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Monday, 11 February, 2002, 17:25 GMT
Any royalties on your İhips?
ActionAid chip
ActionAid's "new" invention - the salted chip
Megan Lane
Will we have to pay for the right to have a takeaway? A charity is hoping to patent the chip and claim it as an exclusive product.

Next time you pop down to the local takeaway, spare a thought for the innovation that is the chip.

Why? The development charity ActionAid is trying to patent a new ready salted chip in the hopes that it may not only own the rights to its invention but over any chip which has salt added to it. The charity even claims that it could charge chip shops for a licence to salt chips or risk infringement of the patent.

Chip shop owner Harry Nazi
It's not the same with sugar
Sound ridiculous? That's the point - it's a stunt to show that patent rules currently allow companies to get exclusive rights over basic foods if they modify it in some way.

The move to patent chips is part of ActionAid's campaign against what it calls "bio-piracy" - multinationals taking out patents on crops that grow in poor countries.

Chips with a twist

Although salt has been added to chips for generations, ActionAid's chip is different in that it uses a new method to add the seasoning, the charity's spokeswoman says.

Nothing new
Patents need not be major advances, and typically cover an incremental improvement to existing products
"Anyone could have created this chip, taking a potato from the garden and salt from the kitchen cupboard. That's the shocking thing - that the patent laws let us claim it as novel without modifying things to any great extent."

Biotechnology businesses have taken out almost 1,000 patents on staples such as rice and wheat by modifying the genes of a plant or cross breeding one variety with another.

The industry regards patents as a way of protecting its investment in agricultural innovations, and a way to make public improvements made to crops such as those that are pest-resistant or thrive in saltwater.

With the World Trade Organisation's agreement which allows for the patenting of food currently under review, ActionAid wants the UK Government to reverse its support for the regulations. Many countries have refused to apply these so far.

In a paddy

Among the biotech companies to be granted patents on basic foods is the Texan company RiceTec, which has rights on hybrid versions of basmati rice.

Farmers protest in India
Farmers protested in India against US patents
The company had originally applied for a broad patent on basmati-style rice, but the Indian Government persuaded the US Patent Office to restrict it to RiceTec's varieties.

The patent does not prevent rice growers in other countries from selling their produce in the US, but the exported rice has to be different to the RiceTec brand.

And five biotechnology companies - Aventis, Dow, DuPont, Mitsui, Monsanto and Syngenta - between them own 69% of the patents granted on rice, wheat, maize, soya and sorghum. These staple crops account for almost three-quarters of the world's food supply.

Replant for free
1.4 billion people depend on saved seed
Companies are also buying up local seed markets in the developing world; they control 70% of the global pesticide market; 30% of the global seed market; and 98% of patented GM crops.

Under some of the licensing agreements, farmers using patented seeds are not allowed to save, exchange or replant them and must purchase new seeds every year or face prosecution.

GMO on the wind

In North America, dozens of farmers are being prosecuted for growing patented seeds. Among those facing legal action is a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser.

Rape field
Monsanto set up an "illegal planting" tip-off line
The biotechnology giant Monsanto successfully sued him for illegally growing its patented genetically-modified canola (rape seed) crop.

Mr Schmeiser is appealing against the decision, saying that he never planted it, never wanted it and suspects GM pollen blew on to his land.

But will the patent laws cost us our chips? No - the Department of Trade and Industry has reassured chip-lovers that there are no rules which would allow ActionAid to patent their invention.

Ready salted chips are not novel, and that is one of the key factors in gaining a patent.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
World food 'under threat'
26 Jun 00 | Business
Charity fights basmati 'biopiracy'
06 Jun 00 | Americas
GM firm sues Canadian farmer
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