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 monopolise traditional medicine.
When asked, Nestle’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 said in an email response to Business Standard. Adding: “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, Nestle’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,” says Third World Network in a briefing paper on the issue.
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.
While it is not clearly known whether the company has applied for the patent protection in India, experts say it is unlikely to secure an approval here.
“In India, there is an effort to protect traditional knowledge,” said Leena Menghaney, India Manager for Médecins Sans Frontieres Access Campaign.
MSF is an international organisation working to make generic medicines accessible.
Menghaney emphasised the need to raise an alarm against products coming from traditional sources and claiming a monopoly through 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’s position 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.
Public or private?
• Nestle is seeking patent protection across the world for using an extract from kala jeera (Nigella sativa, black seed or black cumin) for treating or preventing food allergy, mainly in children
• Health activists and those trying to protect traditional knowledge are opposing the move, calling it the company’s attempt to monopolise traditional medicine
• The company maintains the patent, if approved, would not prevent the use of kala jeera for any other purposes, including traditional uses and natural remedies