RiceTec Paddy Whack

An Alvin-based rice company, the Prince of Liechtenstein, the United States Patent Office, and an Indian eco-feminist bring global trade debates to a roiling boil on Houston's back burner

Andrews had been a deputy chairman of ICI Fibres and president of Celanese Plastics and Specialties, both in the UK, before becoming president and CEO of Farms of Texas Company, RiceTec's corporate predecessor, in 1986. He runs a company of approximately 150 breeders and growers and researchers and packagers who brought in about $10 million in revenue last year. Andrews' boss is the reigning Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein, sole owner of RiceTec, Inc., and reportedly the largest private landowner in Austria. Andrews talks about feeding more people more efficiently on less land, even though his primary products are high-end specialty rices. RiceTec's new walls display the trophy for the World Food Prize, awarded to RiceTec employee Hank Beachel in 1996.

Shiva lives in the Doon Valley in the Indian Himalaya, one of the very areas where Indian farmers have been growing the basmati rice so prized by connoisseurs for centuries. In addition to authoring several books, including the recent Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Shiva is variously reported as having abandoned an academic career to pursue activism as a philosopher, ecology adviser to the Third World Network, founder of Diverse Women for Diversity, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy (a research network for sustainable, bio-diverse agriculture), and founder of Navdanya, a subsidiary devoted to seed conservation and exchange. She is also the 1993 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, given to champions of environmental and social justice causes.

If what they were arguing about didn't cut to the quick of the same convoluted global issues that sparked the Seattle protests, you could almost think of them as an elderly couple that had grown old enough together to discover they really don't like each other much. They act like grandparents who can't decide what's the shortest combination of county roads and spurs from Tyler to Dallas, talking right past each other, and they've been at it for three years now.

RiceTec CEO Robin Andrews: "The last thing we want to do is threaten the livelihood of farmers."
Deron Neblett
RiceTec CEO Robin Andrews: "The last thing we want to do is threaten the livelihood of farmers."
Sowing seeds of dissent? RiceTec's greenhouse.
Brad Tyer
Sowing seeds of dissent? RiceTec's greenhouse.

hat RiceTec did is this: The company spent a self-estimated ten years and $3 million to $4 million to figure out how to breed a rice plant that does everything a traditional Indian basmati rice does -- primarily, to smell, taste, look and cook a certain way that commands a premium price in the rice market -- plus one thing Indian basmati rice never did, which is grow in North America. RiceTec researchers found the characteristics they were looking for by crossing seeds donated by India and Pakistan to the World Collection of Germplasm, operated by the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA in Aberdeen, Idaho. There was no genetic engineering, no transgenic transfer, none of Jim Hightower's Frankenfood manipulation. RiceTec applied for a utility patent, the same sort that applies to carrot dicers and guitar tuners, protecting that plant, its grain, its seeds, plants grown from those seeds and so on, and a method of predicting -- arcana to breeders -- a rice's salient qualities by calculating some fresh formulation called the "starch index." The rice is marketed under the trade name Kasmati. A 36-ounce jar goes for about $4.95 in grocery stores.

The U.S. Patent Office concluded that the application described something that was new, wasn't obvious, was useful, which is all that office needs, and granted patent #5,663,484. It offers RiceTec recourse to protection against infringement for 17 years from the date of its issue in 1997, until 2014, in the United States. Then the "invention" will enter the public domain. The theory is that the temporary protection from competition encourages companies -- pharmaceutical and biotech prominently -- to make heavy investments in research, with the hope of getting their investments back.

Vandana Shiva doesn't see it that way at all. She sees a Multinational Corporation that took freely given seeds from her country and bred them into another plant, which poor Indian farmers had been doing for centuries anyway, and had the arrogance to claim it as an invention when it was simply another example of nature's abundance discovered, and had its own arrogant government grant monopoly rights to a corner however small of the world's staple food market. The sheer fact of that, she is sure, bodes ill.

For one thing, she says, the patent is not technically valid, because RiceTec didn't do anything new. For another, RiceTec shouldn't be using the name "basmati" because that name should be protected, like Champagne, for rice grown in particular regions of India and Pakistan. Third, RiceTec's patent creates an unfair competitive hardship for growers of traditional basmati rice in India. And finally, superseding all of the above, the patenting of life forms in any manner by anyone is morally wrong and should not be allowed.

RiceTec, of course, has four defenses, and they are more or less watertight from the strictly logical standpoint as expressed by Bruce Hicks, once a Houston Chroniclereporter, now hired by RiceTec as its spokesman for this single issue.

One: The patent is in point of fact legally valid until and unless it is overturned in a challenge.

Two: "Basmati" rice has been long discussed in the literature and confirmed in a judgment by the USDA to be a generic term, a general classification, like durum wheat. If Vandana Shiva or the government of India or anyone else wants to seek a legal judgment protecting the word "basmati," they are free to do so, and RiceTec will abide by any binding ruling, but in the meantime, RiceTec and a dozen other companies outside India have been marketing products as "basmati" -- RiceTec introduced its popular Texmati brand 20 years ago, and there's a badly named Urumati grown in Uruguay -- for more than two decades now, and no one's ever complained before. And contrary to popular opinion whipped up by protesters, RiceTec's patent does not cover the word "basmati." Only a trademark could do that, and the word "basmati" couldn't be, and isn't, trademarked anywhere.

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