Nigella sativa — more commonly known as fennel flower — has been used as a cure-all remedy for over a thousand years. It treats everything from vomiting to fevers to skin diseases, and has been widely available in impoverished communities across the Middle East and Asia.
Swiss food company Nestle is seeking a patent on the use of the seed (botanical name) Nigella sativa to prevent food allergies, claiming the plant seed and extract when they are used as a food ingredient or drug.
After the patent fight over turmeric and basmati, it is black cumin, known as kala jeera or kalaunji, and widely used in traditional Ayurvedic medicines, that is now the subject of a patent application that may concern India.
Commonly known as habbat al-barakah in Arabic, and frequently called “black seed&”, “black cumin&” or “fennel flower&” in English, Nigella sativa is an ancient food and medicinal crop. It is part of the five grains that are collectively called panch phoren and used widely in Bengal cuisine as well as in many Ayurvedic medicines.
The patent application of the Swiss company on the use of the seeds, traditional uses of Nigella sativa is pending in the European patent Office in US, Japan and China since 2009, according to Nestle SA a subsidiary of the company.
In a paper published in 2012, Nestlé scientists claimed to “discover” what much of the world has known for millennia: that Nigella sativa extract could be used for “nutritional interventions in humans with food allergy”.
The company’s patent claim is based on a study conducted and published by it in PLOS July 2012, called “Nigella Sativa seed extract alleviates symptoms of allergic diarrhea in mice involving opioid receptors”. The authors are from the Nestle Research center in Lausanne Switzerland. It says that the objective of the study on mice was to tackle “food related allergic reactions” which “represent a significant burden for patients and their families and cause considerable health care costs.”
The study finds the black caraway seed extracts effective but does not acknowledge traditional knowledge about them.
The corporate spokesperson for Nestle SA Philippe Aeschlimann wrote to Business Standard that the patent application was filed in 2009 at the European Patent Office, in the US, Japan and China. ”It claims the use of an opioid receptor stimulating compound for the preparation of a composition to treat or prevent food allergy,” he said.
“The compound can be a thymoquinone containing extract, such as an extract from Nigella sativa (black cumin), or from other plants such as Eupatorium ayapana (now Ayapana triplinervis, or water hemp, an American plant from the daisy family), Satureja montana (winter savory, a European plant from the mints family), or the Thymus genus (plants from the mints family, found in Europe, North Africa and Asia).”
Instead of creating an artificial substitute, or fighting to make sure the remedy was widely available, Nestlé is attempting to create a nigella sativa monopoly and gain the ability to sue anyone using it without Nestlé’s permission. Nestlé has filed patent applications — which are currently pending — around the world.
Prior to Nestlé’s outlandish patent claim, researchers in developing nations such as Egypt and Pakistan had already published studies on the same curative powers Nestlé is claiming as its own. And Nestlé has done this before — in 2011, it tried to claim credit for using cow’s milk as a laxative, despite the fact that such knowledge had been in Indian medical texts for a thousand years.
We know Nestlé doesn’t care about ethics. After all, this is the corporation that poisoned its milk with melamine, purchases cocoa from plantations that use child slave labor, and launched a breast milk substitute campaign in the 1970s that contributed to the suffering and deaths of thousands of babies from poor communities.
But we also know that Nestlé is sensitive to public outcry, and that it’s been beaten at the patent game before. If we act fast, we can put enough pressure on Nestlé to get it to drop its patent plans before they harm anyone — but if we want any chance at affecting Nestlé’s decision, we have to speak out now!
The research on Nigella Sativa was not inspired by any kind of traditional knowledge but focused on the compound which is found in this plant and other plants.
When asked if it did not go against the prevailing knowledge of such used traditionally in India and elsewhere, Nestle said:
“Nestle recognizes the importance of biodiversity, and respects the sovereign rights of nations over their natural resources, including genetic (biological) resources. We fully support the principle of fair access and benefit-sharing as described in the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992 and the more recent Nagoya Protocol of 2010.”