Biopiracy, TRIPS and the Patenting of Asia's Rice Bowl

by Assisi Foundation, Biothai, CEC, GRAIN, Greens Philippines, Hayuma, MAPISAN, MASIPAG, PAN Indonesia, PDG, SIBAT, TREE, Dr Romy Quijano (University of the Philippines) and Dr Oscar Zamora (University of the Philippines). | 25 May 1998


A collective NGO situationer on IPRs on rice1

May 1998


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.


The TRIPs Agreement sets out compulsory uniform standards for intellectual property protection throughout the world: patents, copyright, trademarks, etc. It currently allows countries to exclude plants and animals from patent laws. However, all countries must provide titles of intellectual monopoly to "inventors" of micro-organisms, microbiological processes and products, and plant varieties. Plant varieties must be either patentable or subject to "an effective sui generis system" (Art 27.3(b)). Many governments interpret this sui generis option to mean plant variety protection , a special kind of patent developed in Europe for the corporate breeding industry. PVP is equally controversial, though.5 In principle, developing countries must implement this provision by the year 2000 and least-developed countries by 2005. However, in 1999, the highly contentious Art. 27.3(b) of TRIPs will be reviewed. Developing countries are currently demanding that implementation of TRIPs be deferred until its impact on biodiversity is clearly understood and made subject to the Convention on Biological Diversity.6

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


After two years developing HYVs, IRRI — and the Philippines — experienced its first outbreak of brown planthopper (BPH) infestation in 1964. A few years later, IR8 was released and its progeny started monopolizing Asia's rice fields. Between 1970-1974, BPH became the most important pest in all of Asia paddies.

From analysis, we found that the BPH outbreak correlates neatly with the increasing domination of HYVs. HYVs started being planted in India in 1965, Indonesia 1967, Thailand 1969, Malaysia and Pakistan 1976-77. By 1976, IRRI rice had invaded one-third of Asia's ricelands, causing the first period of BPH outbreak in 1970-76. At that time, Indonesia and Japan lost $100 million each, Taiwan $50m, the Philippines $26m, India $20m and Korea $10m. Thailand was entirely spared of the problem because as of 1976 Thai rice farmers planted only 5% of their land to HYVs, compared to 56% in Philippines, 25% in India, 20% in Taiwan and 18% in Indonesia.

However, after the Thai government enforced its Seed Exchange Program in 1981, which uprooted 45% of traditional varieties from farmers' fields through a coercive HYV adoption scheme, Thailand joined the ranks of BPH victims. In 1990, 76% of Thailand's rice area was sown to HYVs. In fact, four varieties alone cover nearly 50% of rice area! This caused a terrible BPH outbreak in 1991. Over half a million hectares of rice land were fully destroyed. The country lost at least 2.5 million tons of rice or $ 400 million that year.

Source: Witoon Lianchamroon, 'Escape from Green Revolution' 1992 (in Thai only)

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 country’s 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.


MASIPAG is a farmer-led, community-managed breeding and conservation effort on rice and vegetables throughout the Philippines. It started in 1986 and now involves 50 trial farms maintaining over 500 collections of traditional and improved traditional varieties. Some 534 farmer-bred lines and 75 selections of rice are currently being grown and further improved by well over 10,000 farmers throughout the archipelago. If WTO-TRIPs pushes through, all these materials – and this bottom-up effort to enhance farmers' livelihoods through sustainable agriculture — will be under direct threat of misappropriation from corporations and research agencies like IRRI or PhilRice. As far as MASIPAG is concerned, these plant varieties belong to the communities and should never be subject to private monopoly rights like IPR.

MASIPAG seeds are not anonymous 'genetic resources', free for the taking. They are embedded within farmers' cultures, technologies and world views, drawn from indigenous knowledge systems. MASIPAG farmers have collectively validated and adapted over 30 systems of pest management (especially on rice pests), 10 systems to control flowering and seed setting, five related to soil fertility and another five to manage seed viability.

Intellectual property regimes imposed by TRIPs go against sustainable agriculture. Ka Gonying Velasco, a MASIPAG farmer in Luzon said that TRIPs implies not just erosion of biodiversity, but the wiping out of his and his ancestors' history as farmers, as steward of seeds. In practical terms, he said it would mean more poverty. Another MASIPAG farmer from the Visayas region, Leopoldo Guilaran, said that patents on seeds illustrate the extent to which transnationals want to establish monopolies on life, maximize profit, and dominate the world. Farmers involved in the movement in Mindanao like Ka Memong Patayan say that "A patent on seeds is a patent on freedom." If you have to pay for patented seeds, it's like being forced to purchase your own freedom.

MASIPAG believes that TRIPs will:

  • curtail the free exchange of seeds which is essential to farmers' livelihoods, especially in a sustainable agriculture program
  • establish a punishing royalty regime
  • give excessive monopoly rights to transnational companies
  • transfer the direct control of farm activities to the lords of trade and industry
  • commoditize the country's once equitably-shared local farm knowledge and resources, further sowing greed among farmers and farm communities
  • undermine community rights or the valued sense of "communal ownership" that is still prevalent today in many if not all farming areas of the Philippines
  • put a premium on food "re-production" conducted by transnational firms through genetic engineering, which further marginalizes and disempowers farmers in the local and national food production process.

The WTO TRIPs regime spells not only the end of sharing seeds, resources and knowledge, which allowed the Philippines to feed itself through good times and bad. Patenting life conflicts with the values which have upheld biodiversity as part of the common history and ancestry of the Filipino people.

Source: MASIPAG National Secretariat, 1998.


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.


Ilang-ilang (Philippines)

French fashion house Yves St. Laurent has been importing ilang-ilang (Cananga odorata) flowers from the Philippines for more than 20 years, making use of its extract in their high class line of perfumes. Although native to many Southeast Asian countries, the species cultivated in the Philippines was found to be of high quality. Just a few years ago, Yves St. Laurent stopped importing ilang-ilang from the Philippines, put up its own plantations in Africa and secured a patent for its perfume formula based on the native Filipino species.

Plao-noi (Thailand)

The healing properties of Plao-noi (Croton sublyratus) has been recorded in Thailand’s traditional palm leaf books for centuries. Yet Sankyo, the second largest pharmaceutical firm in Japan, was awarded a patent in Tokyo on this famous Thai herbal plant. In 1975, a team of researchers from Sankyo and the Department of Forestry collected samples of Plao-noi in Prachuabkeereekhan province, south of Bangkok. Sankyo brought the samples to the lab, extracted its active ingredient which they called "Plaonotol"—named after the plant itself — and applied for a patent. The company cultivates more than 1,000 ha of Plaonoi in Prachuabkeereekhan province and sells it in tablet form as "Kelnac", to treat ulcers. Sankyo’s earnings from Kelnac were estimated to be around $40 million in 1987.

Tempeh (Indonesia)

Tempe, the soul food of the Javanese people and a unique feature of Indonesia’s culinary heritage, is now gaining popularity in the West, especially as a health food. Eaten daily by rich and poor alike, and rich in vitamin B12, it serves as a cheap substitute for animal protein. The processing of tempeh is based on fermentation of soybeans and is considered one of the oldest food technologies in the history of Javanese people, documented as early as the 16th century. Now, tempeh is being claimed as a national product of foreign countries. Japan has recently granted several patents on the process of making tempeh. This totally disregards a traditional creation from the Indonesian culture and will also put Indonesia’s position as a leading producer and center of studies on tempeh at a disadvantage.

Banaba and other medicinal plants (Philippines)

Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa) is a well known herbal medicine used in the Cordillera highlands and other parts of the Philippines. It is known to treat fever, diarrhea, diabetes and as a purgative and stimulant by traditional healers. However, the anti-diabetic property of banaba — a property known to many traditional healers and well documented in national literature — has been patented by a Japanese company Itoen KK. Another Japanese company also recently patented the anti-stress property of saluyot or jute. According to the Department of Health, Japan funded a jute plantation in Central Luzon and has put up a plant to process the medicine and sell it in both powdered and tablet form. Other popular backyard Filipino herbal medicines like sambong, lagundi and takip kuhol (Centella asiatica), have also been the subject of many patent claims by Japanese companies.

Bitter gourd (Thailand)

Thailand has a big problem with AIDS. National scientists have been researching all sorts of avenues to relieve the suffering and maybe even develop a preventive medicine against infection from the HIV virus. One research team was focusing on bitter gourd (Momordica spp.), which Thai scientists found to contain compounds that work against HIV. To their dismay however, they recently learned that American scientists not only copied their research agenda but patented, in the United States, the active Map-30 protein from a native strain of Thai bitter gourd. The variety is called 'Bird Droppings Gourd' in Thai, because of its small size. The Thai scientists feel that not only their work has been pirated but the country's indigenous biodiversity has been stolen as well.

Source: Compiled by the contributors from various documents and interviews in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.


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.


Until recently, the rice cultures of Asia have been securely under the control of local peoples. Since 1960, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, has virtually taken over. IRRI is an international agency funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which operates from the World Bank. Its aim is to raise rice yields and incomes in Asia. IRRI quickly developed new strains of rice that respond well to chemical inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. However the strategy soon reached its limits. Yields stopped increasing, the environment got polluted and farmers are in a spiral of debt. Nevertheless, IRRI fears a population bomb and wants to diffuse it from the supply side. With Asian rice yields averaging 3.7 tonnes per hectare11, IRRI is now trying to create a 15-tonne 'super rice'.

IRRI was able to take over rice farming in Asia because it amassed the wealth of the farmers' rice varieties and put these seeds into a genebank. IRRI's collection contains almost all the genes that the world's rice breeders dig into to develop new rices. While intended to serve rice research work for poor countries, industrialised countries benefit enormously from IRRI. Three-quarters of the rice harvest in the US is based on germplasm provided by IRRI, bringing the country an economic gain of $1 billion since 1970. In fact, rice germplasm from IRRI adds $655 million in value to the rice industry of the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada each year.12

With the North gaining disproprtionate benefits from the South's ecological wealth, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set out internationally agreed conditions on access to developing countries' genetic resources. Getting hold of Third World biodiversity is now supposed to be subject to prior informed consent and benefit sharing. However, the CBD only applies to germplasm collected after the Convention came into force in December 1993. Because of US pressure, all the genetic resources held by the CGIAR system (which IRRI is part of) are outside the rules. This affects half a million seed accessions or 40% of the world's unique food crop germplasm held in genebanks. This means that industrialised countries are still free to take and patent them. The Philippine government, acting on behalf of the Third World majority at the UN, has urged that this be changed. It has argued that countries of origin should be consulted before their seeds are taken from international genebanks like IRRI's and that the CGIAR collections should be under the remit of CBD.13

As a stopgap measure, the seeds held in these international genebanks were placed under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture in 1994. Under the FAO-CGIAR Trust Agreement, patenting of the designated germplasm is prohibited. Most of the rice seeds in IRRI's genebank fall under this agreement. However, it is not waterproof. Recently, RAFI discovered that the Australian government was entertaining patent claims on two chickpeas taken directly from the genebank of ICRISAT, IRRI's sister institute in India. No breeding was done; the Australian seed industry simply wanted a commercial monopoly on the material. At least 16 other cases of biopiracy on materials held under the Trust Agreement are under examination now.

IRRI has its own policy on intellectual property. It states that the seeds from the genebank should not be patented, but once a scientist – public or private, Asian or American – has done breeding work, the material can be patented! The recent controversy over RiceTec's patent on basmati rice has IRRI directly implicated. The Texan firm got its basmati lines from IRRI, who got them from India and Pakistan. Now they are patented in the US. Jasmine rice from Thailand is also prey to intellectual property in the US. It got there thanks to IRRI.

Sources: Several including Reuters database searched January-April 1998, RAFI press release of 6 January 1998, and BIOTHAI information release of 26 April 1998.

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%).

Top biotech patent holders on rice
Company Country

Number of rice patents

Pioneer Hi-Bred International USA


Mitsui-Toatsu Chemicals Japan


Monsanto USA


Japan Tobacco Japan


Novartis Switzerland


Advanced Technologies UK


AgrEvo Germany


Cornell Research Foundation USA


Mitsubishi / Mitsubishi Chemicals Japan


Sumitomo Chemicals Japan


Du Pont USA


Kubota Japan


Zeneca UK


Total top 13 companies

81 patents

or 51% of the total (160)

Source: Compiled by GRAIN from Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, 1982-Dec 1997.

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.


In 1999, the TRIPS Agreement is scheduled to be reviewed by the WTO member states as far as the obligation to provide IPR on seeds is concerned. The US is trying to delay the review until 2000 and push for a whole new Millenium Round of trade talks at WTO, incorporating agriculture, IPR and a long list of other issues. This would rob the developing countries of the right to challenge TRIPs before implementation is required. South government are now starting to demand a defferal of implementation because of the grave consequences for biodiversity and community rights, which they are committed to protect under the CBD. The WTO is prepared to call a blackout on TRIPS if protest rises.

Together with NGOs, scientists, lawyers and the academe, peoples' movements throughout Asia are urging their governments to resist TRIPs and use the 1999 Review to renegotiate the Agreement in favor of the peoples' and the national interest. This means removing all obligations to grant IPRs on biodiversity and vigorously honoring community rights. Asia will not achieve food security through biopiracy and genetic engineering but on the basis of farmers' legitimate rights to land and productive resources.


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:

  • Get involved with some of the many local initiatives to support on-farm conservation and breeding of rice and other crops. Whether you are a farmer, a scientist, a journalist or an NGO worker, there is a role for everyone to play in supporting grassroots alternatives.
  • Build up more understanding and a basis for action in your community, organisation or network. There are many information resources (videos, pamphlets, posters, booklets, newsletters, etc.) produced by many NGOs that you can access to learn more about the issues.
  • Get in touch with national groups which are active in discussions about policy options. There are numerous groups involved in a wide range of activities to help scientists, administrators, educators, professionals and the media better understand what is at stake for local communities and the food system.
  • Appeal to your government to take an active role in the renegotiation of the TRIPS Agreement at WTO. If nothing is done, TRIPS will legalize biopiracy for the benefit of rich countries. We need to strengthen farmers' and community rights to control genetic resources and indigenous knowledge in developing countries instead. This can be done in many ways.
  • Circulate and sign the "No Patents on Rice! No Patents on Life!" statement annexed to this paper if you want to start acting right away.

For contacts and further information, please get in touch with one of the contributors to this paper.

801/8 Ngamwongwan 27, Soi 5, Muang
Nonthaburi 11000 THAILAND
Tel: (66-2) 952 73 71
Fax: (66-2) 952 83 12
Email: [email protected]
3346 Aguila St., Rhoda's Subd.
Los Baños, Laguna 4030 PHILIPPINES
Tel (63-49) 536-5549 or 536-4205
Fax (63-49) 536-5526
Email: [email protected]
Jl. Persada Raya #1
Menteng Dalam
Jakarta 10210 INDONESIA
Tel/Fax: (62-21) 829 65 45
Email: [email protected]



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.


Statement from peoples’ movements & NGOs in Southeast Asia to the WTO

May 1998


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, IRRI’s '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:

  1. WTO memberstates must recognise that farmers’ and community rights have precedence over intellectual property rights and that IPRs destroy biodiversity. Many initiatives to develop and implement farmers' and community rights are underway in Southeast Asia, and must be supported and strengthened.
  2. We encourage the memberstates of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to support the initiatives of India and the Organisation for African Unity to resist the extension of IPR systems and to develop community rights at the local and national levels.
  3. Genetic engineering of rice and other foods should be prohibited.
  4. Agriculture and biodiversity must be taken out of the WTO regime, especially the TRIPS Agreement.
  5. No patents on rice! No patents on life!


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.
Email: [email protected]

Author: Assisi Foundation, Biothai, CEC, GRAIN, Greens Philippines, Hayuma, MAPISAN, MASIPAG, PAN Indonesia, PDG, SIBAT, TREE, Dr Romy Quijano (University of the Philippines) and Dr Oscar Zamora (University of the Philippines).
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