Bangkok Post | 29 September 2004
AGRICULTURE/GM PAPAYA RESEARCH
Farmers risk violating US patents
Thai farmers risk being held liable for patent violations under patent application rights for genetically modified (GM) papaya being considered by American biotechnologists working with Thai scientists, experts said yesterday.
They have urged the government to pay close attention to the issue and plan to discuss it with senators today.
The patent applications were submitted two years ago in the United States by research teams led by American gene specialist Dennis Gonsalves.
Patent protection will cover papaya ringspot virus genes added to papayas to boost resistance to the disease, viral DNA structures, genetically modified techniques and GM papaya, according to copies of applications presented at a forum held yesterday by the National Human Rights Commission.
"If Thai farmers export GM papayas without knowing whether they are patented, they could risk violating intellectual [property] rights," intellectual property law expert Jade Donavanik said.
Mr Jade is a member of a special panel recently assigned by Agriculture Minister Somsak Thepsuthin to examine US patent applications. The panel has been given 30 days to complete its work.
Although Thailand has banned open field trials of GM crops and their commercial cultivation, the forum raised concerns about the recent cases of GM papaya contamination in the country.
Legal expert Somchai Ratanachueskul said papaya farmers could be considered to have broken patent laws even if their fruits were accidentally tainted by unwanted GM genes.
He cited the case of a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who was found early this year to have violated a patent on GM canola, an oil-rich plant, developed by transnational company Monsanto, even though he said his crops were contaminated because winds carried GM genes onto his farms.
A retired Thai expert Nonglak Sarindu, a former gene specialist at the Department of Agriculture, has been named as a co-inventor of GM papaya, but Mr Jade said it remained unclear what the details of the contract were between Ms Nonglak and the US and just how much Thailand would benefit from the joint research.
Ms Nonglak was part of a research team at Cornell University in the US that used a papaya ringspot virus gene found in Thailand in a GM technique study.
Experts also expressed concern over the second round of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations between Thailand and the US on Oct 11 as they said talks may include intellectual property protection and genetically modified organisms.
The US wants Thailand to ratify the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) as this would ease the regulations required for patent applications.
Under the PCT, American inventors could submit applications immediately in the United States without having to do so in other countries where they want to protect their patent rights.
A US agency will help Thai intellectual property officials examine patent applications, but experts said this would make Thailand rely entirely on the PCT system and thus lose the right to examine specific cases itself.