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Volume 70, Issue 7, Tuesday, August 31, 2004


The grain that broke the camel's back

Matt Clement
Opinion columnist

Food is an essential human need. So, in 1997 when RiceTec, Inc., an agribusiness firm located in Alvin, got approval for a patent on a strain of Basmati rice, a major conflict erupted. The main issue: How could a company suddenly claim ownership over a strain of rice that, like most food, has evolved over thousands of years?

RiceTec ignored that question when making statements to the press. In fact, the Houston Chronicle quoted Bruce Hicks, a company spokesman, saying, "It took us 10 years (to develop the rice strains under application). It wasn't something we cooked up over a weekend." 

Ironically, RiceTec intends to convey that 10 years was a long time to work on synthesizing a new strain of Basmati rice. But rice, or even rice flavored like Basmati, is not a novel invention. 

What is novel, however, is that these megacorporations have been centralizing their control over the food supply, partly by attempting to patent various forms of food crops (such as basic grains like rice). 

With patents, the companies hold a 14-year legal monopoly over the varieties they "invented." When such practices involve a crop on which many depend for subsistence, the future becomes less certain for the world's 840 million undernourished.

Despite heavy competition from foreign sources, U.S. agribusiness firms continued to succeed partly because they took advantage of trade provisions established by the World Trade Organization, which is essentially a global entity that regulates trade in favor of big corporations. 

As a result of these practices, gaining an advantage in real life competition (and the general ability to survive in the marketplace), requires the ability to regulate the marketplace. 

The capitalist perspective on the economy is that the state's role be minimized. But as U.S. rice developers have learned, when the market was left unsanctioned, foreign competitors won the favor of U.S. consumers.

While some sections of RiceTec's patent claim were successfully challenged, the WTO practically makes any patent enforceable in any country, like India. 

Had RiceTec's original claims been approved, Indian Basmati rice farmers would have been in a precarious situation, not knowing if their rice production required royalty payments to RiceTec. Even so, RiceTec's ability to patent a strain of rice traditionally grown in India satisfies the U.S. demand for flavorful, foreign rice, while keeping this strain under the strict control of U.S. agribusiness.

Unfortunately, RiceTec's actions are the rule and not the exception. The majority of the food Americans consume comes from hard-working farmers, who had to pay corporations like Monsanto or DuPont for the seed to grow the food.

Is this bad? Well, if Jesus came back today, he would have to say, "Take this and eat; it used to be my body, but then the WTO told the Galilean trade representative that my body had been patented by some agribusiness firm, so I can no longer tell you this is my body!" WWJD? Stop patenting food!

Clement, a columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at

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