India wins glorious battle over wicked Americans trying to patent haldi (turmeric) and steal our traditional knowledge. David slays Goliath. Third World beats First World. These were the messages implicit in newspaper and TV headlines last week after India contested and got quashed the award of a patent to the Mississippi Medical Centre in 1995 for using haldi to heal wounds. I am happy at the verdict, yet extremely unhappy at the misreporting and misinterpretation of the event by many sections of the media.
Several reports say Americans are trying to patent plants like neem and turmeric. This is simply false. US patent laws (and those proposed by WTO) expressly prohibit the patenting of any natural want. To get a patent you must establish three things: that it is novel (involves an inventive step), non- obvious, and has commercial value. So you can get a patent for creating a new high-yielding variety of turmeric, or for new ways to extract useful ingredients from the plant, or for new commercial applications of haldi. But you cannot patent the traditional plant itself.
Then why, bewildered readers may ask, do journalists and politicians constantly talk of western attempts to patent neem, turmeric and sundry herbs? The answer, regrettably, is that this is a persistent twisting of the truth to serve the private agendas of two sorts of people the Swadeshi jingoists of the Right and orphans of the Cold War on the Left.
Consider neem. The media have gone 10 town saying WR Grace, a US company, has patented neem and stolen our traditional knowledge. Very few journalists or politicians mention that 63 Indian companies have neem patents too (that would not serve the interests of either jingoists or ecoleftists). None of the 63 patents are for the neem plant itself: all are for different ways of using neem and its principal extract, azadirachtin, and all involve some inventive steps. WR Grace has not patented neem, it has patented a process for stabilising azadirachtin (neem extract), thus giving this natural insecticide a longer shelf-life. This is not theft of traditional knowledge but an improvement on it. Other inventors can further improve on it, rendering WR Grace’s patent obsolete. But nobody can patent neem.
This is no different from the case of say iron. This was discovered and produced in the iron age in Africa, and to that extent is traditional knowledge. Nobody can patent iron. But thousands of new ways can be found to manufacture iron, and it makes sense to grant patents for these rather than claim this is theft of the iron age’s traditional knowledge.
Let us turn now to haldi. Here again, contrary to media reports, the global patent system does not permit the patenting of turmeric. What can, however, be patented is a new application of turmeric. The Mississippi Medical Centre claimed it had found a new use, in healing wounds. Indian scientists proved that such knowledge already existed in ancient Indian manuals. In the light of this evidence, the US Patent and Trademarks Office struck down the patent.
This is certainly a victory for common sense. But it is not a victory of India over the USA. On the contrary, a US authority upheld US law against a US interloper. India played a key role as complainant, for which the Americans are duly thankful, since the whole point of their procedure is to allow people from all parts of the globe to draw their attention to unwarranted patent claims. But in no way is this an Indian triumph over the US.
Indeed, the event proves that US patent laws do not permit the purloining of traditional knowledge, and that constant allegations to the contrary by jingoists and ecoleftists are pure disinformation. In striking down the patent, the US Patents Office was not trying to protect Indian traditional knowledge at all. It was seeking to protect American consumers from American producers wanting to charge unwarranted royalties. Far from protecting traditional knowledge, the verdict ensures the unprotected use of this knowledge by the whole world.
The decision makes all Indians feel good. But it does not benefit India in any tangible way. No payments or royalties will be made by anybody to India. India has merely done a good turn to US consumers by protecting them from exploitation by a US company.
The verdict has in no sense saved Indians from US exploitation. The US organisation in question would not have forced Indians to pay for traditional haldi use even if they got a patent, just as WR Grace’s neem patent does not prevent Indian fanners from using neem leaves as an insecticide. A patent in India can indeed be obtained, by Indian or foreign scientists, for a new process to make haldi more effective as a medicine. Such a patent will imply that any company wanting to market the improved medicine will have to pay royalties to the inventor. It will not in any way inhibit traditional haldi use. That is what the global patent law says.
If India gets no benefit at all from the verdict, readers may ask, why do I say I am happy? First, because I welcome victory for common sense anywhere in the world, even if it benefits only US consumers. Second, the incident demonstrates how ludicrous are constant accusations that wicked neo-colonialist are stealing our traditional knowledge, and I am always happy when the truth comes out. The Indian Express made a telling comment on the episode by pointing out how elated we Indians get when an international decision goes in our favour (as in the case of haldi 4 the WTO verdict on US curbs on Indian garment exports), and how we denounce the international^ trading system when a decision goes against us. We cannot logically claim the protection %’ the international trading system, when it suits us, and denounce the system when it protects somebody, else against us.
Finally, I am happy at the verdict because I hope it will spur research, and development into plant-based drugs. Ayurveda was once dismissed as the unscientific. But any system developed through trial and error over centuries must have made significant discoveries, We should avoid the extremes of regarding traditional medicine as either sacred and unemployable, or as unscientific rubbish. We need to systematically gather and document the full knowledge of, our tribal herb gatherers, conserve plants threatened with extinction, and study all ancient texts on medicinal herbs. This will yield promising leads on areas for future research. Even if the herbs themselves are of limited therapeutic value, identifying their active ingredients can be the starting point for developing derivatives that are more potent, and may be world-beaters. So let us have a more positive approach to traditional knowledge. We must fully document that knowledge. But let us also accept that this knowledge is of limited value, and that real gains will require R&D to use traditional’ molecules as building blocks for new drugs that will make us the| envy of the world. Instead of harking back at the past glories of traditional medicine, look to the future.