The age-old Indian home remedy of dadima ka nuskha (grandma’s advice) using kala jeera or kalaunji to treat many ailments might not be as freely available if a Nestle move comes off. The Swiss-based food and beverage giant is seeking patent protection in various parts of the world for using an extract from kala jeera (also known as fennel flower, Nigella sativa , black seed and black cumin) for treating or preventing food allergy, mainly in children.The company says it has discovered a new use for fennel flower seeds. However, the move has triggered a global campaign against Nestle. Health activists and those trying to protect traditional knowledge are saying it’s an attempt to monopolize traditional medicine.
When asked, Nestlé’s global office denied the company was trying to patent Nigella Sativa. “We have discovered that an extract from Nigella Sativa seeds might help to reduce the severity and symptoms of food allergy. This is achieved through a biological interaction that stimulates the body’s opioid receptors. In 2009, we applied for a patent to protect the use of molecules which act on opioid receptors for treating or preventing food allergy. We have not filed a patent on Nigella Sativa,” Nestle SA’s corporate spokesperson Philippe Aeschlimann “We fully support the principle of fair access and benefit-sharing as described in the Nagoya Protocol of 2010 and the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992. We have put in place a number of measures to ensure that we respect the principle of fair access to the raw materials. Additionally, all of our suppliers of raw materials must comply with all national laws and international agreements.”The company maintains the patent, if approved, would not prevent the use of kala jeera for any other purpose, including traditional uses and natural remedies.
However, those opposing the move do not agree. “In claiming use of Nigella Sativa against food allergies, Nestlé’s scientists have not innovated beyond what was already known in traditional medicine from Egypt to India and beyond. Moreover, prior to Nestlé’s claim, researchers in those countries used formal scientific methods to demonstrate the efficacy of traditional use of black seed to treat allergy symptoms,”
According to sources, Nestle published an international patent application in Europe and similar applications might exist in other nations but are yet to be published. Nestle did not respond to the specific query on countries where it had applied for patent protection. Chandrakant Bhanushali, general secretary, Ayurvedic Drug Manufacturers Association, says multinationals and big domestic companies are increasingly posing a threat to traditional knowledge as more products are developed based on the latter. “Companies are tweaking traditional and natural products with huge investments and labelling these as new products. This is emerging as a big threat for ayurvedic drug manufacturers because awareness is less on traditional medicines.”
India has strongly opposed patentability of traditional knowledge and products. In 2005, the European Patent Office rejected an appeal filed by the US Department of Agriculture and a multinational corporation, W R Grace, to revocation of a patent on a neem-based crop fungicide, earlier granted in 2000. Interestingly, it is not the first time that Nestlé has faced public wrath for filing patent application over Indian traditional knowledge/ remedies. In 2009, this Swiss giant filed for patenting a certain cow’s milk cure, where it was to be used as a laxative (outside India). However, in 2012, India fought its case successfully at the European Patent Office (EPO) over this issue leading to the rejection of its claimed patent. Assuming that Nestle files for a patent in India over its recent research on “Kala Jeera”, though law strictly bars any grant of patent protection over TK, it may be allowed one. This may happen if it either locates & exploits the existing loopholes in the administration (not the stringent provisions in patent law). However, it seems that the firm will apply for a patent outside India. Whether this will result in bio-piracy ending up with India chasing firm’s patent claim down (or not) will primarily depend, amongst other technical issues, on whether the formulation already exists in TKDL or not.
On a concluding note, it is pertinent to note that when an American firm (Rice Tec) patented Basmati Rice, an Indian national heritage, and started exporting it under the same name, we felt that the bedrock of our culture was being intruded upon. The sentiment runs much deeper and becomes more powerful when traditional, indigenous medicinal knowledge is claimed by foreign agents as their own. This is because we inherently believe that such curative knowledge forms the “core” of Indian culture. Even if Nestle is allowed the patent, it will have to face the fury of Indian public.