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.