Gobar Times
Open Forum

Who controls the rice genie?

    Who controls the rice genie?   

In January 2001, the entire genome of rice was mapped, the first major cereal crop to have its genetic code unraveled. This feat was accomplished by Myriad Genetics of the US and Syngenta of Switzerland. These two companies now hold the key to the future of rice harvests in Asia.

    The Patent and the Poor    

So the rice genome doesn't go to Asia. Big deal. The developed world is patenting most of the developing world's biodiversity anyway. So what's so different this time around? Well, the difference is that 80 per cent of the world's rice is grown by small-scale farmers in low-income and developing countries. And they can't afford to pay for new expensive technology.

Syngenta had declared that it wouldn’t be patenting the rice gene, but would patent "any useful processes that may be related to the gene". But it's not as simple as it sounds.

    Controlling the Rice Gene    

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) gives multinationals the right to claim absolute ownership over rice through patents. Today, there are more than 600 biotech patents on rice genes, plants and breeding methods all over the world.

Western corporations and research labs hold 90 per cent of these patents. So in effect, they can control and force Asian farmers to pay for the use of genetic resources and knowledge which originated from them. The famous Basmati case is one such example (See box Basmati Blues). Another example is the promise of "Golden rice". This rice is genetically engineered to produce high levels of beta-carotene, which helps reduce Vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of blindness among poor Asian children.

Chinese scientists bred the world’s first hybrid rice in 1974



But even the patent for that is with the West.

    Power to the Farmers   

Most genebanks are held by corporations which the common farmer has no access to. Community genebanks, on the other hand, secure people's control over genetic resources.

Seeds can be produced locally, protecting the farmers' autonomy. One such bank is the Konkan rice project in Maharashtra. It started when farmers noticed stagnation in rice yields, despite putting more fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

They found that rice cultivation based on minimal genetic diversity led pest proliferation, which in turn called for more pesticides.

So some 250 seeds of indigenous varieties in the region were collected, catalogued and stored. The project, which evolved under the guidance of Dr RH Richharia, breeds hybrids to improve productivity.

There are more than 600 biotech patents on rice genes, plants and breeding methods

Several successful crosses have been performed. Cloning technology is practiced for large-scale multiplication of rice seeds. And all this is easily accessible to local farmers.

It is in community genebanks that the Asian farmers have the best chances for controlling future rice yields. That’s the best chance that they can take on the multinationals and protect their own interests.

At WSF 2003, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser gave a moving testimonial on patents. But who is he? In 1998, Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto for patent rights violations, allegedly for using Monsanto's genetically modified rapeseed without legally purchasing it.

Schmeiser claims the rapeseed came to his farm as a result of "contamination" — wind blown seeds from other farms taking root on his soil.

Monsanto says how the seeds got there doesn't matter, it's their property and they asked for $400,000 in damages for patent infringement!

    Basmati Blues   

In 1997, RiceTec, an American multinational, was granted the right to call a variety of aromatic rice 'Basmati'. Since Basmati has been grown for centuries in the foothills of the Himalayas, this flagrant act of biopiracy was met surprise and angry protests in India and Pakistan.

But at stake is the multi-crore rupee export market to West. India alone exported 8.48 lakh tonnes of basmati rice in 2000-01. (RiceTec filed for the patent in 1994, but the government of India did not take any action for the 3 years that the patent was pending) RiceTec also chose to name a brand 'Jasmati', even though it has no genetic relation to Thai Jasmine rice or Indian Basmati.

Thailand claims that the usage of the term will purposely mislead consumers into believing that its rice is a cross between the two varieties. More than five million farmers in Thailand depend on Jasmine rice for a living. Their livelihood is in danger if RiceTec eats into the Jasmine rice market.

Community genebanks could protect the farmers’ autonomy


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Who controls the rice genie?