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'Roslin Institute's claim is false'

Print edition : Mar 27, 1999 T+T-

Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a non-governmental organisation that is concerned with a range of environmental issues. She has also carried out campaigns on issues relating to biopiracy and bioprospecting. It was Vandana Shiva who initiated the controversy over the Vechur cow by alleging that the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh had obtained a patent on the dwarf breed found in Kerala. Excerpts from e-mail responses she gave R. Krishnakumar:

The varying nature of the allegations you have made on different occasions with respect to the Vechur cow has created confusion and may only help the very people or institutions whose activities you are trying to expose. What exactly are your charges?

Just as there are cases of major biopiracy in plant genetic material there are indications and possibilities that similar biopiracy in animal genetic wealth from India could also be taking place. Since the Roslin Institute, which is linked to the leading firm in animal biotechnology, PPL Therapeutics, has major interests in unique genetic trades for genetic engineering in animals for the production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, bioprospecting for animal genetic material is a necessary part of its activities. The cloning and patenting of 'Dolly' was part of the collaboration between PPL and Roslin for genetic engineering of animals. The research association between the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) and the Roslin Institute as well as the fact that the KAU holds the germplasm of the unique Vechur cow suggest that the potential for bioprospecting links between Roslin and the KAU needs to be explored.

On what basis did you make the allegations?

The basis of my claim that an epidemic of biopiracy is taking place is 10 years of research of monitoring of biopiracy-based patents.

Professor Graham Bulfield, Director and Chief Executive of the Roslin Institute, has in a message to the KAU denied having any knowledge about the Vechur breed of cattle. He also said that the Roslin Institute "certainly has no germplasm nor have we patented them."

Prof. Graham Bulfield's claim that he does not know about the existence of the Vechur cow is no proof of the Roslin Institute not having used genetic material from that breed. His claim that the Institute has no germplasm is false since a genetic engineering laboratory cannot work without germplasm. It is its basic raw material.

The KAU has also produced a letter from Suman Govil, Principal Scientific Officer of the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India, that she has conducted a patent search in British and United States patent databases using the department's Internet patent search system for all patents listed in the database from January 1, 1976 and found no patent claimed to have been taken by the Roslin Institute.

Suman Govil's letter that the Institute has no patents is false since we have a list of 14 patents held or applied for by the Roslin Institute in Europe. One of these patent claims clearly refers to Bos indicus, an Indian breed.

What characteristics of the Vechur breed do you think would be so important and unavailable in other cattle/animals that Roslin or any other research institution would be interested in them for transgenic research?

The Vechur breed is the most important cattle breed for the conversion of feed to protein, which obviously makes it very significant for an industry trying to do mass production of chemicals through "animal factories" for which corporations such as PPL hold patents for "mammalian bioreactors", that is, the use of mammary glands of animals, including humans, to produce specialised chemicals.

Some KAU scientists are of the opinion that you cleverly put on the KAU the onus to prove what they describe as your "false allegations". There is also a feeling that you may have been tricked into making such a claim by persons in the KAU itself because of professional rivalry.

I have no connection with any scientist in the KAU. I do not make myself available for petty personal politics meant to further personal agendas. My concern about biopiracy is not related to the KAU's internal politics; it is much larger than the issue of the KAU and the Vechur breed.