7:58 AM Dec 17, 1993


Geneva 16 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- An US entomologist and plant breeder from California has received plant patents in the United States under its Plant Variety Protection Act for two varieties of naturally coloured cotton.

The grant of the patent-like claim on the two coloured cotton varieties, "coyote" and "green", raise many questions and concerns about ownership and control of naturally coloured cotton, as well as lack of compensation for the indigenous knowledge and germplasm of the South, says RAFI Communique.

According to RAFI -- a monthly newsletter published by the Canada-based NGO, Rural Advancement Foundation International -- the patents for the plant varieties have been awarded to Sally V.Fox, giving her the legal right to exclude others from selling her varieties, or reproducing, importing or exporting them without permission until 2008.

Fox, and her company Natural Cotton Colours of Arizona, is the largest seller of coloured cotton in the US, and is viewed as a pioneer in California's sustainable agriculture movement for her success in developing natural and organic coloured cotton for commercial varieties.

Natural coloured cotton varieties were not invented in the 1980s either. All naturally coloured cotton are derived from varieties descended in large part from Central American and Mexican parental stock created by the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Eco-consciousness has created growing niche markets in US, Europe and Japan for organic and naturally coloured cottons. Textile and Clothing manufacturers like Levi Strauss purchase such cotton for fabrics and clothes for sale in the US (or other foreign markets).

Though presented to the public in fashion magazines as varieties grown in the long past by primitive communities, and now revived and bred by US breeders, the natural cotton varieties are grown even now by thousands of indigenous farmers in the Americas. An estimated 15,000 peasants routinely cultivate such varieties -- native pigmented varieties cultivated in Peru is by far the largest single group; brown cotton called coyote or coyuche which are spun by Natua Indian women in Mexico and Brown cotton Ixcoco spun in several communities in highland Guatemala.

But Fox, says the RAFI Communique, did not invent coloured cotton. She got her seeds from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in California from germplasm collected originally by an USDA plant breeder from Mexico or Central America.

To develop her varieties, Fox did what farmers have been doing for centuries -- select seeds for certain characteristics, and through labour-intensive time-consuming methods, cross varieties until a satisfactory one is obtained. But her breeding work began with seeds improved by others.

Under US law, Fox got patents for breeding distinct, uniform and stable varieties of coloured cotton. But there are questions, and considerable controversy over right of plant breeders to obtain legal "ownership" of new varieties based on germplasm collected from farmers and indigenous peoples of the Third World.

There are also challenges from other experts about the changes she has effected in the USDA collections to warrant grant of patents or Plant Breeders Rights (PBRs).

Rafi quotes Dr. Philip Wakelyn of the National Cotton Council in Washington as saying, about the "distinctiveness" of the patents granted to Fox, "What I've seen of her varieties (Fox) has a long way to go. It doesn't look any different from the USDA collections I saw 25-30 years ago. All she really shows is flower changes...it makes one wonder how much change she has really made".

Besides Sally Fox, another US company BC Cotton Inc is also growing and selling coloured cotton.

Fox is now working to develop new varieties, drawing on germplasm samples with Texas A & M University from seeds got from Peru. But if Peruvian or Central American farmers wrote to the Texas university for samples of the patented seeds, the University would not be able to do so under US law.

Under the Uruguay Round Trips agreement, approved as part of a package by the TNC Wednesday, and tentatively intended to go into effect in 1995 (1 January or 1 July is still to be settled), all signatories are obliged to provide for protection of plant varieties "either by patent or an effective sui generis system or any combination thereof", and put into place such a system, in the case of developing countries within five years of entry into force.

By year 2000, developing countries like Mexico or Peru or Central American countries (from where the seeds were obtained by USAID/USDA collectors and stored in US germplasm collections) may find the rights of their own farmers in jeopardy if they improve on their varieties, for varieties protected in the US or Europe or Japan (where ecological consciousness is creating niche market for such cotton fabrics) or which could be contended to be based on these protected varieties.

Though not so clear and certain, even imports of textile fabrics or goods from these Latin American or any other countries based on such naturally coloured cotton, might face problems and challenge in their own markets or at the point of entry in importing countries over their exports (particularly from the protectionist textile and clothing industries that are marketing such products) and are dragged before the WTO dispute settlement bodies.

And in future, when the TRIPs is enforced, cotton textiles from naturally coloured cotton grown by Peruvian peasants, may face problems and challenges when sought to be exported to the US. Some of the US companies using naturally coloured cotton for fabrics and clothing -- to take advantage of eco-conscious consumers willing to pay a higher price -- may easily challenge such imports.