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BIOTECH FIRMS REALLY KEEN TO TAKE ON RICE

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 31 May 2000 -- As their coveted markets in the North stumble for fear of frankenstein foods, the powerful biotechnology companies appear to have targeted southern agriculture - rice in particular -not just for profits but to regain their lost image as well, says an NGO.

According to information by the Philippines-based NGO, MASIPAG (Mga Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Ikauunlad ng Agham Pang-Agrikultura), there is more propaganda hype surrounding the 'Vitamin A' or golden rice in terms of its ability to reduce malnutrition and the attempt to introduce hybrid rice is just not in the interest of small farmers, who constitute the majority in developing country agriculture.

A recently struck deal between inventors of Vitamin A rice and an agrochemical firm promising "free seeds" for the South's poor has to be taken with a grain of salt, says MASIPAG. "This humanitarian gesture may simply be a cosmetic tool to repair the damaged image of agrochemical firms and arrest the mounting opposition to bio-engineered crops whose safety and corporate owners are increasingly being questioned in many parts of the world."

'Golden rice' inventors Prof. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Friburg entered into an agreement on May 16 with AstraZeneca - giving the firm full commercial rights on the invention.

Zeneca Agrochemicals, the plant science division of the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca, will commercialize golden rice in the developed world while the inventors have the noncommerical rights to distribute the rice for free to government-run breeding programs in rice-dependent Asian nations. Farmers in the region can use the technology free of charge so long as their annual income from it does not exceed $10,000.

MASIPAG, however, sees that the arrangement will generate conflicts at the international level in the following areas:

* The multi-tiered licensing system is discriminatory, and could lead to disputes at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

* The license waiver to the South is, in fact, a subsidy when under the WTO agreements, governments are supposed to be reducing subsidies to agricultural production and trade.

* It could facilitate interference of the agrochemical firm in developing countries' biosafety regimes. As stipulated in the agreement, Zeneca will provide "regulatory, advisory and research expertise to assist in making 'Golden Rice' available in developing countries."

With these conflicts, the viability of the project, that "the rice is expected to be ready by 2003" is put to question.

The propaganda hype it could generate, meanwhile, is the biggest profit this agreement could generate, says MASIPAG.

At the national level, the people across Asia are the so-called "beneficiairies" of this deal (which was entirely crafted in Europe). Nobody really asked the local people what they thought about this rice and whether they wanted it, free or otherwise.

MASIPAG, as a network of 30,000 farmers and scientists promoting organic and sustainable agriculture in the Philippines, believes there are many ways to address vitamin A deficiency in Asia. Vitamin A-rich crops abound in the rural areas.

Malnutrition is rooted more in poverty environmental degradation and social disparity. In that respect, golden rice does not address the cause of the problem. "The risk of "blindly" accepting this Vitamin A rice is that people think they're improving their health and forget about the real changes we need to work towards."

For millions of people in Asia, rice is not just a daily source of calories, it is also a link to their culture and heritage. Going back centuries, the methods by which Asian farmer's plant, harvest and process rice have remained the same. Present indigenous and local varieties have been the product of countless centuries of breeding and selection by farmers to produce rice suitable to their environment and needs.

Rice is basically a self-pollinated crop - making it a poor candidate for hybridization. There has to be a way to sterilize the plant and then to cross it with a fertile rice plant. For this reason, private industry never came into the rice seed business, and left farmers with their own seed supply þ until recently that is.

In the process of collecting, selecting, exchanging and experimenting with rice plants, the Asian farmers have come up with over 100,000 varieties of different characteristics.

In the 1950's, scientist in their white gowns started getting into the scene. Chinese researchers were the first to change the architecture of the ordinary rice plant, around 1955, by systemically incorporating a semi-dwarfing gene (Sd1) from Taiwan. Traditional varieties are often tall and if nitrogen fertilizers are supplied to boost yield, they topple over. The Sd1 gene produced medium-height rice that responds very well to chemical fertilizer.

The Chinese were also the first to develop and commerialize hybrid rice. It was intoduced in China in 1976 and today it grows on approximately 50% of te country's total rice area or about 15 to 16 million hectares.

Intrigued by the practical application of hybrid technologies in China, a few key agencies have formed a consortium to ensure that the rest of Asia also benefit from hybrid rice.

"Development and Use of Hybrid Rice Outside of China" is an international project that brings together the International Rice Reseach Institute (IRRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Asia Pacific Seeds Association (APSA) þ a group comprised of all major seed companies operating in Asia, including Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, Aventis, and RiceTec.

The sole funder for the project is the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which committed to provide a total of $1.5 million from 1998-2000. The project targets six countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

According to MASIPAG, the early promises of hybrids have not materialized. In 1990, fifteen years after the introduction of hybrids a study of early season rice showed no statistically significant difference in yield between hybrid and conventional inbred rice. This, despite the higher amounts of pesticide and fertilizer applied for the hybrid variety.

A further limitation to hybrid rice production in China is the breeding process itself. Hybrid rice seed production is a labor and skill intensive activity, and the yields are low at around 2 metric ton per hectar. Hybrid seed production is therefore extremely expensive and commonly needs to rely on heavy public subsidies. Basides its poor taste, China's hybrid rice has poor resistance to pests and deseases. The low number of possible germplasm that can be incorporated into a hybrid system have prevented researchers in and outside of China from breeding successfully for specific resistance to diseases and pests.

In 1988, researchers in China, reported that incidences of stem borer, white back plant hopper, leaf roller, bacterial blight, sheath blight and virus diseases were more frequent on hybrid rice than on inbred rice. They also found that local outbreaks of diseases such as downey mildew, false smut and kernel smut occur frequently on hybrid rice.

It is not surprising, then, that pesticide use increases with hybrid rice. A 1998 survey of 500 households in Hunan found that yield increases resulting from the use of hybrid rice were offset by increased chemical inputs.

Meanwhile, constraints on diversity of hybrid rice deepens the effects of decades of genetic erosion, cautions MASIPAG. The Green Revolution, led by IRRI's high-yielding, semi-dwarf varieties or the HYVs, displaced farmers traditional seeds and their wild relatives on a massive scale.

The present state of biological diversity in Asia's paddy fields is alarming, warns MASIPAG. In 1997, 87% of the entire rice growing area of the Philippines is planted to modern rice varieties.

In Thailand and Burma, five varieties occupy nearly 40% of total rice are, while in Pakistan the top five occupy 80%. In Cambodia, a single IRRI variety accounts for 84% of the country's dry season crop. Such widespread uniformity leaves Asia's rice production in an extremely vulnerable position.

The advent of hybrid rice will also put a stop to Asian farmers' longstanding practice of storing and exchanging seeds. Since hybrid rice is good only for one cropping season, farmers have to purchase new seeds the next planting period. And with transnational companies (TNCs) looming over the lucrative rice seed business, monopolies and patenting of rice will spread like wildfire.

The decision to pursue hybrid rice is not simply a decision to increase production. Fundamentally, it is a decision to try to boost the productivity of a particular group of farmers who can sustain a private seed industry. The most glaring drawback with hybrid rice is that it is simply not intended for small farmers, whose production systems need the most attention.

Dr. Virmani of IRRI is blunt about this. "This technology is not for farmers who are still struggling at the level of two or three tons."

Small farmers still struggling with abysmal market prices and exorbitant rent cannot possibly afford to purchase expensive hybrid seeds season after season. The problem is openly admitted by IRRI: "The cost of hybrid seed, being 10 to 15 times higher than that of ordinary seeds of rice discourages poor farmers from taking advantage of hybrid technology."

It is only "appropriate", or intended, for wealthy farmers on the irrigated lowlands - a betrayal of the avowed task to promote the welfare of marginalized farmers.

Putting shackles on Asia's rice economy, with TNCs like Monsanto, Cargill, Hybrid Rice International and East-West Seed Company getting into the scene, many organizations and farmers are fearful of what this may lead to.

In February 2000, Monsanto, the second largest seed company in the world, enthusiastically announced that it and other seed giants were "pouring" money into rice research because of the growing potential for hybrid rice. The company explains, "With the advent of adequate intellectual property protection (patents) in several countries, private sector investment in rice has dramatically increased, particularly in the seed industry". As intellectual property regimes "be they patent or plant variety protection laws" allow companies to charge an additional 10% to 30% over the cost of the seed, in the form of royalties or license payments, the income opportunities for the industry are attractive indeed.

Farmers, however, will be getting the worst end of the deal, says MASIPAG. In India, for example, hybrid rice has had a limited impact. The cost of hybrid seed is high at $2.40 to $3.00 per kilogram, the yield advantage is a low 15% and the quality of the grain is poor enough fetching only 8% below the price of conventional rice in the market! Farmers and concerned groups became wary of this rice breed. Hybrid rice will further lead to multinational companies controlling Asia's rice paddies.

Meanwhile, today's issue of 'The Guardian' carries an article 'Soya gene find fuels doubts on GM crops GM food' by James Meikl. It says that Monsanto, the international company that pioneered the use of genetically modified crops, has revealed that its most widely used GM product contains unexpected gene fragments, raising fresh doubts that the technology is properly understood.

Two extra gene fragments have been found in modified soya beans that have been grown commercially in the US for four years and used as an important ingredient in processed foods sold in Britain for a similar period.

Monsanto's intimation of the results of new studies on its Roundup Ready soyabeans on May 19, came two days after it was revealed that thousands of acres of oilseed rape had been grown unwittingly from conventional seed contaminated by GM material. German research has suggested that a gene used to modify rape seed could leap the species barrier into the guts of bees.

Monsanto said the new studies used more advanced techniques to provide "updated molecular characterisation" of its beans which contain an inserted gene to ensure they are not destroyed by weedkiller. The tests found that two "inactive" pieces of genetic material were inserted at the same time as the whole gene.

Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the company, said: "All this means is we are able to see genes in soya more clearly now. It is like putting a telescope in orbit allows astronomers to see stars better."

In contrast, Andy Tait, GM campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: "This shows exactly what we have been saying for years, that genetic modification is inherently unpredictable and will have all sorts of knock-on effects once released into the environment." Soya is used in a wide range of foods. About half the US harvest is now thought to be GM. (SUNS4680)

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