety, which was different from Nap Hal.

"We think the patent was properly granted and we will defend it," Paton said. "[Galatea] was developed using Nap Hal, which is a public variety so it's free to be used by researchers."

The European Patent Office, which grants patents binding across the European Union, has already revoked two other patents challenged by anti-biopiracy groups.

One gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture property rights to a fungicide derived from Neem, an Indian tree which activists proved had been used as a fungicide by Indian farmers for generations.

The other patent, held by the chemicals company DuPont, covered all types of corn with a certain oil content.

"In most cases, we can successfully find out whether a patent fulfils all the criteria," Osterwalder, from the patent office, said.

"However, sometimes the office cannot prevent that indigenous knowledge is used for a patent, and then the indigenous people can not use it anymore. Science is often one step ahead of the laws."

Story by Sophie Hardach