Colgate Accused of Biopiracy of Traditional Indian Toothpaste Recipe

colgate toothpaste photo

photo: Tudor/Creative Commons

It's the battle of the toothpaste titans: In the red corner we have Colgate Palmolive, the the world's largest producer of toothpaste, who have taken out a patent for an Indian herbal toothpaste. In the blue corner we have the Ayurvedic medicine manufacturers who are disputing the patent, calling it an act of biopiracy. Who will strike the knock out blow?

ayurvedic photo


The president of the Association of Manufacturers of Ayurvedic Medicine says that the patent is bogus because the ingredients date back to antiquity and have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years--clove oil, camphor, black pepper and spearmint.

Colgate Palmolive claims that their groundbreaking "red herbal dentifrice" uses red iron oxide, which is different than the ingredients in the traditional toothpaste.

It's a battle of big business: The toothpaste sales to a huge country like India could be worth billions of dollars. But to the Indians it is a battle for their culture. Who owns India's folk medicines and how can you patent something that has been around for thousands of years?

More info: Daily Mail
India Has Declared Traditional Medicinal Recipes Un-Patentable
As a developing country, India has long been concerned about intellectual property rights and the ownership of knowledge. A few years ago, Indians were shocked when an American company tried to patent turmeric--a spice and healing powder that is widely available in markets across the country.

The country also fought a 10-year battle to overturn a patent for an anti-fungal product, derived from neem that was awarded to a multinational company. The government successfully argued that the medicinal neem tree is part of traditional Indian knowledge.

In an attempt to head off further acts of biopiracy and patenting of traditional knowledge and remedies, in 2009 India legally declared all traditional medicinal recipes "public property".

So, should it be determined that Colgate's recipe has indeed existed as a traditional medicine in India, or that red iron oxide is not different enough from traditional recipes, Colgate may well have a fight ahead.

neem twigs

Neem twigs for sale, photo: Meena Kadri/Creative Commons
Nations Band Together Against Biopiracy
India is not the only country worried about their folk heritage and its worth. Seventeen countries have come together to form the Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries. The group which includes Bolivia, Brazil, Indonesia and Kenya, has been created to "act as a mechanism of cooperation to promote their interests regarding biological diversity and in particular the protection of traditional knowledge, access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use."

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