Tanzania is planning to move to court to stop the US and Brazilian governments, jointly with two multinational firms, from patenting a sorghum gene isolated from Tanzanian farms.
The strain of sorghum — a staple food in the country — has been proved to be acid-aluminium tolerant.
Tanzania explains that patenting this crop is fatal to its food security, and violates international treaties.
It would also increase local food prices as multinational corporations seek to exploit their patent to boost profits by selling sorghum seeds at a high prices at a time when millions of Tanzanians currently living under conditions of abject poverty are struggling to put food on their table.
This is because the value of their money is increasingly eroded due to high inflation.
The gene was assigned to the US as represented by the secretary of agriculture, Washington DC.
The application was filed on May 17, 2007, with prior publication on November 20, 2008, under US patent No. 7,582,809.
The application was made to the US patent and trade office, an agency of the department of commerce by Kochian Leon of Ithaca, New York, on September 1, 2009.
Kochian, jointly applied with fellow researchers Jiping Liu, Ithaca of New York, Jurandir Vieira de Magalhaes of Belo Horizonte-MG (Brazil), Claudia Teixeira Guimaraes of Sete Lagoas-MG (Brazil), Robert Eugene Schaffert, Sete Lagoas-MG (Brazil), Vera Maria Carvalho Alves, Sete Lagoas-MG (Brazil) and Patricia Klein, College Station, Texas (US)
The scientists explain that they produced the aluminium-tolerant plant through the genetic transformation of the wild types.
The major aluminum-tolerance gene, or the SbMATE gene, encodes a root citrate efflux transporter that is al-inducible at the level of gene transcription, and is also al-activated at the level of protein function.
A high level of expression of the SbMATE gene and the protein were found in roots of higher plants, including rice.
They explain that the successful transformation of the genes provides strong evidence that SbMATE can work across species to enhance tolerance to aluminium in other important crops grown in locations that are present in acid soils toxic to plants.
This involved an elaborate process in which a molecule of the plant protein with the ability to tolerate aluminium is prepared by cloning and transferred to the plant’s cells from which it is regenerated.
Dar-es-Salaam’s threats comes amid a report saying that government researchers from the US department of agriculture, Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation and Texas A&M University have patented the gene with the US Patent Office in September 2009.
Investigations by The EastAfrican reveal that the two governments have also filed an international patent seeking patents across the World, including Africa.
Reports also show that giant multinationals Dow Chemical and Oji Paper of Japan are expected to invest $110 million in a eucalyptus plantation in Tanzania.
They are negotiating with the US government to license it and buy access to it.
Hani Wassim, the media relations manager for Middle East and Africa of Dow Chemical Company, says the firm is not in a position to comment on the matter. And at Oji Paper, director Susumu Yajima declined to respond to our e-mail.
The patenting of the Tanzania sorghum gene called — the sorghum bicolor multidrug and the toxic compound extrusion transfer (SbMATE) is expected to generate $680 million annually.
The gene is not only useful in sorghum, but also in other crops, including genetically engineered maize, wheat and rice as well GE tree plantations.
The gene IS7173, locally known as Msumbiji from the southern part of Tanzania, works by causing sorghum plants to exude levels of citrates — a form of citric acid — in their root tips that neutralise the toxic effect of aluminium.
With the aluminium neutralised, the plant roots grow and absorb nutrients normally — even in aluminium toxic acid soils.
A gene is the basic unit of heredity in a living organism. Genes hold the information that build and maintain an organism’s cells and pass genetic traits to offspring.
Mariam Mayet, the director of African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) in South Africa told The EastAfrican that the centre has written to the Tanzanian officials that oversee the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, urging them to challenge the patent application.
Ms Mayet said the centre has written to those in charge of the treaty at the Food and Agriculture Organisation to form a political and legal front to challenge the application.
Ms Mayet warns that biopiracy by Western corporations is on the rise and points to the Kenyan case in which the country lost a millet patent.
“In terms of US and Dow, well, these companies are interested in sub-licences and will be the financial beneficiaries. The first course of action lies against the patent holders,” she says.
Sorghum, she adds, is an African heritage crop that should be protected from the creeping commercialisation of basic foods that millions of poor people depend on for survival.
The crop is covered by Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the Tanzanian farmers’ variety, which was collected decades ago, is held in trust under the treaty by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India.
The treaty prohibits patent claims on the varieties and genes of plants held in trust, raising questions about the legality of the patent claims.
Mr Edward Hammond, a researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety, says Dow Chemical and Oji Paper have expressed interest in buying licences for the patent.