Marine fungi, jasmine rice! What's next?

by GRAIN | 20 Nov 1998
TITLE: Marine fungi, jasmine rice! What's next? (editorial) AUTHOR: The Editors PUBLICATION: The Nation (Bangkok) DATE: 3 September 1998 SOURCE: Nation Multimedia Group URL: tml

The Nation, Bangkok 3 September 1998


ALTHOUGH the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec) deserves acclaim for leading the successful move to win back 200 marine fungi strains (bioresources of Thailand that were smuggled to the United Kingdom in 1993), it is not time for a real celebration just yet.

The fungi example is just the tip of the iceberg in the outflow of genetic resources from this country through airports and border checkpoints. Earlier, we were alerted to a series of attempts by American rice traders to patent grains allegedly developed from Thailand's famous khao hom mali, or jasmine rice.

The Agriculture Ministry also revealed recently that international markets for famous fruits such as durian, mangosteen, longan and lychee may be affected as other countries -- Australia, for example -- grow the fruits. The agency has yet to mention herbal plants, wildlife parts and micro-organisms like the marine fungi which are highly sought-after by the pharmaceutical companies.

True, biodiversity resources, especially those used for food and healing purposes, should be regarded as the heritage of mankind. Human beings should have, more or less, equal access to resources provided by Mother Earth to sustain their lives.

However, human beings in the highly competitive world of trade do not operate on that principle. There are opportunists who have developed biotechnology and a powerful legal tool called patent to monopolise and make a fortune from the resources.

Free trade, however, should not mean the free use of the Third world's resources. Although industrialised nations claim that the system will encourage biotechnological innovation, it is still 'their' technology. Little benefit trickles down to Third world countries where the genetic resources in the forests and oceans are being protected at the expense of their taxpayers.

To make a complete list of the smuggled bioresources is just impossible because no one knows what has been taken out or by whom. We do not even know when such a biopiracy actually started. But cases are beginning to surface. Before the 200 marine fungi strains caught the public's attention, Biotec had just closed another case for the return of insect fungi specimens from Japan.

How these resources got out of the country remains a big question. One can blame loose government controls, bureaucratic red tape, lack of proper laws and regulations, and so on. National park rangers seldom check vehicles entering and leaving the forests, while customs officers at the airports and border checkpoints are incapable of identifying protected plant and animal species.

Another important channel is through education and research co-operation between Thai and international institutions. Thai organisations provide access to the country's biodiversity in exchange for financial grants, technology and equipment. Through this channel, the resources are believed to be taken out massively and 'lawfully'.

Take the case of rice. As a member of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960 by the US-based Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Thailand, through the Agriculture Ministry, has sent more than 5,400 accessions of Thai rice germplasm to IRRI's genebank. Since IRRI was created, rice, which was a stranger plant to North America, has become a major export product of the United States.

Dr Robert Havener, IRRI's director general, said IRRI provides free access to its developed grains to any organisations or even companies wishing to use the varieties for commercial purposes. But it prohibits them from seeking patent registration for the grains because it could prevent mankind reaping the benefit of wider food resources.

Unfortunately, things do not always go in a straight line. An American head of IRRI's research team retired and joined RiceTec Inc, a US-based rice trading company which bred and patented Basmati rice, one of Asia's best known rices and originally grown in India and Pakistan.

At the same time, the company also registered the trademark for Jasmati rice, prompting Thai farmers' fears that the grain could have been developed from Thailand's highly prized aromatic jasmine rice.

The Agriculture Department is in the process of testing the DNA fingerprint of the Jasmati rice to prove if a parent of the grain was Jasmine 85, bred by IRRI from Jasmine 105 and sent from Thailand. If that is the case, and the American company wins a patent for Jasmati, Thai farmers could lose the right to cultivate their jasmine rice. This is, of course, the worst-case scenario.

Thai authorities nearly always react too little and too late to such sophisticated issues. Their inefficiency in tackling the intensifying problems of biopiracy highlights the need for a fast and real decentralisation of biodiversity protection to the communities which are sustained by the resources. After all, winning back the marine fungi from the UK could mean little if we continue to allow other resources to slip away from us.

Copyright © 1997 Nation Multimedia Group

Author: GRAIN
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