New York Times
March 20, 2001
ALI, Colombia - Dr. Joachim Voss has a quick smile and easy laugh, but he has decided to pick a fight in his new job as director of one of the agricultural research centers that helped avert famine in India as part of the "green revolution" in the 1960's.
Dr. Voss, director of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), has crossed the line from the laboratories he directs here in Colombia to law offices in Washington, making his center the first agricultural research center in the developing world to challenge a United States patent on a crop.
The subject of the dispute is a bean, faded yellow and smaller than a thumbnail, that most Americans have never seen. It's called Enola, or at least that's what Larry Proctor, proprietor of Pod-ners L.L.C. and holder of United States Patent No. 5,894,079, calls it, after his wife's middle name.
But Dr. Voss, bean importers, breeders and genetics specialists across America, as well as international activist organizations like Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), say Mr. Proctor has simply given a new name to and gotten rights over a bean that Mexicans and other Latin Americans have been eating for centuries.
Mr. Proctor's patent in large part rests on a claim to have created what his lawyer, David Lee, called "a particular color yellow." So, in theory, anyone researching or commercializing a bean with this color has to pay royalties first, or risk being sued. In fact, Tutuli Produce, a bean importing company in Nogales, Ariz., is now fighting a lawsuit filed by Mr. Proctor, and has lodged a countersuit, parallel to the research center's patent challenge.
"There has been no breeding or improvement in this bean, and newness is the first feature for claiming an invention under U.S. patent law," says Dr. Daniel Debouck, a Belgian genetic resources specialist at the tropical agriculture center. He has spent 25 years collecting crop plants and their wild relatives in tropical America. He presides over the world's largest collection of beans in the center's gene bank - 28,182 at last count. At least 260 of them are yellow, and six "are very similar" to the Enola, Dr. Debouck said.
Dr. Voss calls the patent "both legally and morally wrong," adding, "We have solid scientific evidence that Andean peasant farmers developed this bean first, together with Mexico."
According to the patent itself, Mr. Proctor brought a bag of dry beans from Mexico in 1994, picked out some yellow beans, and planted them in Montrose County, Colo. Mr. Lee says this part of the patent exhibits "an unfortunate error, since the beans were actually brought over in 1991." In any case, Mr. Proctor filed for an exclusive monopoly patent in 1996, having invented a "distinctly colored yellow seed that remains relatively unchanged by season." On April 13, 1999, Mr. Proctor won the patent.
Soon after, RAFI, a Canadian organization that works to protect biological diversity in agriculture, issued a news release in protest, calling the patent "a textbook case of biopiracy." It said "yellow beans have been grown in Mexico for centuries, developed by farmers and more recently by plant breeders."
Breeders and other researchers are among those most affected by this and other similar patents on living organisms, especially those working in the public sector, including the Future Harvest network, which CIAT is a part of, and universities.
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Last Updated on 3/20/01