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4-Patents: Monsanto under fire for 'pirating' Chinese soy strain

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TITLE:  Monsanto under fire for 'pirating' Chinese soy strain
SOURCE: China Daily, by Wang Yuanyuan
DATE:   October 30, 2001

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Monsanto under fire for 'pirating' Chinese soy strain

Transnational agro-chemical giant Monsanto is under attack from Greenpeace 
for seeking to patent a natural gene sequence originating from a wild 
Chinese species of soya. Some experts have labelled Monsanto's actions as 
"theft" of a Chinese species and are worried that the patent would block 
both local farmers and researchers from freely accessing the soya. Monsanto 
has denied such accusations and stressed that it is "just acting in 
compliance with the game rules."

As early as April 2000, Monsanto filed the patent application in up to 101 
countries, including the United States and China. The application, which 
claims a total of 64 rights, is presently under evaluation in the patent 
offices of relevant countries.

The application did not draw public attention until last week when the 
United Nations (UN) Conference on Biodiversity was held in Bonn, Germany, 
and Greenpeace dubbed Monsanto a "bio-pirate," accusing it of getting such 
germplasm from China through illegal ways. Monsanto said it had derived the 
germplasm from a publicly accessible database administered by the US 
Department of Agriculture. The State Intellectual Property Office declined 
to comment on the Monsanto case.

Peng Yufa from the Institute of Plant Protection under the Chinese Academy 
of Agricultural Sciences noted that "China has been constantly exchanging 
its biological resources with some countries including the United States 
since the 1980s." There is no strong evidence indicating the germplasm has 
been obtained in an illegal way. However, according to Greenpeace, the 
patent, once approved, would grant Monsanto an exclusive right on soya 
plants (both cultivated and wild), their seeds and progeny with high yield 

Soybeans originate in China and the country is home to more than 6,000 wild 
soya varieties, over 90 per cent of the global total. "The patent would 
have large-scale consequences. Chinese scientists were shocked when 
Greenpeace informed them of Monsanto's application." said Sze Ping-lo, 
genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace China.

"This Monsanto patent shows the ambition of the bio-tech companies from 
developed countries to exploit and control genetic resources from 
developing countries that are rich in biodiversity," said Xue Dayuan, 
senior researcher of Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences under the 
State Environmental Protestation Administration of China. "We must not 
allow this kind of genetic colonialism."

Monsanto said the patent was not a broad patent, but limited to a specific 
marker, or a gene sequence, and did not prevent anyone from accessing or 
using the original germplasm. The marker has not been detected in any 
species of cultivated soya, nor in any other wild species, according to 
David Shi Liu, public affairs director of Monsanto (China).

"The intellectual property rights (IPRs) and law provide fair rules for all 
the players from which both Western companies and Chinese counterparts can 
benefit," said Liu, who indicated that a subsequent press conference might 
be held later this week to further justify Monsanto's actions.

Chang Mao, an officer from the State Intellectual Property Office, said 
China did not allow companies or research institutes to patent life forms. 
Patenting genes, however, is permissible. Experts predicted that some of 
the 64 rights claims would be approved. But once the patent is granted in 
countries other than China, importing Chinese soya of the species to 
countries where the patent is applicable would probably be a patent 

Monsanto has a more rosy outlook in the United States and some European 
countries where such cases are by no means rare, and branded as "patents on 
life." In the landmark case of Diamond versus Chakrabarty in 1980, the US 
Supreme Court ruled that a living organism, a bacterium that could digest 
oil, could be patented. Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that the 
"relevant distinction is not between animate and inanimate things but 
whether living products could be seen as human-made inventions."

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, said genes 
had been identified as the "raw resource for future economic activity." For 
corporations with advanced technologies and abundant capital, the race to 
patent life has just begun. Developing countries, the richest in biological 
resources, have become the main battlefield. "Patent law is privatizing the 
foundations of life on this planet," said Christoph Then, Greenpeace's 
expert on patents. "As soon as genes are identified and described they can 
be declared 'inventions' by the companies."


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