GENETECH PREYS ON THE PADDY FIELD
Known in Ancient India as the "sustainer of the human race," rice is perhaps the best showcase for the wonders of farmer innovation. Domesticated in South Asia about 12,000 years ago (Oryza sativa), and then again in West Africa (Oryza glabberima), it is now the staple for about 2.4 billion people in the world. Adapting it to grow in a huge variety of different environments from Himalayan hilltops to tropical lagoons, farmers have nurtured a vast array of varieties of the worlds number one staple to meet their families needs.
Today, rice is synonymous with food security in most parts of Asia, which produces more than 91% of the global harvest. Rice accounts for up to half of Asias farm incomes and makes up nearly 80% of peoples daily calories. Rice is also a staple in West Africa, the Caribbean and tropical regions of Latin America, where it is often the most important source of protein for the poorest 20% of the population.1 In contrast, in industrialised countries outside Japan, annual per capita intakes do not exceed the meagre 10 kg eaten by US dwellers, although rice is found in a number of processed foods and feeds.
Not surprisingly, industrialised countries only account for 4% of world rice production, led by Japan and followed by the USA and Europe. In contrast, China and India respectively produced 35% and 21% of global production in 1997. Domestic markets are the prime destination of the rice harvest: only 4% is exported. Thailand is the top exporter, producing 30% of internationally-traded rice, followed by the US and India.
Rice and Diversity
During the last 12,000 years, farmers have adapted rice to grow in a wide variety of environments: irrigated lands, rainfed lowlands, tidal and deepwater ecosystems, and mountain areas. The result of the continuous interaction between farmers needs and the environment has been the huge heritage of rice genetic diversity, which has been estimated in more than 140,000 varieties of O. sativa, including land races and improved varieties.2 Some varieties grow well during droughts, others can withstand certain pests. Some produce long slender grains, others short, round ones. Aromatic, sticky, slow cooking, medicinal the wealth of rices communities round the world have developed is quite staggering.
No less impressive are the technologies that have accompanied rice. These have resulted in the total transformation of the landscape, both physically (as witnessed by the complex and beautiful rice terraces that abound in parts of Asia) and ecologically. In tropical countries rice ecosystems are extremely diverse in species. For example, Filipino and Indonesian ricefields have been found to contain more than 600 and 760 invertebrate taxa respectively.3 In many rice lands flooded by estuarine waters, fish and shrimps that arrive with the tide are often cultured alongside. All this species diversity has not only contributed to increase farmers food security and to recycle the nutrients in the system: it has also limited the development of rice pests.
Enter the first Green Revolution
Much of this diversity, and the local knowledge ingrained in it, has disappeared over the past thirty years. The main cause of this erosion has been the displacement of traditional varieties with a handful of the Green Revolutions so-called "High-Yielding Varieties (HYVs)." Under the guise of feeding the world, the Green Revolution dragged Asias peasantry into the grips of the world trade system. Suddenly, packages of uniform technologies fertiliser, high-yielding seeds, pesticides, mechanisation, irrigation, credit and marketing schemes displaced the ecological wealth, skills and the self-esteem of many local farmers. The main agent of change was (and still is) the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which was charged with developing the new high-yielding, high external input varieties.
It is true that the worlds rice output has dramatically increased since the Green Revolution began. But the increase was mainly realised in Asias rich, irrigated paddies, which account for less than half of Asia, Latin America and Africas ricelands today. And yielld gains have been overshadowed by significant environmental, health and economic costs for both farmers and consumers. Rice farmers in upland and rainfed environments, who are among the poorest in the three regions, have been further marginalised. Pesticide and fertiliser use has soared. Throughout Asia, soil fertility and yields are declining, and people are being forced into the uplands to eke out a living on these fragile ecosystems.
Many of the problems that accompanied the Green Revolution stem directly from the loss of biodiversity and farmer control over prod-uctive resources. The rise of the brown planthopper, for example, which devastated the rice crop in many Asian countries in the 1970s, corresponds almost exactly with the spread of just a few HYVs from IRRI in most countries of Asia. Viet Nam and Thailand, recent converts to HYVs, are now reliving this nightmare. According to a spokesman from the Ministry of Agriculture in Hanoi, "The Green Revolution in Vietnam has led to monocultures of preferred and constantly used varieties, which in turn has led to pests and diseases. In addition, the increased use of chemicals has unbalanced the natural ecology and has led to an infertile soil." 4
The scale of eradication of rice varieties is staggering. In Thailand and Burma, almost 40% of the total rice area is planted to only five varieties. In Indonesia during the first crop of the1992-93 season, four of the five popular varieties had IRRI material in their ancestry and two of them occupied 66% of the area planted to those five varieties.5 In Pakistan, the top five varieties occupy 80% of the total area. In Cambodia, the lone IR66 from IRRI accounts for 84% of the countrys dry season crop.6 In the meanwhile, habitat deterioration from fast economic development has resulted in an unprecedented erosion of the 22 species of wild rice in Asia. As with any crop, wild rice species are the genetic reserves that allow breed ers to develop new varieties. This cancer of uniformity is inherent to the Green Revolution type of agricultural "development".
Nevertheless, institutional breeders have built up vast stocks of rice genetic resources as their working material was being lost from the field. The most important of these ex situ collections is IRRIs, with more than 80,000 accessions.
Source: State of the Worlds Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, FAO 1996 and FAO WIEWS on PGRFA, 1996.
Priming the pump for genetic engineering
Thirty years after the start of rices Green Revolution, even some of its most enthusiastic supporters and admirers acknowledge the agronomic, social and environmental problems it has caused. As a response, Green Revolutionaries like IRRI, have started to incorporate concepts such as "community participation" and "sustainability" in their jargon. Despite this, the reductionist view that extracting more yield from the rice plant is the way to feed a growing population remains the mantra in international and national rice research. Consequently, the real meaning of the terms is lost. Instead of referring to environmental integrity and replenishment, social equity, and economic viability, "sustainability" means more effective chemical use on the farm. Instead of structural and functional complexity, resulting in ecosystems maximising the flow of energy and matter, "diversity" means the use of HYVs with different parental lines and cleverly splicing novel genes into rice.
Genetic engineering and modern biotechnologies have entered public rice research in the South largely through the International Program on Rice Biotechnology (IPRB). 7 This programme extends the guiding principles of the Green Revolution to biotechnology, which is not surprising since the IPRB (like IRRI) is an other Rockefeller Foundation creation. Fourteen years after the IPRB was set up, it is impressive how the reductionism behind genetic engineering has penetrated public rice research. In the words of Ralph Riley, Chairman of the IPRB Scientific Advisory Committee, "We now live in the age of genetic engineering" and "we should all recognise that a paradigm shift is occurring, when no longer do we go from the phenotype to the gene but can now go from the [gene] sequence to the phenotype".8 Forget environmental factors that shape any genes expression (pest resistance wont express itself in the absence of a pest) and forget about the many interactions between genes!
This reductionism impregnates all the activities supported by the IPRB. Its main research effort is the mapping and marking of the rice genome, with the aim of identifying and isolating desirable genes to be slotted in to new varieties. Another line of work is genetically engineering resistance to diseases and pests, such as tungro virus resistance. Highly illustrative of the tunnel vision of the biotech revolution in rice is the introduction of provitamin A into the plant through genetic engineering. This work has been widely touted as a solution to a real plague in developing countries, where the lack of vitamin A is cause of blindness and immune-system incompetence in neonates. The biotech solution is obviously simpler to implement than the real one; that is, ensuring the uptake of vitamin A from a diversified diet, obtained through diversified agriculture. What is presented as a socially-guided piece of research is, in fact, only making monotonous rice-based diets more tolerable and the poverty of those condemned to follow it less punching. It is a tool to maintain the status quo.
Thanks to agents like Rockefeller and IRRI, this dangerous kind of reductionism in rice research is gaining a grip of Asias scientific elite today. Whether public rice research will even survive the tidal wave of economic liberalisation and globalisation, however, is becoming almost a more disturbing issue.
Before the dawn of genetic engineering, rice was not a primary target for seed companies. This is partly because of the low-income nature (and consumer-spending power) of a very large proportion of resource-poor rice smallholders and consumers, and the fact that rice has not been easy to hybridise. Farm-saved seed currently accounts for 80% of the rice seed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Private corporations are starting to invest in biotechnology research on rice because there is money to be made. For one thing, thirty years of IRRIs Green Revolution have created an ecological debacle in Asia. Now, environment-friendly rice production is all the rage. Genetic engineering allows chemical companies to greenwash their products and join the sustainable agriculture bandwagon. Instead of selling chemicals, they can collect royalties on seeds and license fees on genetic technologies.
Recent changes in the system of granting Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) have made rice more attractive to the private sector. In particular, the extension of the patent system to cover transgenic plants is starting to turn the rice biodiversity generated in farmers fields over to the private portfolios of biotech companies.
This physical transfer of rice biodiversity from the farm to the corporation is taking place largely courtesy of IRRIs genebank. Most accessions in IRRIs genebanks are in theory held in trust for the international community. The trouble is, TNCs are part of the international community. Although it is IRRIs policy not to patent either the germplasm collected from farmers fields or the products of its conven tional breeding work, it cannot prevent those who access their collections from doing so. This laissez faire policy has translated into the appropriation of part of farmers rice germplasm by the private sector. For example, a US breeding company, Farms of Texas, made some minor modifications on IRRIs IR8 and patented it for exclusive sale in the United States.9 In early 1998, that company, now named RiceTec, caused public outrage by obtaining a patent on Indian and Pakistani Basmati rice.
IRRI, like many other public research centres, is in a jam. If it decides to use patents to protect its work, this undermines the public nature of its research. If it does not patent, it risks having its work pirated by corporations. IRRIs experience with Bt rice illustrates some of the problems IPR issues raise for public research institutes. Bt rice was the result of a joint research project between IRRI and the agrochemical giant Novartis. Their agreement states that IRRI is free to use Novartis proprietary Bt endotoxin gene, which has been modified and synthesised to express a certain level of toxicity efficiently in plants. However, if IRRI adapts the gene to tropical rice, Novartis has the right to prohibit the commercialisation of any transgenic rice IRRI develops with it. This obviously shuts down IRRIs policy of sharing its results freely with farmers and national breeders.10
Rices new pioneers
Now that the private sector wants to invest in rice, what are genetic engineering companies planning to serve up? Patent applications or granted patents provide some pointers as to what the main research lines on rice are and who is controlling them. Although not all patents translate into actual product development lines, they do show who has control on a given technology and the ability to prevent others from using it.
According to the Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, between 1982 and the end of 1997 there were 160 patents pending or awarded on transgenic rice and the technologies employed to transform it. The top 13 patent holders account for over the half of the patents on rice, with Pioneer in the lead, followed by Misui-Toatsu-Chemical. However, this list is not exhaustive. Many of the patents developed by biotech corporations are for technologies that are applied to several crops, rice being simply one more on the list. Japanese companies are particularly interested in rice R&D, which comes as no surprise since rice is the staple in Japan and the countrys seed market is valued at US$ 2.5 billion per annum. Table 2 illustrates the kind of traits are being patented. Pioneer is focused on agronomic characteristics, particularly on disease resistance, while Japanese companies are more interested in increasing yield. Pioneer and Du Pont are looking at modifying proteins, while Japanese companies are more interested in changing starch content. These changes may be intended to improve flavour or ease industrial processing.
Some of the patents in the table are particularly powerful. For example, Monsanto owns a patent on all rice transformed with gene bombardment, while Japan Tobacco holds a patent on all rice transformed using Agrobacterium. These are the most widely used methods of engineering rice. There are also patents on technologies that are not reflected here but have strong implications for rice biotech development. For example, although four of the patents on pest resistance refer to the use of Bt, none are as broad or controversial as the patents of AgrEvo, Mycogen and Monsanto, whose coverage extends to any Bt plants.
Last, but not least, is the Monsanto-owned patent on the Terminator technology which, although up to now has only been developed for cotton and tobacco, potentially covers all crops. The technology has been designed to prevent the germination of saved seed. This patent provides much a increased incentive for corporations to invest in rice breeding. Although the breeding industry has welcomed the news as an incentive for private investment in previously "neglected" crops such as rice, the technology could lead to control of the US$1.7 billion Asian rice market in the hands of one company.11
Transgenic rice coming closer
Because rice is far more important for the South than it is for industrialised countries, the total number of field trials of transgenic rice is low (under 150 by 1997)12 relative to other crops (see Table 3). The favoured research lines are herbicide-tolerant rice, Bt rice and hybrid rice.
Herbicide-tolerant rice: Herbicide use has grown recently in Asia because of direct seeding strategies promoted by IRRI and several companies are racing to produce herbicide-resistant varieties. Corporate advertisements say that genetically-engineered crops will allow farmers to use less herbicides, but in fact the companies want farmers to use more of their own brands. American Cyanamid is co-operating with universities, public and private seed companies to develop IMI Rice Seed, which is tolerant to its proprietary imidazolinone herbicides. AgrEvo and the Louisiana State University are working on Liberty Link Rice which will have to be used with the companys Liberty herbicide. Roundup-Ready Rice, from Monsanto, will be resistant to the companys glyphosate herbicide. The japonica version is expected to be on the market in temperate countries like Japan, China and the US by 2002, and plans to insert the gene in indica rice for cultivation in the tropics of South and Southeast Asia are underway.
Bt rice: IRRI will be crucial to the release of Bt rice in Asia. It will be field-testing the Bt rice it developed with Novartis shortly and plans to pass it on to national programmes in Asia. The Belgian-based Plant Genetic Systems (PGS, now owned by AgrEvo) has also worked with IRRI to collect thousands of strains of Asian Bt for insertion in rice, including over 7,500 native Filipino strains. PGS won a controversial US patent on "all transgenic plants containing the Bt gene."
Hybrid rice: A third very important trend is the development of F1 hybrids. Rice seeds can normally be saved at harvest time and sown again for the next cropping season. Companies want to stop this so that farmers are obliged to purchase new seeds from them every year. The corporations investing in hybrid rice in Asia include Pioneer Hi-Bred, Cargill, Hybrid Rice International and East-West Seed Company. Different technologies are under development to ensure this, many of them at IRRI. However, the Terminator Technology may make this approach obsolete.
All of these research trends are hotly contested by proponents of sustainable agriculture because, contrary to the industrys well-versed propaganda, they will actually increase farmers dependency on chemicals and other external inputs. They will also cause new health problems and further disrupt the ecological balance. Hybrid rice is especially threatening to the farm sector. In fact, even the economic justification for most of this research is hard to find. Bt rice is mainly aimed at preventing stem borer damage, which affects only 5% of the Asias rice harvest and can be controlled ecologically.13 Herbicide tolerance is designed to facilitate herbicide sales, and hybrid rice will certainly increase seed sales but not necessarily farmers incomes. The yield boost is currently around 15-20% but the price boost makes it inaccessible to the poor.
Turning the tide?
Exasperation with the Green Revolution and its unjust costs has driven many farming communities, assisted by scientists and NGOs, to jump off the spiral of uniformity, monocropping, and ever-increasing external inputs. The many programmes to develop sustainable agriculture systems involve restoring diversity and building on farmers knowledge, rather than undermining it. In rice-based cultures, a lot of headway has been made in terms of strengthening on-farm conservation of traditional rice varieties, breeding and selection, farming systems research and new marketing schemes. Farmers involved in these programmes exude confidence about being more in control of things compared to when they simply followed the IRRI way of farming.
However, such initiatives are under new pressures now, as developing countries are strong-armed into signing up to the rules and regulations imposed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) section of the WTO obligates countries to enforce some kind of intellectual property rights on plant varieties. If WTO-TRIPS pushes through, grassroots efforts to enhance farmers livelihoods through sustainable agriculture and local control of resources will be under direct threat from corporations and research agencies.
The recent news of the Basmati patent and the defamation of Jasmine rice by a US corporation have raised the alarm bells in Asia. People are beginning to realise the what the implications of patents and other IPRs may be for Asias main staple. In response, NGOs in Asia have established a signature campaign to express outright opposition to patents on rice in the region.
With the corporate sector busy entrenching the worlds agriculture in ever-deeper levels of uni formity and dependence, it is vital that genuine agricultural progress based on farmers knowledge and on freedom of exchange finds the political environment necessary to grow and challenge the industrial giants. Otherwise, the worlds number one staple may simply turn into another gold mine for the agrochemical industry.
* Available from Biothai, Pan-Indonesia, MASIPAG and GRAIN
2. MT Jackson (195) "Protecting the heritage of rice biodiversity", GeoJournal Vol 335, pp 267-274. Quoted in KS Fisher (Ed), (1996), Caring For The Biodiversity Of Tropical Rice Ecosystems, IRRI.
3. KS Fisher (Ed), (1996), Caring For The Biodiversity Of Tropical Rice Ecosystems, IRRI.
4. Nguyen Ngoc Hai, "Organic agriculture in developing countries need modern technologies," Biotechnology and Development Monitor, Amsterdam, March 1998.
5. IRRI (1995) World Rice Statistics 1993-1994, quoted in K.S Fisher (Ed), op cit.
6. Data culled from IRRIs Social Sciences Division data sets and IRRI Hotline April 1998.
7. Quoted in RAFI (1992) "Rice Biotechnology" Rafi Communique November, 1992.
8. Submission by Ralph Riley, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee, to the General Meeting of the International Program on Rice Biotechnology, Septermber 15-19 1997, Malacca, Malaysia. The submission has been reproduced by the Rice Biotechnology Quarterly, vol 33, 1998.
9. C Fowler and P Mooney (1990), Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, p 185.
10. N Perlas and R Vellvé (1997), Oryza Nirvana? An NGO Review of the International Rice Research Institute in Southeast Asia, SEARICE, Manila.
11. From ASIAN SEED, Vol. 4 No 3, June 1997 APSA Bangkok
12. C James (1997) Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1997, ISAAA Briefs No 5
13. "World Demand for Rice to Surge", Asian Seed, June 1997, Asia and Pacific Seed Assoc., Bangkok.