The first natural scientists, and the selling of knowledge

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Stuffed and Starved’ by Raj Patel, p.141-142.

Farmers, and particularly women farmers, are the first natural scientists; they are the custodians of biodiversity, they experiment, they save seed, they exchange and breed new varieties, with the aim of getting more out of the ground and making the plant resistant to pests, easier to harvest and yielding more to eat, burn, weave and build with than before. Until the late twentieth century, all this happened in most parts of the world without anyone owning any of the knowledge behind this breeding. A key feature of the World Trade Organization, however, was a provision for the enforcement of ‘trade-related intellectual property rights’. These rights allow for one individual or organization to own ideas… and to charge anyone else for using them.

Within India, the demands of intellectual property rights have pitted agriculture, the occupation of India’s poorest, against information technology, the domain of India’s richest… To ensure a revenue stream in the future, they want high-tech knowledge to be protected by law. But the same rules that protect software knowledge at the WTO also govern farming knowledge. The door is open for intellectual property rights to be claimed over virtually any agricultural knowledge. In one widely-cited example, in 1990 a public/private partnership of the W.R. Grace Company and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to patent the Indian neem tree because they had discovered that neem was an effective pesticide. The trouble was that Indians had known this for centuries. So common was this knowledge… that one Indian MP sneered that ‘[patenting] neem is like patenting cow dung’. Yet it took fifteen years for the patent to be finally revoked. While ultimately unsuccessful in the effort to patent neem, companies domestic and international are using the cover provided by the WTO’s intellectual property provisions to commit what has come to be known as ‘biopiracy’.

… Access to Indian biodiversity, and to its DNA in particular, means that [private companies have] an unfathomable pool of information to mine, analyse, sequester, and resell… This is how the Indian IT industry and researchers (mainly men working over keyboards), with their deep need for intellectual property rights in the US, succeed in selling agricultural knowledge (mainly generated by women, working over centuries) down the river.