Tuesday, July 28, 2009

US Patent Office rejects US company's patent protection for bean commonly grown by Latin American farmers

Controversial Court patent case for simple yellow legume has become rallying point for "biopiracy" concerns

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) today rejected all of the patent claims for a common yellow bean that has been a familiar staple in Latin American diets for more than a century.

The bean was erroneously granted patent protection in 1999, as US Patent Number 5,894,079, in a move that raised profound concerns about biopiracy and the potential abuse of intellectual property (IP) claims on plant materials that originate in the developing world and remain as important dietary staples, particularly among the poor.

A research center, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (known by its Spanish acronym, CIAT), which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), led the legal challenge to the patent through the USPTO's reexamination process.

"We are happy that the patent office has reached a final decision in this case but remain concerned that the ex partes patent reexamination procedure meant that these patent claims remained in force for such a long time," said Geoffrey Hawtin, Director General of CIAT, which has been fighting the patent since 2001. "For several years now, farmers in Mexico, the USA and elsewhere have unnecessarily endured legal threats and intimidation for simply planting, selling or exporting a bean that they have been growing for generations."

At issue is a hearty and nutritious yellow bean-similar to the pinto bean-that is known to plant breeders as Phaseolus vulgaris but is commonly called azufrado or Mayocoba bean by Latin American farmers and consumers. In the 1990s, a Colorado man, Larry Proctor, bought some beans in a market in Mexico and after a few years of plantings, claimed he had developed what he called "a new field bean variety that produces distinctly colored yellow seed which remains relatively unchanged by season." He dubbed it the "Enola bean," filed a patent application and obtained a 20-year patent that covered any beans and hybrids derived from crosses with even one of his seeds.


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