Property Rights on Maguey, Nopal Subject of Latest Trade Controversy between Mexico and China

SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, December 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Property Rights on Maguey, Nopal Subject of Latest Trade Controversy between Mexico and China


Mexico's efforts to protect its culture and heritage took an interesting turn when a major agricultural group accused Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs of attempting to steal intellectual-property rights for maguey and nopal cacti. The concern is based on reports that entrepreneurs from the two Asian countries were trying to obtain patents from the European Union (EU) on various products manufactured from maguey and nopal, but it is not clear whether the requests involved intellectual-property rights on varieties of those plants. While a trade conflict between Mexico and China is opening on one front, the two countries resolved another dispute after the Asian nation agreed in late November to eliminate tax subsidies said to be giving Chinese exports to Mexico and the US an unfair advantage. China agreed to drop the subsidies in negotiations with Mexico and the US, rather than face a prolonged investigation through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Agriculture group raises red flag about patent requests

The Confederacion Nacional Campesina (CNC) sounded the alarm about the nopal and maguey after learning that Chinese and Japanese businesses had filed a request with the EU in Brussels to obtain patents on 49 products developed using the two plants, including pharmaceuticals, textiles, food items, and cosmetics. The CNC's concern was directed particularly at China, known to mass-produce counterfeit handicrafts, furniture, and other traditional items. Many of these products are smuggled into Mexico and sold as traditional "Mexican" items (see SourceMex, 2003-09-17).

Nopal and maguey growers are concerned that China is planning to use the same tactics to ship products to the US market via Mexico.

"Chinese businesses are cultivating 5,000 hectares of cactus in greenhouses and plan to send processed products to Mexico for eventual shipment to the US market," said Ciro Rios Lara, director of the Union Nacional de Productores de Maguey y el Nopal, which is affiliated with the CNC. "This type of triangulation is going to hurt our producers."

The CNC concerns prompted the Chamber of Deputies to intervene, passing a unanimous resolution urging President Felipe Calderon's administration to take action to protect Mexico's propriety rights to the native cacti. "All that we ask is that the government use all the legal tools at its disposal to protect our rights relative to other countries like China and Japan, which want to economically exploit these plants of Mexican origin," said the resolution's sponsor, Deputy Cesar Duarte of the opposition Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

Mexican Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas acknowledged the concerns in Mexico but said he has not received any direct communications from the EU regarding the Chinese and Japanese patent requests in relation to maguey and nopal.

Rios Lara asked the government to invoke international-protection laws, including those dealing with rules of origin, to prevent maguey and nopal from foreign exploitation. Otherwise, he said, these plants could suffer the same fate as beans and poinsettias. These plants originated in Mexico but other countries are profiting from their production. Another plant that originated in Mexico but is produced in greater quantities overseas is vanilla (see SourceMex, 2006-02-01).

Mexico's patent office (Instituto Mexicano de Propiedad Industrial, IMPI) said, however, that Mexican and international protocols do not allow patents on any plants or vegetables, including their biological or genetic material. "The only possibility of obtaining a patent in this situation is if the plant has been modified genetically, which give it traits that are different from the original specimen," said IMPI.

Hector Gonzalez, a specialist on patents and intellectual property, said the Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs would also have difficulty obtaining patents on maguey and nopal plants in the EU or any other jurisdiction. …

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