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Bean Biopiracy in Colorado

By David Dechant

(Dec. 21, 2001 -- CropChoice guest column) -- When asked if he had ever seen yellow beans, Jesús Villalobos, a 65 year old Mexican farm worker who grew up in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, says, "Yellow beans are the only beans I knew of when I was young. It wasn't until I was older that I knew what pinto beans were." When told that Mexican farmers cannot export yellow beans to the US or that Colorado farmers cannot raise them without Podners LLC's permission, because it has exclusive rights to them, Jesús is stunned and becomes somewhat upset, calling Podners a "bandito," among other things.

If an ordinary farm worker knows that a patent on yellow beans is absurd, then why doesn't the almighty US Patent and Trademark Office know so as well? When most folks think of patents, they think of inventions. But is putting a claim on something that has always been around an invention? It's a discovery, plain and clear. However, the US PTO hasn't figured that out yet.

The action group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC group), formally and affectionately known as Rural Advancement Foundation International to those who have come to appreciate its outstanding foresight on genetic resource issues, doesn't agree with the PTO, either. It recently released an article called "Proctor's Gamble," in reference to Larry Proctor, the president of Podners LLC seed in the western Colorado farm town of Delta.

Over on the other side of the Continental Divide, in the plains city of Greeley, Colo., Bob Brunner, president of Northern Feed and Bean, wonders how Proctor can sue him and 16 local farmers being that the yellow beans they grew came from seed brought in from Mexico and not from Proctor's supposed yellow bean "invention."

Even some farmers in Proctor's backyard of Delta are upset. According to Brunner, Northern Feed and Bean contracted with Greeley area farmers to produce yellow beans for $40 per cwt (hundred pounds). But a few Delta area farmers who contacted Brunner complained that Podners contracted with them for only $25 per cwt.

Contrary to those who promote patents on seed as benefiting farmers and consumers, this shows that such patents only benefit the patent owners, ensuring that farmers get paid as little as possible while consumers pay as much as possible.

Had the US Supreme Court ruled against seed patents a few weeks ago, Proctor's lawsuit would have little ground to stand on. Unfortunately, it ruled in favor of patents, with Monsanto's ex-employee, Clarence Thomas, writing the majority opinion. This ruling has enormous implications that farmers and consumers might not be aware of until it's too late. Seed companies from the big multinationals like DuPont/Pioneer and Monsanto/DeKalb/Asgrow down to small ones like Podners LLC are patenting numerous indigenous plant varieties, as well as individual genes or traits, trying to monopolize anything that consumers or farmers might find essential or desirable.

In the days ahead, farmers and consumers would do well to lobby Congress to put some limits on the very broad rights granted by patents. But for right now, there's one thing that everyone can do, and that's to contact the US PTO and ask it to invalidate the yellow bean patent, specifically US Patent #5,894,074. Moreover, doing so is easy, as the ETC group has put a tool on its website, allowing anyone to easily send a message to the PTO. Here's the link to it, as well as to the article, "Proctor's Gamble." Please check it out. Farmers from Colorado all the way to Mexico would greatly appreciate your support.

To read the ETC Group piece that Dechant referred to, click on http://www.etcgroup.org/search.asp?slice=recent

David Dechant grows wheat, corn and alfalfa in Colorado.