BIOPIRACY, TRIPS AND THE PATENTING OF ASIA'S RICE BOWL
A collective NGO situationer on IPRs on rice1
1. TRIPs and the problem of biopiracy
New Delhi, 3 April 1998. Hundreds of angry Indian farmers rallied in the streets of the capital to denounce a US patent on basmati rice. Exasperated after several years of protest against American patents on the use of turmeric, neem and other indigenous resources, Indian farmers are up in arms about a US monopoly claim on their own rice. "We have not done enough to protect our own treasures of this country," said Jaya Jetlie, general secretary of Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, an agricultural labour organization present at the rally. "If we lose our [rice] exports and lose whatever tradition and wealth we have, we will soon become a country where every pebble and every stone is owned by somebody else," she told reporters.2
Scant weeks later, the streets of Bangkok looked hauntingly similar. Hundreds of farmers were camped outside the Prime Ministers' office demanding resolution of their problems in the countryside. Among their grievances: American companies are claiming intellectual property control patents, trademarks and plant breeders' rights -- over Thailand's jasmine rice. Five million farm families in Northeast Thailand depend on jasmine and US companies are monopolising it. "Jasmine rice belongs to Thai farmers, to Thai communities, since it has been nurtured in Isan, the Northeast, since our great grandparents," said Mr. Lai Lerngram, an organic farmer from Surin. "No one, but no one, could claim ownership or monopoly rights in relation to Jasmine rice."3 Thailand's Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchob quickly announced his government's resolve to fight "US efforts to imitate or undermine" jasmine rice by lodging a formal protest at the World Trade Organization. "The US has long campaigned against imitation of products. I would like to know how it will treat this case because the violator is a US company,' Newin boasted.4
In both cases basmati and jasmine the prime accused is RiceTec, a firm based in Texas.
Biopiracy, or the stealing of genetic material and knowledge from communities in the gene-rich developing countries, is an exploding issue in Asia. Industrialised countries want exploitation and ownership rights over the biodiversity of the South. In a sense, this goes back to the colonial era, when countries like England and the Netherlands took control of crop resources in Asia to build up their trade empires around cotton, sugar, tea, rubber, pepper, and the like. Biopiracy is a new name for this old process. Liberalization of trade through fora like GATT or APEC is driven by pressure from industrialised countries, which aim to dominate world markets. Winning monopoly control over Asia's biodiversity and indigenous knowledge through intellectual property laws is crucial to their strategy today.
The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) was signed at the end of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1994 and came into force in 1995. It is administered by GATT's successor, the World Trade Organization. TRIPs was strongly resisted by the South, as it forces all WTO member states to extend intellectual property rights to plant varieties, the basis of food security and health care. Until now, Asian countries have prohibited patents on life forms because corporate monopolies touching peoples' basic needs are dangerous. Also, many Asian cultures are based on a holistic view of and respect for life, which Western technologies and property systems fundamentally disregard.
Nearly all Asian countries are committed to the WTO TRIPs treaty.7 This means that by the year 2000, Asian governments have to make intellectual property titles on seeds completely legal. This will favor transnational corporations who want to control agriculture and the world's food system through genetic engineering. Despite the current economic crisis in the region, TNCs are hot to penetrate Asian agriculture even more, especially the newly opened Chinese market. Patents will make crop research lucrative for them and give them market control over biotechnology. But what does this mean for the more than one billion small farmers in Asia? Will TRIPs promote sustainable development or will it entrench foreign domination as the road to 'development'? This paper situates the implications of TRIPs primarily in terms of Asia's most important plant: rice.
2. Rice biodiversity: a heritage spoiled
Rice is synonymous with food security in most parts of Asia. The region produces over 90% of the world's number one grain, on a harvested area of nearly 150 million hectares. In aggregate terms, rice accounts for up to half of Asia's farm incomes and makes up nearly 80% of people's daily calories. In many Asian societies, rice is the basis of breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner for those able to eat that often in a day.
Rice goes back thousands and thousands of years in Asia's agricultural history. Over this time, farmers developed and conserved an enormous amount of genetic diversity in rice. Some scientists estimate that rural communities have generated over 140,000 rice varieties. Almost 80,000 of them are presently stored in the genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (Los Baños, Philippines), the largest collection of rice in the world. These different varieties have, since time immemorial, allowed farmers and consumers to meet their needs. Some grow well during droughts, others can withstand certain pests. Certain rice varieties produce long and slender grains, others short and round ones. Aromatic, sticky, slow cooking, medicinal the types of rices Asian communities have developed are impressive indeed.
Much of this diversity, and the communities' knowledge ingrained in it, has disappeared over the past thirty years, however. Under the guise of feeding the world, the Green Revolution has been a vast campaign to bring Asia's peasantry into the grips of the world trade system. Suddenly, packages of uniform technologies fertilizer, high-yielding seeds, pesticides, mechanization, irrigation, credit and marketing schemes displaced the ecological wealth, the skills and the self-esteem of many local farmers. All in the name of modernization.
The Green Revolution has raised rice grain yields in some irrigated areas which account for less than half of Asia's ricelands today but at the significant cost of environmental, health and economic problems for both farmers and consumers. Rice farmers are among the poorest in many countries. Soil fertility and yields are declining throughout the region. Communities are being forced into the uplands to eke out a living on fragile ecosystems. And of course, pesticide use has soared. In fact, most of these problems stem directly from the loss of biodiversity and farmer control over productive resources. Take the brown planthopper, a devastating pest in rice fields. The rise of this disease-carrier corresponds almost exactly with the spread of just a few high-yielding varieties (HYVs) in most countries of Asia. This was clear in the 1970s in Indonesia and Taiwan. It has become painfully clear again in countries newly converted to HYVs like Thailand and Viet Nam. 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."8
This blanket of uniformity a genetic monopoly is gripping Asian farmers' field today. In Thailand and Burma, almost 40% of the total rice area is planted to only five varieties. 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!9 For farmers, and for food security, this is excessively dangerous. It forces us to depend on toxic chemicals, and soon genetic engineers, to help defend the region's paramount crop from the inherent weaknesses of biological uniformity.
It is against this background that peoples' organisations, NGOs and attuned scientists have been trying to develop sustainable alternatives for Asian agriculture. A broad and dynamic movement is under way to help farmers regain control and improve their farming systems without the chemicals, economic dependency or environmental destruction characteristic of industrial agriculture. Sustainable agriculture aims to provide much better systems yields on a long term basis and restore opportunities to farmers and their families. After much headway in the past two decades, however, this whole movement is now seriously threatened by WTO TRIPs. Genetic engineering and the imposition of intellectual property rights on life will directly undermine the space to pursue these kinds of alternatives.
3. Enter biotechnology
The private sector is taking an interest in controlling rice from the starting point of the seed. Until now, industry's involvement in the rice sector focused on chemical inputs, machinery, transport and trade. Seeds were not so interesting. Asian farmers plant-back their rice harvest for about 80% of their needs and most are poor farmers who could not afford to purchase seeds every year if they had to. This is all changing rapidly now.
Private corporations are starting to invest in biotechnology research on rice because there is money to be made. For one thing, thirty years of IRRI's Green Revolution have created an ecological debacle in Asia. Now, environment-friendly rice production is all the rage. Genetic engineering allows chemical companies themselves to counterbalance any market losses that the organic farming trend could bring about. If they can collect royalties on seeds and license fees on genetic technologies to insert new traits in crops, any dip in chemical sales will be effectively offset. A few mega-trends in rice genetic research illustrate the corporate logic penetrating this sector:
Herbicide tolerant rice: Several companies are racing to develop herbicide tolerant rice. Herbicide use has grown recently in Asia because of direct seeding strategies promoted by IRRI. Corporations are now inserting genes in rice to make the plant withstand the chemicals. Their advertising says farmers will use less herbicides but in fact the companies want farmers to use more. American Cyanamid is cooperating with universities, public and private seed companies to develop rice varieties, sold as IMI Rice Seed, tolerant to its proprietary imidazolinone herbicides. AgrEvo is working on Liberty Link Rice which will have to be used with the company's Liberty herbicide. Roundup-Ready Rice, from Monsanto, will be resistant to glyphosate. 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: Another trend is Bt rice, containing a insect-killing toxin from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt rice produces its own pesticide: an insect such as the yellow stem borer bites the plant and dies. However, insects are quickly developing their own resistance to the toxin and consumers are at risk of allergic and other reactions from eating Bt rice. Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis, after its merger with Sandoz) has been working through IRRI and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to see its proprietary gene for resistance to Bt deployed widely in Asia's rice fields. IRRI will be field-testing Bt rice soon and then passing it on to national programmes in Asia. The Belgian-based Plant Genetic Systems (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 claiming "all transgenic plants containing Bt gene." IRRI will be crucial to the release of Bt rice in Asia.
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 Cargill, Hybrid Rice International and East-West Seed Company. Different technologies are under development to ensure this, many of them coming from IRRI. A radical approach was patented last March in the US and dubbed "Terminator Technology". Developed by Delta Land and Pine with the help of the US Department of Agriculture, it involves a gene that simply prevents seeds from germinating. The patent claims the gene's use in any plant -- including rice.
All of these research trends are hotly contested by proponents of sustainable agriculture because, contrary to propaganda, they will increase farmers' dependency on chemicals and other external inputs, cause new health problems and further disrupt the ecological balance. Hybrid rice is especially threatening to the farm sector. In fact, the economic justification for most of this research is hard to find. Bt rice is mainly aimed at preventing stem borer damage, which hardly affects 5% of the Asia's rice harvest and can be controlled ecologically on the farm.10 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.
4. TRIPs and biopiracy
The biotechnology lobby, led by the US government, has been using trade negotiations to win strong protection for their markets and technologies worldwide. Despite talk about 'free trade', intellectual monopolies are a form of protectionism. Companies complain that without legal ownership of their so-called innovations, they have no incentive to invest in agricultural research in Asia. However, their arguments are upside down. IPR allows Northern companies to get ownership over seeds and knowledge developed by the South, to which they add comparatively little and call it 'new'. Genetic engineering in rice is no more than adding a few genes to a plant which has ten thousand of them! If anyone's rights need protection, it is those of the farmers and communities who develop the knowledge and genetic diversity exploited by formally trained scientists. The rice economies and cultures of Asia are deeply threatened by IPR regimes as imposed by TRIPs. Already, IRRI has served as a subtle transit mechanism for the industrialized countries to access Asia's rice biodiversity for their own benefit with no return to Asian farmers. If TRIPs is implemented according to schedule, the current trickle of patents on rice will turn into a flood. And the benefits will not go to the poor in the South.
There are already some 160 biotech patents on rice in the world. Most of them are held by transnational companies in the US and Japan. The top 13 rice patent holders have just over half the biotech patents covering Asia's staple food. The most patented trait to be found is pest resistance (10%) followed by herbicide tolerance, fungal resistance and starch content (each 8%).
The table hides from view a very deceptive reality. Numerous technologies and specific genes are being patented for their use in all crops, without naming rice but potentially affecting rice research and markets. For example, AgrEvo is the owner of a patent on all transgenic crops containing Bt. Japan Tobacco has rights to an Agracetus patent on all forms of transgenic rice. Delta Land and Pine's sterility gene patent is claimed in any crop, including rice.14 These broad patents are very controversial because they give the corporations the right to stop anyone from using their technology in a sweeping manner. That right will not be exercised lightly in Asia.
The TRIPS Agreement will legalize and universalize this trend. It obliges all developing countries to extend their patent laws to life forms or set up sui generis (special) regimes for the same. As it stands now, plant varieties have to be subject to monopoly rights by the year 2000, under threat of WTO-sanctioned trade retaliation. Asian countries are responding very cautiously and unhappily.15 Many governments are trying to come to terms with the sui generis option and how they could implement it. The corporate sector is lobbying hard to make plant variety protection laws the ready-made answer. These laws, designed for industrial agriculture in the North, promote genetic uniformity and restrict farmers' rights.
The consequences of either system patent or sui generis is bleak. Farmers will have to pay royalties on seeds protected by IPR and they can't understand why TNCs should get rights to their seeds, anyway, after doing just a little genetic tinkering. National scientists are also worried. Managing intellectual property is expensive and conflictual, and patenting life poses important ethical dilemmas in Asian societies.16 The academe knows that IPR detracts research away from peoples' needs to focus on patentable outcomes instead. And foreigners already control over 70% of the patents in Asia anyway.17
No amount of safety nets will make biopiracy's bitter pill easier to swallow. TNCs always retain the upper hand in negotiations. The only way to protect Asian rice farmers from this growing threat is to prohibit any form of IPR on biodiversity. After all, biodiversity is a collective heritage and the Convention on Biodiversity enshrines it as national sovereignty. Selling off the rights to it will undermine the goal of sustainable development in Asia.
5. Peoples' movements on rice: what you can do
There are many ways to strengthen the campaign against patents on life and to support more sustainable approaches to agricultural research and food security in Southeast Asia:
For contacts and further information, please get in touch with one of the contributors to this paper.
1 This paper is a common initiative of the following NGOs, POs and individuals from Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand: Assisi Foundation, BIOTHAI, CEC, GRAIN, Greens Philippines, Hayuma, MAPISAN, MASIPAG, PAN Indonesia, PDG, SIBAT, TREE and Univ. of the Philippines colleagues Dr Romy Quijano & Dr Oscar Zamora.
2 Quoted in Masako Iijima, "India Minister Says To Contest U.S. Basmati Patent", Reuters, New Delhi, 3 April 1998.
3 Quoted in BIOTHAI, "Thai Peoples' Movements Mobilize To Protect Jasmine Rice", BIOTHAI Information Release, Bangkok, 26 April 1998.
4 Quoted in Pennapa Hongthong, "Rice Copycat Faces Wrath of Thailand", The Nation, Bangkok, 1 May 1998.
5 See Gaia/GRAIN, "Ten Reasons to Say No to UPOV", Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict, No. 2, May 1998.
6 Convention on Biological Diversity, Fourth Conference of the Parties, Bratislava, 4-15 May 1998.
7 China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam are not yet members of WTO and do not have to implement TRIPS.
8 Nguyen Ngoc Hai, "Organic agriculture in developing countries need modern technologies," Biotechnology and Development Monitor, Amsterdam, March 1998.
9 Data culled from IRRI's Social Sciences Division data sets and IRRI Hotline April 1998.
10 "World Demand for Rice to Surge", Asian Seed, June 1997, Asia and Pacific Seed Association, Bangkok, p. 5.
11 International Rice Research Institute, IRRI Rice Facts, January 1997.
12 GRAIN and RAFI, "CGIAR: Agricultural Research for Whom?", The Ecologist, November/December 1996, p. 261.
13 Second Conference of the Parties, Convention on Biological Diversity, Jakarta, November 1995.
14 Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts and RAFI News Release, 13 March 1998.
15 For a review of national responses to TRIPs in developing countries, please see Annex 1 of Signposts to sui generis rights, BIOTHAI/GRAIN, February 1998, pp 97-150, available from the BIOTHAI office in Bangkok.
16 See IPR Sourcebook Philippines, UPLB-CA/MODE, Manila, 1994.
17 World Intellectual Property Organization, IP/STAT/1994/B, Geneva, November 1996.
NO PATENTS ON RICE! NO PATENTS ON LIFE!
Rice is life in Southeast and other parts of Asia. It has been the cornerstone of our food, our languages, our cultures in short, our life -- for thousands of years. Over the centuries, farming communities throughout the region have developed, nurtured and conserved over a hundred thousand distinct varieties of rice to suit different tastes and needs.
The Green Revolution spearheaded by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the 1960s resulted the loss of this diversity from farmers fields and the spread of wholly unsustainable farming systems which require high energy inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, so-called 'high-yielding' seeds, irrigation systems and supervised credit schemes. In this process, farmers lost control of their own seeds, their own knowledge and their own self-confidence. Today, people are struggling throughout the region to rebuild more sustainable agriculture systems hinged on farmers control of genetic resources and local knowledge.
In the past, the whole cycle of the rice economy was under the control of farmers themselves, from production through distribution. Today, global corporations are taking over the rice sector. With the expansion of industrial farming, global corporations and their local subsidiaries -- established their predominance in the rice sector through research programs, interference in policy-making, and their exports of farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizers. Now, through the use of genetic engineering, they are increasing their control over our rice cultures. The kinds of rice that we are promised through this technology threaten the environment and public health. For example, herbicide tolerant rice will lead to increased pesticide use. Rice incorporating Bacillus thuringiensis genes will disrupt ecological balances. Both of these are unsafe for consumers and will lead to allergic reactions, increased antibiotic resistance and other health hazards. New hybrids such as those based on the so-called 'Terminator Technology' will force farmers to buy rice seed every planting season from transnational corporations.
The extension of the patent system through the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) gives global corporations the 'right' to claim monopoly ownership over rice and life itself. Companies in the industrialized world have already started to claim intellectual property rights (IPR) on rice. A derivative of IR-8, IRRIs 'miracle rice', was monopolised through IPR in the United States already in the 1980s. Recently, RiceTec, a company in Texas, has taken out a patent on basmati rice. This is biopiracy against India and Pakistan. The same company and many others in the US are now marketing what they label as Jasmine rice. This is not only intellectual and cultural theft, it also directly threatens farm communities in Southeast Asia. Jasmine rice comes from Thailand, where it is grown today by over five million resource-poor farmers who are trying to develop ecological alternatives for Jasmine rice production and marketing.
We have to strengthen local groups to assert farmers' and community rights to counter these trends in the region. For this reason, we make the following demands:
If you wish to add your name to the signatories of this
appeal, kindly send you name and address to MASIPAG, 3346 Aguila St.,
Rhoda's Subd., Los Baños, Laguna 4030, PHILIPPINES. Tel (63-49) 536-5549
or 536-4205. Fax (63-49) 536-5526.