Activists oppose UH's patenting of taro plants

Star-Bulletin has this story today:
Arguing that the patents were wrongly obtained, local and national activists opposing the patenting of taro plants are asking the University of Hawaii to relinquish the rights it owns for three varieties of the traditional Hawaiian food staple.

Walter Ritte, a Molokai-based activist, plans to join Kauai taro farmer Chris Kobayashi and representatives of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., for a news conference at UH to air their grievances concerning the university's patenting of the three taro varieties, which are called Palehua, Paakala and Pauakea.

Issued in 2002, the patents protect the university's ownership rights of the varieties, which were developed by scientists at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The patent requires farmers wanting to grow the varieties to pay a licensing fee to the university, prohibits farmers from selling the seeds and requires farmers growing the plants to let UH officials onto the farmers' property to study the plants.

But the critics contend that the university should not exercise intellectual property rights on plants that are derived from species that Polynesians brought to Hawaii more than 1,000 years ago. In traditional Hawaiian culture, the taro plant is viewed as a spiritual ancestor, a crop that sustained the people who cultivated and cared for it.
...the opponents assert in a statement that the UH patents should be invalid because the plants are not much different from varieties already invented by Hawaiians. Such previous inventions are called prior art in legal parlance, and the existence of prior art similar to the invention can make it impossible for an inventor to obtain a patent.

Of particular importance to the argument is a variety called Maui Lehua, which was used to cultivate UH's patented hybrid taro plants.

"The qualities of the patented varieties derive to a considerable extent from Maui Lehua, whose properties are the result of many centuries of breeding efforts by native Hawaiians," the opponents contend. "Thus, the patent claims for the three patented varieties are invalidated by considerations of prior art."

The statement also claims that the UH scientists failed to validate properties they claimed the taro contained, another essential element to obtaining a patent.

Finally, the statement takes issue with the several aspects of the licensing agreement, including royalties that farmers selling the taro would have to pay to UH.

"The collection of royalties from farmers whose taxes already support the university's operations, including taro breeding activities, is abhorrent," the statement said. "It represents a superfluous and unjust levy on Hawaiian taro farmers."

Although the patents have existed for years, they came to the attention of the activists only recently...

Just to clarify in case there's any confusion, we're NOT talking about genetic engineering in this case, but about simple cross-breeding or hybridization, the same thing Hawaiians did to develop the multitudes of kalo varieties. To me, working to breed new varieties that have valuable properties, like resisting pocket rot or whatever, is a useful endeavor, and that in itself is not the problem. But for UH to say they are doing this work to benefit taro farmers, and then for the university or the scientists to patent the varieties and try to control farmers' use of them or extract fees and royalties, when they were paid by public funds to do the research in the first place, doesn't make sense. To me, it seems like new kalo varieties developed with public funding for the public benefit should be freely available to kalo farmers. That's the whole point in the first place. And, of course, what about the intellectual property rights to all the varieties of kalo Hawaiians developed? Maybe a hui of traditional kalo farmers should patent all the known traditional varieties of kalo to control how UH experiments on them. Sheesh.

BTW, Maui Lehua is one of the three main varieties that we grow at Kapahu farm in Kipahulu, along with Mana and Moi.

Update 1/14: Advertiser also has a story.

Update 1/16: Press release from Walter Ritte and Chris Kobayashi posted at The Ano Masima blog (Utah's Polynesian Magazine).
"Kalo was not invented by the University of Hawaii, and they have no right to 'own' or 'license' it," said Walter Ritte. If any one owns the kalo, we do "collectively" as Hawaiians, and as Hawaiians, we demand that UH give up its taro patents and return these varieties to the public domain."

Posted: Fri - January 13, 2006 at 10:31 AM    
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Published On: Jan 16, 2006 10:21 AM
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