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

Three: RiceTec is such a tiny little blip in the rice industry that even if it wanted to put a dent in the Indian rice trade, it would be helpless to do so. Its patent, for instance, doesn't, and couldn't, cover any rice grown in India, which exports more than 500,000 tons of basmati to RiceTec's 2,000 tons in annual sales. Since RiceTec's patent went into effect, Indian basmati imports into the United States have doubled. In fact, RiceTec says, its basmati plant would be a greater competitive threat to Indian producers if it weren't patented, in which case much larger producers than RiceTec would be free to use the company's seed.

The fear that the patent will somehow allow RiceTec to charge Indian farmers a royalty payment to use its seed -- thus domino-ing into Shiva's predictions of increased Third World debt and monopoly consolidation -- is, RiceTec says, a phantom, since the seed, Basmati 786, is specially bred to grow here, not there, and the patent only protects the seeds in the United States anyway.

And on the fourth point, that life-patenting is inherently wrong and morally bad, RiceTec can only throw up its hands and admit to a difference of opinion, pointing to the fact that such patenting has been accepted and legally unchallenged in the United States since 1980.

RiceTec corporate HQ turns a blind eye to protesters on FM 2917.
RiceTec corporate HQ turns a blind eye to protesters on FM 2917.

And it's the life-patenting issue, Bruce Hicks admits, "that overrides to a large degree all of their arguments here. Vandana Shiva believes that there should be no life patenting. RAFI [Rural Advancement Foundation International] and other groups like that believe that there should be no life patenting of any kind. So it wouldn't matter where it came from, how we did it, whether we created something totally new that had no origin, we would still be at odds with their viewpoint. That's why I say the argument really isn't about us. It's the system, their world versus the rest of the world that they're at odds with. We haven't even eaten into the imports, so it must be this fundamental idea, the association of us with broader issues. These are bigger issues than RiceTec. We're just trying to play by the rules."

he rules, of course, are complicated, and disputed, beyond all comprehension. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade runs to 30,000-plus pages, and if anyone fully understands the role of the World Trade Organization and the bylaws of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (of which the United States is not a signatory), they have yet to publish a digestible summary. As a result, the popular imagination -- encouraged by Shiva and like-minded organizations like RAFI and the Basmati Action Group -- has lumped RiceTec's patent in with the whole host of global bogeymen in the contemporary news, from Monsanto's self-sterilizing Terminator seed gene to genetically modified StarLink hybrid corn contamination in the fast-food chain to the vitamin-A-enhanced Golden Rice patent and the looming fear that bio-genetic science is moving too fast with too little regulation and almost no sense of potential consequence to global food supply and culture.

From there, it's just a short leap to an imagined world in which rich, white northern hemisphere corporations steal the biological diversity of poor, dark southern hemisphere peoples, patent them, and gain financial control of the world's medicine cabinets and pantries. Thus protester fears that RiceTec has somehow patented the word "basmati," and so anyone growing basmati anywhere in the world will have to pay royalties to RiceTec (not true), and the appalling but fundamentally misunderstood notion that the starch index portion of RiceTec's patent may somehow be used to prevent Indian grandmothers from cooking their rice in the traditional manner (even less true).

RiceTec, says Shiva, may be entering a joint venture with Monsanto (not true, says RiceTec), "which, as you know, is chasing rice genome patenting, and before you know it they'll have all kinds of fees, trying to make fees on the Golden Rice, on genetically engineered rice, on the rice hybrids, and before you know it you'll have four or five corporations controlling the rice market."

It's not an entirely imagined world, either. U.S. researchers have already tried to patent Neem, a naturally occurring Indian tree, for its pesticidal qualities, and even cell lines derived from a man in Papua New Guinea that showed promise in fighting disease (both patents were overturned after public outcry).

Still, Paul Janicke, of the University of Houston Law Center's Institute for Intellectual Property and Information Law, sees the patent issue as beside the larger point entirely.

"It really has nothing to do with patent law, but it spills over into patent law, where it really doesn't fit. The main objection seems to be: you got the basic starting materials for this invention from us in India and we're not getting anything out of it. At the time the TRIPS Agreement was being negotiated as part of the Uruguay Round, there was another parallel agreement being worked on that did call for all member countries to that treaty to pass legislation providing for fair compensation to indigenous peoples for traditional medicine and crops. Well, the U.S. refused to sign that, and there's no serious movement that we ever will. But many countries did, and it's mostly the southern hemisphere countries who find that if they have patent laws, as most of them do, they're all utilized for the benefit of the rich companies who tend to be in the northern hemisphere."

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