NEW DELHI: This is a new gene-grab story. After basmati and neem, Indian wheat has attracted foreign companies on the prowl for money-spinning genes and American seeds giant, Monsanto, has patented wheat invented by crossing a traditional Indian variety with another wheat line.
The wheat variety in question is Nap Hal, a primitive Indian land race. Monsanto says dough from its new wheat will be ideal for making bakery products like biscuits, crackers, wafers and crisps.
But gene-scientists and farmers here say this is a clear case of theft with the potential to stymie further breeding of high-quality varieties utilising this heritage wheat seed. Monsanto Technology was granted the patent last month by the European Patent Office based in Munich. The patent has been given both for the biscuits, flour, and dough produced from the wheat, as well as the plant itself. By owning this kind of patent, Monsanto could, in the future, potentially take legal action not only against farmers and scientists trying to breed wheat varieties with similar genetic traits, but also bakeries, confectioners and supermarkets if they produce or sell biscuits and other foods made from patented wheat.
When contacted, the Monsanto India office confirmed the patent, but had nothing more to add. International NGO Greenpeace, however, has much to say. In a statement on its website it says, "Monsanto is targeting and stealing from Indian farmers who have cultured this specific variety of wheat for centuries. This patent demonstrates the urgent need for a general legal ban on the patenting of genes, live organisms and seeds." Greenpeace intends to file an objection to the patent over the coming weeks.
Coming to the patent itself, Monsanto produced a new wheat variety by crossing a commonly grown soft wheat variety 'Galahad' with a 'Sicco' line containing the Indian 'Nap Hal' variety. Monsanto christened the new variety Galahad 7 and patented it.
The seeds major has stated in its patent application that samples of Nap Hal are freely available from several public germplasm collections. "For example, it is available under Accession No 1362 from the AFRC Institute of Plant Science Research , Norwich, UK. As Nap Hal is a land race, it is genetically mixed and its therefore necessary to purify the sample to homogeneity by selection," it has added.
The technical details of the new patent is as follows. Monsanto has created a soft-milling wheat variety, with the unique genetic characteristic of a Glu-D1 double null. All soft-milling wheat varieties having this essential characteristic are covered by the patent. The patent also encompasses the use of a wheat line exhibiting the Glu-D1 double null trait in the production, ie by breeding or genetic engineering, of soft-milling wheat.
For Monsanto, the patent has tremendous scope for enhancing its profits because it gives flour sufficient inelasticity to produce perfect semi-sweet biscuits and non-fermented crackers without any chemical treatment. The new variety also has a grain protein which is soluble, to prevent lumpiness in the batter made from it. "This is particularly important in wafer manufacture," says Monsanto in its patent claims. The patent also encompasses dough made from the flour and all edible products made by cooking such a dough.