RiceTec Paddy Whack

Page 3 of 5

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 Chronicle reporter, 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.

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.

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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brad Tyer