July 14, 1997

Bolivian Farmers Demand Researchers Drop Patent on Andean Food Crop

Bolivia's National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) is asking two professors at Colorado State University to abandon their controversial patent on one of the country's most important food crops - quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) - a crop that feeds millions throughout the Andes, including many Aymara and Quechua Indigenous People.

Our intellectual integrity has been violated by this patent," said Luis Oscar Mamami, ANAPQUI's President. "Quinoa has been developed by Andean farmers for millenia, it was not `invented' by researchers in North America," said Mamani. "We demand that the patent be dropped and that all countries of the world refuse to recognize its validity." Mr. Mamani will travel to New York City on 22 June to make his appeal on behalf of quinoa farmers at the United Nations where a Special Session of the General Assembly will meet from 23-27 June. ANAPQUI will also present the quinoa patent as a violation of Human Rights before the International Peoples' Tribunal on Human Rights and the Environment, 22-23 June in New York City.

In a May 27 letter to Colorado State University professors Duane Johnson and Sarah Ward, the producers' association points out that US Patent No. 5,304,718 grants Johnson and Ward exclusive monopoly control over a traditional Bolivian variety known as "Apelawa," a quinoa type named for the farmers of a Bolivian town of the same name near Lake Titicaca. The patent, issued in 1994, is valid until the year 2011.

The patent claims the use of "Apelawa," a traditional Bolivian quinoa variety as a source of male sterile cytoplasm in a technique to create hybrid quinoa. But the US patent is not limited to a single hybrid variety, it claims any quinoa hybrid that is derived from Apelawa. According to the patent, this might include many traditional varieties grown by peasant farmers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile as well as varieties important in Bolivia's quinoa export market.

Though little known outside of the Andes, quinoa is becoming increasingly popular in North America and Europe as an exceptionally nutritious food crop. Johnson and Ward believe that their technique for hybridizing quinoa will increase the crop's yield, making it better suited for commercial production in the North.

International NGOs are joining ANAPQUI in protesting the US patent on quinoa. "Bolivian farmers have every right to be alarmed," says Koos Neefje of Oxfam-UK, an international development NGO based in London. "We join ANAPQUI in demanding that the patent be abandoned. It is a clear threat to food security. The patenting of any food crop is morally offensive, and should not be allowed by governments," concludes Neefje.

"The quinoa patent is a shocking example of biopiracy," states Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an international NGO headquartered in Canada that first uncovered the controversial patent. "Bolivian farmers and researchers were stunned to learn of its existence. After all, they freely shared their quinoa seeds and knowledge with the Colorado State professors. By slapping a patent on quinoa the US researchers have selfishly appropriated knowledge and genetic resources that belong to indigenous people of the Andes," explains Mooney.

Technically the owners of the quinoa patent have the right to prevent imports of hybrid quinoa from entering the US if they are produced using the Apelawa variety. One of the patent owners, Colorado State University professor Duane Johnson, has already stated that he will donate the technology to Andean countries and will not enforce the patent outside of the United States. But Bolivian farmers and NGOs are not satisfied and point out that male sterility in Andean farmers' varieties of quinoa has been known for decades. "We don't need a US professor to `donate' to us what is rightfully ours," says Mamani.

"The issue is not simply quinoa," says Edward Hammond of RAFI. "There's something terribly wrong when patent offices grant monopoly patents on food crops - especially poor peoples' staple foods. This is a dangerous and disturbing precedent, and it must not be allowed to stand. Access to food and the universal Right to Food should not be left in the hands of those who control patents on technology and germplasm," concludes RAFI's Hammond.

ANAPQUI will be joined by RAFI, the Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network and other NGOs at the UN General Assembly, 23 - 27 June in New York City. The groups will ask the General Assembly to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice (the World Court) on the moral issues surrounding the patenting of food crops and other life forms.

The campaign to reject the quinoa patent claims is also supported by Agricultural Missions (USA), Lutheran World Relief (USA), Canadian Lutheran World Relief, IBIS (Denmark), Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network (IPBN) and FundaciÛn Bolinvest (Bolivia)."

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