Columnists Features

Let’s patent our unique rice

Rice field.

IT IS not uncommon to find particular plants being unique to a given geographical area. In these areas, these plants that grow nowhere else form an important part of the food stocks for the local people.
In Zambia, there is a demand for rice from Mongu in the Western Province. This is because of its unique flavour and properties.
It is undeniable that Mongu rice is different from other varieties grown by local people around Zambia.
Apart from the Mongu rice, there is Nakonde rice or Isoka rice and for the schooled, they are able to distinguish the areas of origin of the cereal when they come across it.
Though these cereals are local products, they may not be spared from the consequences of globalisation driven by trade and the insatiable desire to multiply returns by unscrupulous businessmen.
There could be other plants that may not be mentioned and yet they are unique to some areas within Zambia.
In a third-world country like Zambia, rice enhances the household food security and it is therefore important that this crop remains the sole pride of the indigenous people.
Under the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) there is a provision for member countries to provide patent protection for all inventions, whether they be  products or processes in fields of technology.
Our local rice, in particular Mongu rice, as it is commonly called, is no doubt covered under the TRIPs.
Of interest under the TRIPs Agreement is Article 27.3(b). Though this provision has some exclusions, it allows for the protection of plant varieties and it sets out clear-cut options for the protection of plant varieties.
The TRIPs agreement provides that the protection of plant varieties may be achieved by patent for plant varieties, an effective sui generis system of protection or a combination of patent and effective sui generis system.
Scholars note that there is no definition of an effective sui generis system provided in the TRIPs Agreement and this, therefore, makes the last two options offer flexibility to member countries for providing different type of protection system for plant varieties, according to their own choice.
For example, countries can allow only one or both forms of protection for varieties of all plant species.
Alternatively, there may be one form of protection for varieties of a certain group of species and a different form of protection for another group of species.
Rice forms the main cash crop of the people of Western Province, after maize and millet.
It therefore becomes a significant crop to the livelihood of many farmers in the reduction of poverty levels.
It is with such a recognition that the WTO set out to protect local communities from marauding traders and safeguard the indigenous people who possess the knowledge on how to grow or nurture the rice.
In any case, anyone wants to have the right of possession over their item and any efforts to appropriate the plant varieties from the local people amount to theft.
And being the good rice that it is, there is a high possibility that anyone who appropriates this plant variety will do so for purposes of making a profit.
This may mean that the crop might be subjected to dilution by genetic modification and depending on the ability of the traders, the “new” variety is likely to flood the market and eclipse the local rice variety.
Some communities have to put up a spirited fight against businessmen whose interest is to patent plant species that are unique to other areas.
The case of a French company in South Africa wishing to patent the Rooibos plant gives an apt example.
The Afrikaans word “rooibos” (meaning red bush) identifies the dried leaves, infusions or extracts of the aspalathus linearis plant which is indigenous to the fynbos area of the Western Cape.
The plant has health benefits over other teas due to its high level of natural antioxidants and lack of caffeine, well it relieves tension, digestive disorder and allergies.
Rooibos tea has became a preferred beverage all over the world.
The South African Council has been engaged in a long battle over the patenting of the name Rooibos and one latest case is that of the French company, Compagnie de Trucy.
It was only last year that government moved in to protect the patenting of the plant variety by any individual or businessman.
There was also the case over the basmati rice which is an important aspect of life in southeast Asia and other parts of Asia.
A texas company patented the crop (which grows in India and Pakistan regions) and allegedly created a genetically modified variety sold as normal basmati rice.
The Indian government challenged the patent and four of them were withdrawn.
This patenting by the Texas company was considered as not intellectual property, cultural theft and a direct threat to the farm communities in southeast Asia
Zambia needs to move in as well and protect the livelihoods of the local communities and uphold their cultural knowledge because it is unique.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorial editor and a master of trade, development and international relations student at the Zambia Open University.

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