Peru accuses Chinese companies of biopiracy involving maca root
Several Peruvian institutions have reported a case of biopiracy in China involving maca root – an herbaceous, perennial, cultivated crop that is native to the Andes in Peru – after knowing about the attempts by seven Chinese companies of patenting methods for propagation and genetic improvement of the crop.
Industrial applications of maca plants in nutrition, pharmacy and medicine are well known and documented. Several studies have shown that maca has medicinal values that include increasing libido, stamina, fertility, and alleviating insomnia. The Peruvians’ use of maca for medicinal purposes is an example of traditional knowledge, since it has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties.
According to the National Anti-Biopiracy Commission, which monitors patent applications on 69 Peruvian phytogenetic resources worldwide, the Chinese applications were filed between 2012-2013. Currently five out of the seven reported Chinese companies have responded to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two of them admitted having Peruvian maca, while the other three stated that their maca comes from the Chinese province of Yunnan.
Manuel Sigüeñas, specialist in phytogenetic resources of the National Institute of Agricultural Innovation, indicates that the most important fact about this case is not the patenting attempts, but the illegal origin of the maca that the Chinese companies have used for their studies. He also points out that members of the Andean Community of Nations as well as some European countries have already established the disclosure of origin of genetic material in order to grant patents.
Andrés Valladolid, head of the National Anti-Biopiracy Commission, agrees that they are not against the patents, howeverhe adds that this case demonstrates that maca plants that have been illegally obtained from Peru, are being sowed in China, because neither an agreement on access nor a material transfer agreement has been signed.These are the two legal instruments mentioned in the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international regulations aimed at avoiding biopiracy and guarantee those countries which are genetic resource providers a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their utilization.
Valladolid adds that maca is a Peruvian endemic crop, and there cannot exist “Chinese native maca” – as the accused Chinese companies state – since the conditions for its growing and propagation do not occur in that country.
Maca is one of the Peruvian phytogenetic resources with more attempts of patenting. The National Anti-Biopiracy Commission has stopped 12 attempts to patent it, mainly in Japan, United States and France, although this is the first time that the patenting is attempted based on illegal crops.