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The Issue of Biopiracy in Agriculture

Zoom in on definitions of the following key terms: Traditional Knowledge, biopiracy and bioprospecting. Gain a stronger perspective on how biopiracy is reflected in the agriculture industry via examples of stevia, turmeric, ashwagandha, teff flour and maca appropriation.

Traditional Knowledge (TK)

Rooted in ancient learnings, TK is a so-called ‘living body of knowledge’ which is passed down within a community for centuries. TK encompasses everything from skills, innovations and know-how to language, symbols, and signs. Examples of TK contexts include agriculture, biodiversity, medicine, ecology and technology. For any given community, TK plays a significant role in shaping people’s cultural and spiritual identity. The difficulty in protecting TK lies in its tangibility or inherent lack thereof. While trademarks or patents protect conventional technologies, this is not typically the case for oral knowledge transfer. Thus, around the world corporations or governments can still financially benefit from TK, without adequately compensating respective communities for their contribution. 



Merriam Webster defines ‘biopiracy’ as follows: “the unethical or unlawful appropriation or commercial exploitation of biological materials that are native to a particular country or territory without providing fair financial compensation to the people or government of that country or territory”. These biological compounds encompass plant, animal and chemical compounds. Furthermore, the term ‘biopiracy’ can also be extended to the appropriation of knowledge about practices related to these compounds, such as farming techniques or the extraction of medicinal properties. Though researchers in the pharmaceutical industry are considered some of the most common perpetrators, extensive accounts of actors in the agriculture industry attempting to patent resources or products from less affluent communities and regions have been recorded (see case study examples below). Not only are these peoples then being denied fair compensation for their TK and genetic resources, but the resulting monopolies can fuel further dependencies of developing nations on large corporations. These occurrences are observed in markets for seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides as well as raw materials and ingredients.

The links between modern-day biopiracy and colonialism are undeniable, and incidences of biopiracy sometimes coined as ‘neo-colonial’ or ‘biocolonial’. Thanks to growing international awareness about the exploitative nature of biopiracy, the World Intellectual Property Organization (IPO) Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) is working to define international legal parameters that ensure the protection of and compensation for the use of TK, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.



In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity recognised that “states have sovereign rights over their natural resources, and that terms and conditions for access to these materials are within the domain of national legislation.” When research groups or corporations explore and utilise TK and biological resources for commercial purposes in ethical ways, for example by compensating states and communities for the provision of endemic raw ingredients, this is referred to as ‘bioprospecting’. The difficulty here lies not in the concept itself but in the challenges related to monitoring and enforcing bioprospecting agreements. This brings back the age-old questions of transparency, traceability and accountability. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ATC)  The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ATC) highlights that the result is often little more than legalised forms of biopiracy. When properly implemented, bioprospecting entails that corporations and governments inject profits directly back into local communities, set up infrastructures to empower and benefit their peoples, and conduct conservation efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of resources at-hand.



Stevia: Brazil & Paraguay
A 2015 report published by Berne Declaration (now Public Eye), CEIDRA, Misereor, Pro Stevia Switzerland, SUNU and the University of Hohenheim uncovered controversial practices in stevia and stevia derived sweeteners (steviol glycosides). The report highlighted the industry’s human rights violations against indigenous peoples, misleading marketing practices, and corporate efforts to replace plants using synthetic biology. In this infamous case of biopiracy, a group of international corporations threatened to sabotage Brazil and Paraguay’s stevia markets by eradicating the need for cultivation of natural plants through lab-grown alternatives. This poses a substantial threat to communities whose very livelihoods depend on stevia exports. In 2016, some of these corporations, including Nestlé, Dr. Oetker, and Migros, agreed to implement benefit sharing agreements with the Guarani peoples. Others, such as PepsiCo, refused.
Read the full reports here: The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia (2015) & Stevia: The Path to Benefit Sharing Agreement (2016)


Turmeric: India
In 1995, the Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) objected to a turmeric patent which the United States granted the University Of Mississippi Medical Center. The university had successfully secured the sole right to using turmeric powder as an oral and topical ointment for healing wounds. After the CSIR proved that turmeric had been used in India for these purposes for centuries, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) revoked its initial decision and rendered the patent invalid.
Read about more patent disputes between India, Pakistan and the United States here: Traditional Knowledge and Patent Issues: An Overview of Turmeric, Basmati, Neem Cases


Ashwagandha: India
Ashwagandha’s applications in Ayurvedic medicine in India have been traced back over 6,000 years. The USPTO notoriously granted Relive International Inc. a patent for an ashwagandha supplement to promote joint health as well as granting more than twelve patents to corporations for ‘ashwagandha centred findings’. Indian authorities only succeeded in getting one of these incidents repealed. Hence, in 2009 India provided evidence from its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in hopes of strengthening the case. As a result, in 2010, the European Patent Office (EPO) cited this evidence in its withdrawal of an American multinational corporation’s patent applications for ashwagandha’s medicinal properties. 
Read more: India’s Fight Against Agricultural and Medicinal Plants’ Biopiracy: Its Implications on Food Security, Traditional Rights and Knowledge Degradation


Teff Grass: Ethiopia
Teff is an ancient grain endemic to Ethiopia and its uses in human history date back over 6,000 years. In 2003, Ancientgrain B.V. made headlines when it secured two patents for the processing and preparation of teff grains. The Dutch corporation then proceeded to sue other companies in the industry over their commercial teff grain productions. In 2019, the courts in The Hague notoriously rejected Ancientgrain B.V.’s patent infringement lawsuit against Bakels Seniour and declared the patent as void. Players throughout the industry celebrated the court’s ruling.
For further reading: Biopiracy: The Misuse of Patenting Systems at the Disadvantage of Local Communities & The Hague Rejects Dutch Patent Infringement Suit Over Ancient Grain


Maca Root: Peru
The illegal exportation of raw maca and the exploitation of TK by Chinese buyers is posing a threat to Peru’s maca market. The spike in Chinese demand for maca in the early 2010s is attributed to rising awareness for its supposed fertility-boosting properties. Hence the nickname ‘Andean Viagra’. Chinese merchants stand accused of exploiting, not only knowledge and raw plant material but also of importing seeds and soil back to China for maca propagation. Though the Chinese initially invested substantial amounts of cash in local communities to obtain this knowledge and these materials, the flow of money ceased once the maca had been appropriated. Six years later, the after-effects of the resulting acts of biopiracy are still being felt by local communities. Now, looming patents in China and the United States are posing a threat to their very existence
Read more:  Maca: The Dubious Aphrodisiac Chinese Biopirates Took from Peru


Imagery: (1) Priscilla du Preez, (2) Scott Umstattd, (3) Harry Thaker and (4) Pieter de Malsche via

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