So let’s say you’re enjoying the weeds in your backyard during this warm, beautiful fall when you come across this cute little azure flower. Don’t pick it! It might belong to Pfizer!
Last week’s major COWPEA conference that began in Nairobi and ended in Senegal is the latest of a number of African initiatives to take back their weeds!
Yes, I know, it’s sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it happens to be true. In today’s globally managed world of trade, more and more western corporations – mostly pharmaceuticals and agrogargantuans – are stealing magical African life forms that they then patent and make billions from.
These end product treasures include sugar substitutes, many drugs treating everything from diabetes to erectile dysfunction to weight-loss, to plants NASA can grow in space stations for feeding astronauts, to Australian hamburgers!
And the way the world’s closely held patent regulations work allows any corporation that gets its hands on the mother plant first, to look deep inside it for something useful, and then tweak it ever so carefully so that its chemical nature is changed enough to be considered “different.” Then, it patents it. Then, it owns it.
The reason Africa is such a big playground for this game is that the western world has essentially found everything in its own backyard already, and the world’s jungles are too pristine.
Exactly. Africa has been worked over by growing human populations for millennia, unlike the depths of the Amazon or Borneo. Plants, fungi and microbes have had enough time to evolve into forms with greater associations to humans.
The earliest extant case of this biological theft from the world’s poorest currently benefitting the world’s richest was in the 1980s. Deft little organic theft from one of Kenya’s poorest, most primitive tribes, the Boran, and Zimbabwe’s least developed tribes, the Tuli, led to a current strain of beef used in Australia, an industry estimated to be worth about $7 billion annually.
Australian agro-researcher, Dr. John Frisch, was working to find a way to successfully supply Australian’s growing love of burgers. Australia is basically an arid land, especially where cattle farming occurs.
So he went to Kenya and discovered how healthy the cattle were in the deserts lived in by the Boran tribe. Not quite beefy enough, though. But apparently years before (maybe hundreds of years before) DNA pointed Frisch south, and he discovered in the much more developed country of Zimbabwe the same strain of Borani cattle now selected even better for mass breeding and slaughter among the Tuli tribe of herders.
So then what did these Australian cowpokes do?
Well, first they formed a respectable association, a “joint venture” that allowed Australian scientists into the Boran and Tuli communities doing undoubtedly good work like studying sand and inoculating cows against flu, while … just a bit on the side and very much on the sly… collecting embryos from pregnant cows.
The embryos were quietly taken to Cocos Island in August 1988 where they were implanted into surrogate cows. In March 1990, live calves – parading as ‘Aussies’ – landed in Australia. Since then the now named “Tuli breed” has largely been used as a crossbreed in Australia’s beef industry.
According to the Australian government the introduction of these embryos in 1988 now contributes A$2 billion annually to the value of the beef market.
And now, according to Oduor Ong’wen, director of a prominent Kenyan Trade Think Tank, Australians are selling (note the word, “selling”) pure-bred Tuli embryos on the world market.
And how much have the Boran or Tuli earned from this bio-theft? Zip.
(Much of this post can be attributed Ong’wen’s amazing Biopiracy article published this week in Pambazuka.)
Since that early beefy heist, there have been some victories for the little African guy. The most celebrated case came from the Kalahari Desert.
For thousands of years, the San people (Bushmen of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts) ate the Hoodia cactus to stave hunger and thirst. Unlike western remedies like caffeine or black market drugs, the cactus is a stimulant that doesn’t produce jitters.
In the mid 1990s, South African scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) identified a previously unknown organic molecule in the Hoodia which they christened P57 (with no equivalent translation into click languages).
CSIR then patented the molecule and sold it in 1997 to Phytopharm plc, which in 1998 subleased the marketing rights to Pfizer for $32 million plus royalties from future sales.
The San people got it together and sued. They sued CSIR, Phytopharm and Pfizer. Pfizer has yet to develop a widely used drug from the source, but it has subsold some of its rights to a number of health food companies and it continues to study the molecule.
Meanwhile, the health food craze over Hoodia exploded and Pfizer easily recooped its initial $32 million investment by selling various rights to health food companies.
Pfizer and Phytopharm have settled with the San Peoples in a questionable agreement. The San are to get 8% of the royalties of any finally created Pfizer product. But there isn’t any finally created Pfizer product yet, even while Pfizer rakes in funds from the health food companies.
Boran/Tuli beef and Bushman uppers are hardly the tip of the iceberg. Current battles are raging in foreign ministries and trade organizations over hundreds if not thousands of life forms being taken from Africa by the western world and turned into lucratively marketed products.
Among the most contested right now, on which western corporations hold patents and Africans are trying to get their fare share, are:
– brazzeine, a protein 500 times sweeter than sugar from a plant in Gabon;
– teff, the grain used in Ethiopia’s flat ‘injera’ bread;
– thaumatin, a natural sweetener from a plant in West Africa;
– the Kunde Zulu cowpea, a bean with super protein that grows fast and easily;
– the African Plum from Kenya for treating certain forms of Prostate cancer;
– a bacteria SE 50 found in Kenya’s Lake Ruiru used to treat diabetes in the drug acrobase;
– a bacteria stolen from a termite hill in Gambia used in an anti-fungal and an immunosuppressant, 29-desmethylrapamycin
– the seeds from a Congolese plant used to manufacture Bioviagra
But there are thousands more.
World law is just developing that will license and control this “BioPiracy.” Needless to say, the big firms are on the side of Pfizer.
This is certainly an unfortunate situation, however not unique or new. Witness tobacco to Europe, Potatoes from Peru, Maize from the American Indian, Wheat from Eurasia. Hopefully African nations will be able to stabilize enough to develop the ability to reap their own benifits from their gene pool.
I think that the taking of embryos, for instance, is closer to theft in my opinion, although here in the United States artificial breeding companies are very protective of their sources for semen and embryos. Taking semen from a prize bull, or stealing from a semen bank would be prosecuted. There is also the matter of sharing improvements in the agriculture crop or livestock. If the improved breeds or crops are shared for the benifit of all the problems are not as great. When major international companies exploit for profit and do not recognize and reward the source I think some problems arise.
Another way to think about it…..(for the sake of arguement). If I own a piece of land and you know there is gold under it but I do not and you purchase it….should you share the gold with me?