Fighting Biopiracy

OTTAWA– In April 1999 Larry Proctor, a United States citizen and owner of a seed company, won a patent at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), claiming a Mexican yellow bean. The patent conferred Proctor exclusive rights over a bean variety he called “Enola.” That decision is one of the most outrageous examples of biopiracy in the history of intellectual property systems.

The bean for which Proctor was granted a patent is a farmers’ variety, originally from Mexico and in the public domain for centuries. The bean is consumed throughout Mexico and by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the US who know it by the names Mayocoba, Canario, or Peruano.

Although the bean variety existed in publicly available seed collections, it took ten years, hundreds of thousands of dollars, massive protest by farmers and civil society, the intervention of international agencies, and five consecutive legal decisions before the USPTO finally annulled the patent in July 2009. By then, Proctor had exercised a complete monopoly over the production, distribution, and marketing of the bean for more than half of the patent’s lifespan.

The story began in 1994, when Proctor purchased a bag of beans in Mexico. He planted the beans, selected seeds from the same plants, and planted them again, repeating the procedure two more times. In late 1996, after barely two years, he stated that he had invented a “unique” variety, and applied for a patent.