Big firms dig in to Asian rice bowl (12/3/2004)

This article provides an excellent roundup on this important issue - highly recommended reading

Big firms dig in to Asian rice bowl
By Ranjit Devraj (Inter Press Service)
Asia Times,  13 March 2004

DELHI - Control over rice, Asia's staple food, is  steadily passing into the hands of transnational  corporations that are based far away in Europe and the United States and that use unfair patents and genetic  modification of food - security experts have warned.

As the world marks the International Year of  Rice, agribusiness giants led by Du Pont in the United  States are working overtime to select rice genes they  reckon would be commercially useful from among the estimated complement of 50,000 genes.

The  scramble for monopoly control over rice genes began two years ago after the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta and Myriad Genetics Inc in the United States announced  the sequencing of 99.5 percent of rice DNA  (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Internationally known  food-security expert Devinder Sharma says that since then some 900 genes, representing a variety of traits   such as resistance to droughts, pests, pesticides and  salinity and higher yield and nutritional  characteristics, have already been patented by various multinationals. Du Pont, he says, tops this list.

"In the next three years, as a result of the mapping of the rice genome by Syngenta, a majority of  the rice patents [will] be in the lap of a handful of  multinational agribusiness corporations," Sharma  predicted.  

He says what has made the "daylight  robbery of genetic wealth" possible is the "connivance  of top scientists, international organizations and policymakers". They ignore the rights of Asia's farmers  who toiled for generations to produce 140,000 rice  varieties, critics add.

"The Rockefeller  Foundation, the Convention on Biodiversity, the World Intellectual Property Organization and even the Food and Agricultural Organization and the United Nations  Development Fund failed to stand up against these  private companies," Sharma said.

But the worst   betrayal, as Sharma sees it, is by the Consultative  Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),  which controls the world's biggest rice germplasm  collection. "The CGIAR not only welcomed the patenting but has even accepted Syngenta on its board, ensuring free access to the world's biggest rice germplasm collections," he said.

Syngenta is better known  for the patents it took out in 2000 on genetically modified "golden rice". This had been touted as having enough extra vitamin A to prevent blindness caused by  dietary deficiency in developing countries - but was roundly denounced as a hoax by leading food-security activists such as Vandana Shiva.

Shiva's charges  were endorsed by an embarrassed Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the development of genetically modified rice but was forced to admit that the so-called golden rice was no solution to mass vitamin A deficiency as claimed by Syngenta.

The negative publicity over  golden rice proved costly for Syngenta. By 2002 it was  forced to pull out of a hugely controversial commercial-collaboration deal it managed to enter into with the famed rice repository at the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (IGAU) at Raipur in central India in 2002. Syngenta had come within a whisker of  gaining commercial rights to some 19,000 strains of  local rice put together by IGAU scientists.

India's premier rice variety, basmati, has not been so lucky. In 2001, the Indian government  lost a battle at the US Patents Office to prevent the Texas-based company RiceTec from selling pirated hybrids of  the country's prized aromatic grain, often referred  to as the champagne of rices. According to Suman Sahai,  convenor of the voluntary agency Gene Campaign, there is concrete evidence that RiceTec used genetic material from a CGIAR gene bank, where India had deposited the  material in trust, to produce its copycat hybrid version.

"The source of RiceTec's basmati is undoubtedly the gene bank at Fort Collins in the US, which acquired samples from the CGIAR gene bank at the International Rice Research Institute [IRRI] at Los Banos in the Philippines," Sahai said. IRRI has also been accused of passing on the germplasm of  Thailand's equally famed jasmine rice to US researchers.

Despite protests from Indian and Thai farmers,  RiceTec  was allowed to

market its Kasmati and Texmati hybrids and market them as "superior to


RiceTec ignored protests from Indian and Thai farmers over the marketing of its "Jasmati" brand, which it  describes in advertisements as "The American Jasmine Rice".

Three-quarters of the rice now grown in the United States is based on germplasm provided by the IRRI, experts say.

Similarly, the Swiss food giant Nestle has been granted European process patents for parboiled rice that has been made and eaten for centuries in India. Nestle's process copies the  traditional method of parboiling rice by steaming and drying the grains before milling to improve taste and texture and facilitate storage.

After the "Green Revolution" technologies of the 1970s ensured the disappearance of thousands of valuable varieties from Asian rice paddies, an even more sinister threat to Asian rice genes is being posed by possible genetic contamination from genetically modified (GM) rice.

Gene Campaign and the Friends of the Earth in Europe are now jointly opposing a proposal by the Germany-based transnational Bayer Crop Science AG to import herbicide-tolerant GM rice especially grown in developing countries to be used as cattle feed in Europe.

"Bayer doesn't intend to grow this GM rice in Europe and threaten rice already being cultivated in member states like Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France," Gene Campaign's Sahai said.

Alarmed that India and other Asian rice-growing countries could be induced by Bayer to produce GM crops  for the EU market, Gene Campaign is seeking a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in centers of origin and diversity because of the threat of genetic contamination  through cross-pollination.

Research in China has demonstrated that transgene escape from cultivated rice to wild rice does occur. Studies in Latin America have shown that herbicide-tolerant gene transfer can easily take place.

"What is not realized is that if the genetic integrity of Indian rice is not maintained, it could end up threatening global food security itself,"   said Sahai. All rice is classified into two broad varieties - Japonica, which originated in Japan, and Indica, which originated in India.

Sahai said it was intriguing why Bayer has insisted on importing GM rice when it is still cheaper in Asia to produce ordinary varieties that do not attract royalties. "Surely the cows are not particular that they get the GM variety," she added.


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