Indian patent law will protect crops ‘unless injurious to health’

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New Delhi

The Indian government has presented a bill to parliament proposing a law giving patent protection to new crop varieties for 15 years, but allowing patent applications to be rejected for varieties for which the commercial exploitation “may be injurious to health”.

The clause allowing rejection is seen as a bid to ban both the import of genetically modified foods and the cultivation of transgenic plants where questions remain about their safety for human health or the environment.

To be eligible for patent protection, a variety “must be new, distinct, uniform and stable”. But those containing “harmful genes or gene sequences like the terminator gene” will be refused registration.

Judgements about both patentability and safety will be made by a National Plant Protection Authority that will be created under the act to implement all provisions of the legislation, including testing. It will use existing lab facilities of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research until it sets up its own.

The council says the safety criteria are listed in the recombinant-DNA research guidelines issued by the Department of Biotechnology.

The legislation will not affect the right of farmers to save, exchange or sell produce of the protected variety, or the right of researchers to have access for research. But a National Gene Fund will pass some of the sale proceeds of new varieties to the village communities that preserved the plant genetic resources.

The government claims that the legislation, by ensuring a return for investment, will “facilitate the growth of the seed industry through domestic and foreign investment”.

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Jayaraman, K. Indian patent law will protect crops ‘unless injurious to health’. Nature 402, 566 (1999) doi:10.1038/45021

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