Manila,7 June 2000 -- A group of Southeast Asian Farmers, Peasant movements, NGOs and independent farmer-scientist networks from Southeast Asia have voiced their opposition to the introduction of genetically engineered rice in the region.

International farmers' movement Via Campesina, along with three national organisations from Southeast Asia -- BIOTHAI (Thai Network on Biodiversity and Community Rights), KMP (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), and MASIPAG (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development, Philippines) -- and in cooperation with research NGO GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International), in a press statement have expressed their deep concern about the increasing corporate control over rice research, seed systems and the basis of the food supply in Southeast Asia.

Genetically engineered (GE) rice -- such as the now-famous Vitamin A rice or 'Golden Rice' -- is being heavily promoted as a solution to hunger and malnutrition. Yet these promotional campaigns are clouding the real issues of poverty and control over resources, and serving to fast-track acceptance of genetically engineered crops in developing countries, the groups say.

"The main reason why we are against GE rice," says BIOTHAI, "is the issue of control. Small farmers in the Third World can't achieve security when transnational corporations control these technologies and give away GE seeds like others give out food aid. It doesn't work, it doesn't help the farmers."

As Day-cha Siripat of the Alternative Agriculture Network in Thailand has said: "The poor, they don't need vitamin A rice. They need vitamin 'L', that's Land. And they need vitamin 'M', that's Money. Malnutrition is a problem of poverty, not technology."

The groups greeted with distrust the announcement of 16 May by the developers of Vitamin A rice about a deal struck with agricultural biotech giant Zeneca to license and distribute the crop. The deal says the inventors of Vitamin A rice will give poor farmers in developing countries free access to the genetically engineered grain, while allowing the life sciences company to sell it commercially in the developed world. Zeneca itself admits that the two-tier system will be hard to police.

The KMP, a member of Via Campesina, says: "Why should Zeneca have the right to patent for its own profit the results of publicly funded research? And why should anyone believe that this is for the poor when Zeneca has made it clear that their motive is to make money from the technology in the North?"

The developers of the rice bill the deal as a "win-win" scenario for the private and the public sector, for rich corporations and poor farmers alike. But the agendas of these two groups fundamentally conflict. "All that has been proved through the agreement is that genetic engineering in agriculture will always be dominated by large corporations with the capacity and resources to profit from the technology'" says MASIPAG. "Meanwhile the farmers in our countries get written in as a public relations sideshow."

Some of the concerns the groups highlight include:

* The groups are against any form of intellectual property on life forms for many reasons. Zeneca now holds the exclusive commercial rights to the Vitamin A gene patent which covers not just rice but all future crops engineered with the gene. The degree to which IPRs on life forms is invading agricultural research is demonstrated by the fact that the developers of Vitamin A rice waded through 70 patents to achieve their goal.

* Vitamin A rice is a techno-fix to the problems of the poor decided upon and developed, without consultation, by scientists and experts from the North. For many groups in Asia, this rice is disconnected from the causes of malnutrition at ground level. Farmers' own experiences of diversification show that there are many ways to address vitamin A deficiency in Asia without isolating the problem from socio-political realities. For example, encouraging the reintroduction of locally grown varieties of vegetables rich in micronutrients including vitamin A has been successful in Bangladesh and Thailand.

What is most incredible with the Vitamin A deal is that in the name of 'helping the poor', Zeneca has acquired exclusive commercial control over a technology that was developed through public funding the EU and the Swiss government both bankrolled this project with the Rockefeller Foundation. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, sponsored by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) through the World Bank, has been asked to develop the Vitamin A rice technology for Asia.

Just six days before the Zeneca deal, the US Senate approved a special grant of $5 million for IRRI to do so. Why is this money being used to push expensive genetic engineering solutions, rather than supporting sustainable alternatives to deal with malnutrition in developing countries?

Further to the issue of private interests (including the GE agenda) dominating public agricultural research, numerous farmers groups, scientists, and NGOs are heavily critical of the whole role of the CGIAR and its international agricultural research centres. Via Campesina is on record for being "very strongly against CGIAR policies to promote genetic engineering and patents on life".

IRRI appears to be acting as a facility to transfer biotechnology from the industrialised to developing countries, rather than serving the needs of poor farmers. This is highlighted in the briefing 'BB Rice: IRRI's first transgenic field test', co-produced by these groups as part of an Asia-wide project.

The briefing exposes IRRI's first GE field test in the Philippines -- for rice resistant to bacterial blight, dubbed BB rice. MASIPAG points out that bacterial blight is "not a large-scale problem in the Philippines". The Rockefeller Foundation -- a major source of funding for rice biotech research and training -- has itself scored bacterial blight as a low priority since it considers conventional breeding approaches to be effective. If there is no real need for genetically engineered resistance to bacterial blight in rice, why is IRRI embarking on this field test? The field test is primarily an exercise in public relations: to establish a precedent in terms of public acceptance of transgenic rice in general. One feature of the BB rice is that aside from its antibiotic selectable marker genes, it poses less controversial health and safety risks than other GE rices. But the risks associated with GE rice go well beyond environmental safety and human health. IRRI and national agricultural research systems in Asia are increasing their linkages with private industry in the North, who control the technology through exclusive monopolies and vast resources. The Philippine Rice Research Institute, IRRI's partner in the BB rice field experiment, is conducting the test for the US biotech company ILTAB. Who then controls rice research?

There has been little discussion or consultation about the pros and cons of genetic engineering for farmers in Asia. The inescapable conclusion would appear to be that farmers' needs are not the reason for the field tests. The agenda here is to push biotechnology, controlled by the North, as part of a much larger economic paradigm.

The resulting increase in corporate control of rice will profoundly affect small farmers throughout the region. The present moment is a critical one for farmers, and the public, to reassert control over the direction of agricultural research and development to serve and be accountable to the real needs of the people. (SUNS4684)

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