Saturday, January 21, 2006

Patenting of taro plant creates controversy in Hawaii

Remember the controversy over the patenting of the yage plant? The controversy is back. Native Hawaiians hold the taro plant sacred in cultural lore, which is why many are now demanding that the University of Hawaii relinquish three patents claiming ownership to taro varieties developed by one of its scientists.

Other examples: The venom of a deadly sea snail found off the coast of the Philippines led Elan Pharmaceuticals to develop the painkiller Prialt, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2004. Wyeth's kidney transplant drug Rapamune comes from Easter Island soil. Diversa's' 15 bioprospecting endeavors around the world, including in Mexico, Ghana and Russia, have netted 200 patents with 500 more pending.

State action: Legislation in the Hawaii legislature to ban bioprospecting has stalled, though lawmakers are expected to soon release an inventory of all bioprospecting agreements that the University of Hawaii has with industry.

Nowhere is the bioprospecting issue more contentious than in Hawaii, the most biologically diverse state in the country and home to more than 22,000 species of plant and animal. Close to 9,000 of those species are found only in Hawaii.
The patenting of the taro plants is just the latest dust-up between native Hawaiians and the school.
Eduardo Trujillo, the researcher who developed the three disease-resistant strains and patented them, said his work saved the sacred plant from devastation.
``The patents are intended to protect the new hybrid taro cultivars for exclusive use by our farmers,'' Trujillo said in an e-mail reply to questions from The Associated Press.
According to Hawaiian legend, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed taro plant, whose roots also happen to yield one of Hawaii's best-known foods -- poi.
The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the taro plant part of their common ancestry.
``Our genealogy arises from the taro,'' said Hawaii activist Mililani Trask. ``The taro patents are a desecration.''

[As an aside to the yage plant controversy, the journal Science misreported that the patent had been invalidated. I wrote a letter giving the correct status. The letter was not published, but Science did correct their story.]

[IPBiz post 1163]


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