Europe Revokes Neem Patent; GMO-Free Futures Launch

23 May 2000

The European Patent Office (EPO) on 11 May revoked a patent given to the US Department of Agriculture and the chemical company WR Grace for a process to extract oil from the Indian neem tree for use as a plant pesticide. The EU Parliament's Green Party, Dr. Vandana Shiva of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements had filed objections to the 1995 patent. They argued that the patent amounted to "bio piracy" and noted that the neem tree and the process under patent has been known in India for over 2000 years, where it has been used to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics and contraceptives. In revoking the patent, the EPO panel noted that the patent was characterised by a "lack of novelty," a prerequisite for assigning ownership over intellectual property.

In Europe, the governments of Britain, France, Germany and Sweden are under pressure from environmental groups to tear out thousands of acres of crops accidentally planted with genetically modified (GMO) rapeseed crops. Seeds believed to be GMO-free were imported from Canada by the seed company Advanta and planted in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden. The rapeseed was later revealed to be genetically modified to be herbicide resistant. A majority of the crops have been harvested. Environmental groups last week called for remaining GMO crops to be destroyed - in order to prevent contamination of nearby crops and/or the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds. As BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest went to press, it was not clear what next steps the governments would take. The UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food noted, however, that there was no risk of cross-pollination since the seeds were male and sterile.

Also in the news, the world's first futures contracts on GMO-free soybeans (non-genetically-modified) began trading on the Tokyo Grain Exchange from 18 May. Trading for non-GMO soybeans on the first day of trading yielded a trading volume about seven times higher than the volume traded for normal, unsegregated soyabean futures in Japan. Observers note the high level of trading reflects high demand for non-GMO products but warned that trading will remain under some doubt until the first futures contracts expire in December 2000 and traders assess whether or not there are problems with delivery. Japan imports about 5 million tonnes of soybeans annually, mostly from the US.

Delegates are convening from 15-26 May in Nairobi, Kenya for the Fifth Conference of the Parties (COP-5) to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Delegates will discuss, inter alia, sustainable use of biological resources, scientific and technical cooperation and the Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM). BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest will report on COP-5's trade-related developments in a forthcoming issue.

"Patent to extract oil from neem tree withdrawn," ECONOMIC TIMES (India), 12 May 2000; "Neem patent revoked by European Patent Office," SUNS, 11 May 2000; "Conference on world's ecosystem opens in Nairobi," KYODO NEWS INTERNATIONAL, 15 May 2000; "French to rule on GM rapeseed crop," REUTERS, 22 May 2000; "Government urged to tear up crops after seed error;" "Non-GM soyabean trading launch," FINANCIAL TIMES, 18 May 2000.

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