HONG KONG -- A proposed patent by agro-giant Monsanto on genetic blueprints of high-yield soybeans has caused alarm in China, where the crop has been grown for thousands of years.
The argument over the patent -- though the application was made in the United States -- reflects a growing awareness of intellectual property issues in China and their bearing on the country's fate as it opens its markets and moves into the World Trade Organization.
In China, as elsewhere in the developing world, fears have grown that multinational corporations and Western researchers might use so-called "patents on life" to seize control of potentially lucrative biological resources.
Such patents were established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and reaffirmed this week by the same tribunal in a suit brought by Monsanto.
"This could affect genetic research throughout the world. It's not good news for anyone," said Chang Ruzhen, chairman of the China Soybean Society and an expert on soybean varieties.
If history is any indication, Monsanto will wield significant commercial power if its U.S. patent application on high-yield, fast-growing soy DNA is granted.
Monsanto already receives royalities on about 60 percent of the U.S. soy market with its patents on genetically engineered plants resistant to herbicide, says biotechnology author Dan Charles. If it gets the high-yield soy patent, its grip on the market could improve.
What's more, Monsanto would probably seek to splice the high-yield gene into other crops as well, requiring additional royalties from seed companies wanting to use the technology.
"Farmers around the world are upset with patents," said anti-biotechnology advocate Jeremy Rifkin. He is suing Monsanto along with several U.S. and French farmers, accusing the company of antitrust violations by forcing farmers to purchase genetically engineered seeds every year -- prohibiting them from saving seeds for future crops without paying for them.
Soy was first cultivated in north China's Yellow River valley more than 4,000 years ago. It was not grown widely in the United States until the 1930s. Since then, soy has invaded diets worldwide, becoming a multi-billion dollar business.
If Chinese farmers were to unwittingly ignore a Monstanto patent, that "might make it impossible to export some Chinese soy products and could even result in international trade sanctions," the state-run newspaper Southern Weekend said in a recent front-page story.
Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Missouri, contends that the technology it developed to identify a genetic marker -- or group of chromosomes -- linked to high-yield in soybeans will enable researchers in China and elsewhere to improve commercial crops.