Taking a slice of the GM rice pie
GRAIN, 4 November 2010
Early this year, Bayer announced that it is pulling out its application for commercial approval of its genetically modified Liberty Link rice (LL62) in Brazil. Its action sent a signal that with the numerous law suits it had to settle or pay in damages in the US for contaminating rice farms with its LL601 rice variety GM rice, the herbicide resistant one in any case, might just be too controversial to be commercialised. At least for now. Bayer's LL62 has been genetically-engineered to resist high doses of glufosinate particularly Bayer's Liberty/Basta sprayed on rice fields to kill a wide range of weeds. The idea is that LL62 rice will survive but the weeds will not, so the use of this rice will increase use of the said herbicide thereby increasing sales of Bayer’s glufosinate.
Brazil is no small market for Bayer's LL62, and neither is Asia, its other target. It's pull-out in Brazil, and the seeming willingness to settle lawsuits in the US, can be seen as a PR move by Bayer to paint a responsible image before the public. Just this month, it settled with three Texas farmers for US$ 290,000. In fact it vowed to put "hundreds of millions of euros aside to settle US legal action focused mainly on genetically modified rice."
Pure goodwill? The fact is that Bayer already lost the first six trials in US federal court, which cost the company US$ 54 million. With about 6,000 other claims that the company has to face, settling out of court might just be a less expensive route. And it's probably good PR too. That's why the company's reasoning when it pulled out of Brazil that its decision comes from the necessity to broaden dialogue with key members of rice production in Brazil seems to have come straight out of a public relations firm. But it doesn't sound like Bayer is really pulling out, rather that it's simply taking its sweet time for now, to rebound later. In fact, while it pulled out of Brazil, it has kept challenging the injunction on its application for commercial approval of the same LL62 rice in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious of this or the Bt rice contamination scandal in China, the Philippines and Bangladesh are gearing up to commercialise golden rice in farmers' fields. The Philippines plans to start field testing Vit A rice in December this year, racing to be the first Asian country to commercialise GM rice in the world. The government agency, Philrice, has been developing with IRRI its own variant of "golden rice" engineered to produce beta-carotene, and wanted it field tested soon. Philrice expects that the Bureau of Plant Industry, which oversees field trials, will give the green light for the series of location tests. The agency aims to commercialise the said rice by 2012.
Over in Bangladesh, the Director General of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), Mohammad Abdul Mannan, early last month has also expressed the intention to introduce genetically engineered rice in the country. Bangladesh, whose population has high incidence of Vit A deficiency, is among the countries targeted for golden rice. Yet some civil society groups doubt whether BRRI has done any study on the safety of GM rice, or whether they have the capacity to carry out research on health and environmental safety aspects of GM crops.
A more recent development that would put all this in perspective is the approval of India's Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to allow a confined field trial of DuPont's transgenic rice hybrids in Hyderabad. The trial is meant to asses 12 transformation events that would potentially allow DuPont to create its own hybrid parental lines in a shorter period of time, and possibly without having to depend on the Chinese breeding lines in the future. In fact the opportunity that the field test presents is that DuPont might eventually surpass the Chinese hybrids by incorporating high yield with traits like insect resistance and herbicide resistance. At least this is where DuPont India President and CEO, Balvinder Singh Kalsi, sees this going.
"There is a huge opportunity. You have almost 43 million acres under rice cultivation [in India] and very little of it is hybrid ”” less than 2 per cent. In China, almost 50 per cent is hybrid. At some stage, in the next five to ten years, if India were to get to 50 per cent level of hybridisation, you are talking about a seed market of $500-600 million. This does not include any tricks. If we were to come out with insect- or weed-resistant rice, then those values are separate."
DuPont's move is a very smart one. The Union Government of India has recently unveiled its big plan to launch a second Green Revolution in the eastern states, with heavy emphasis on Chinese-style, massive scale, hybrid rice production. "Our first level of focus is to work on the yields. So, we are working on high-yielding hybrids and on reducing our development cycle. If you go through a traditional breeding process, it will take you four or five years to come out with a hybrid. But with some of the new technologies that we have brought in, we can cut that cycle to about half. And then simultaneously we are working on traits. One of the traits we would be working on is insect control," according to Singh Kalsi. "This is one of the mega trends DuPont is working on."
We've always believed that this is where corporate rice breeding is heading: a combination of hybrid and GM rice put into motion by private seed companies that will ensure them profits, without having to depend on terminator technologies or IPR regimes. If the seed industry gets its way, transgenic hybrid rice could be the norm 3-4 years from now. To ensure its place within this future scenario, IRRI set-up the hybrid rice consortium in 2007 as a platform for germplasm exchange among itself and an elite club of private seed companies like DuPont, Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta.
Government agencies like Philrice in the Philippines and BRRI in Bangladesh, who have token membership in the consortium, are therefore racing to get their varieties tested and commercialised. Obviously they do not want to get bypassed by these developments, they want to be important players as well so they can keep their legitimacy in the fast becoming corporate domain that is rice research. Thus under the pretext of solving Vit A deficiency, these government agencies pretend to be itching to get golden rice on the ground. In reality, it has nothing to do with that objective but just a move to secure their place in the GM race for this important staple crop. It's a big pie they too want a good slice of.