Celebrating a cereal

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

Rice, the principal source of sustenance of much of Asia, is under threat from multinational companies that are patenting genetically engineered varieties.

THE development of a high-yielding dwarf rice variety, IR 8, by the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on November 28, 1966, marked the beginning of Asia's freedom from hunger. The promise shown by the "miracle rice" made the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations designate 1966 as the International Rice Year. Thirty-eight years later, as the U.N. dedicated 2004 to the world's most important staple food once again, celebrating it as the International Year of Rice, the starchy cereal seems to have undergone a metamorphosis.

The story of rice has always been interesting. According to Devinder Sharma, chairperson of the Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, the cereal's journey began with the emergence of wild varieties some 130 million years ago in the Himalayas. It passed to southern China, hopped to Japan, travelled to Africa, crossed into the Mediterranean, was traded in West Asia and shipped to Mexico and the United States, and finally ended up on the banks of the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, under the monopoly control of the multinational agribusiness giant Syngenta.

Even as the world celebrates rice, which has been cultivated for centuries in 113 countries and on which over 3,000 million people rely for livelihood and sustenance, Syngenta has claimed ownership of the grain. The race is on for its proprietary control. Monsanto, the multinational plant biotechnology firm, made international headlines in April 2000 by offering to share its working draft of the genome map with international researchers sequencing the rice genome; now Syngenta is trying to get patents on genes with visible commercial output.

According to Devinder Sharma, the tussle over the monopoly control of rice extends to the cereal's 12 chromosomes, which contain 430 million base pairs of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and are expected to have about 50,000 genes. Syngenta, in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of the U.S., has beaten Monsanto in the game by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Syngenta has made it clear that it will restrict access to the genomic map and expects proprietary control over any research carried out with the information.

CALLED "Prana", or the breath of life, rice is much more than just a source of calories in India, Japan, China and much of the rest of Asia. It is the basis of the continent's biological, geographical, social, religious and cultural diversity. It is in Asia that more than 97 per cent of the world's rice is grown and where 92 per cent of it is consumed. Rice is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations, China, India and Indonesia. It sustains more than 2.5 billion people in these three countries.

The 200,000 plant accessions of rice known to be cultivated some 200 years ago and the handful of dwarf and high-yielding varieties and their numerous national variants have led the march against hunger in the past five decades. Little wonder that rice has almost divinity status in many countries. For instance, in India, farmers offer paddy seeds to the sun god on the first day of a new agricultural cycle. Indian farmers have always worshipped rice as the goddess of wealth and protected it. For instance, after the great Bengal famine of 1942, which killed two million people, peasants refused to allow the British to take away their rice. "We will give our lives, but not our rice," was the call of the peasant uprising of the Tebhaga movement.

Yet, the cereal remains besieged. According to Vandana Shiva, Director of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, rice is under threat with the corporatisation of its varieties. Rice has evolved as a food source in Asia in varied forms, she says. Globalisation and corporatisation of agriculture are threatening that diversity, which extends to a mind-boggling 200,000 varieties.

As the Green Revolution, which made India self-sufficient in food, fades away, the world's technocrats and business houses are forcing the country into another set of problems by genetically modifying rice. An argument against the use of genetically engineered (G.E.) varieties is that the multinational companies are not really creating them but merely taking genes from the varieties evolved by farmers over time and repackaging them. "It is a case of intellectual piracy; genetically engineering rice with genes taken from farmers' varieties and then going on to claim a patent for it under the Intellectual Property Rights regime is a form of intellectual piracy and biopiracy," says Vandana Shiva.

As one of the most widely planted crops - on 150 million hectares - rice has a profound impact on the environment and natural resources. According to Sze Pang Cheung, Campaign Manager of Greenpeace China, G.E. rice can contaminate local varieties. Research by scientists in China has shown that the pollen of G.E. rice can spread up to 110 metres. G.E. rice can multiply and spread, once released into the environment. "If rice is life, G.E. rice is a gamble with our life," he says ominously.

According to Suman Sahai, director of the Delhi-based Gene Campaign, contamination in the natural gene pools of rice is a serious issue for such centres of diversity as India.

The U.N. designation of 2004 as the International Year of Rice is meant to focus on the threats to rice production across the world and to develop strategies to ensure that sufficient quantities of the cereal are produced to feed the growing world population. "Since so little is known about the long-term consequences of foreign genes moving into crop species - and almost nothing is known in the case of rice - it would be foolhardy and dangerous to take a risk with a crop that feeds over half the world," says Suman Sahai.

However, what is most worrisome is the fear of the unknown and the fact that the multi-billion dollar G.E. crop industry is controlled by a few multinational corporations.

Recently, "vitamin A rice", or "Golden Rice", was touted as a cure for blindness. More than $100 million was spent over 10 years to produce this transgenic rice at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland. The Zurich team introduced three genes taken from daffodils and bacteria into a rice strain to raise its content of beta-carotene, which gets converted into Vitamin A in the human body. But experts argue that this will have no effect as it will meet less than 1 per cent of the required daily intake of Vitamin A. Ninety-nine per cent of the Vitamin A will still have to come from alternatives such as vegetables and fruits.

According to Vandana Shiva, one of the key weapons of colonisation of rice by powerful interests is the patent system. "The most stunning example of cultural imperialism was when Rice-tee, a U.S.-based corporation, claimed the famous Indian basmati to be its `invention' - Patent No. 566484." Strong campaigns across India may have forced this corporation into retreat, but, according to Vandana Shiva, this will definitely not be the last such attempt.

According to Devinder Sharma, there are conflicting reports of the number of patents on rice genes. Some researchers say that more than 900 genes have been patented. The Barcelona-based Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) had compiled a list of 609 patents on rice genes drawn until September 2000; 56 per cent of these were owned by private companies and research institutes of Western countries. At the top of the list was the American chemical giant DuPont with 95 patents, followed by Mitsui, Japan, with 45.

Says Vandana Shiva: "Such acts are the appropriation of nature's regeneration processes and the innovation by indigenous rice farmers of Asia over centuries. It is blatant biopiracy." Concurs Devinder Sharma: "Biopiracy continues in connivance with top scientists, international organisations, and policy makers." But the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which governs the 16 international agricultural research centres for public good, has gone a step ahead by taking Syngenta on its board, giving the company access to the world's biggest rice germplasm collection.

THE quest for control over rice does not end with the patenting of its genes. In 2002, amid huge public protests, Syngenta India had to pull out from the controversial research collaboration with the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (IGAU) at Raipur. The collaboration would have given the company commercial rights over 19,000 strains of local rice cultivars, painstakingly gathered by the agricultural scientist R.H. Richharia in the 1970s.

Warns Patrick Mulvany, a distinguished researcher with the United Kingdom-based Intermediate Technology Development Group: "Not just national collections, but also CGIAR genebanks (which contain over 600,000 plant accessions) will come under increasing pressure from multinationals in the next year or two."

However, no corporation can reproduce the amazing diversity of rice that nature and farmers have evolved over centuries - rice that grows up to 18 feet, survives floods, is salt- and drought-tolerant, or that is aromatic and therapeutic. This diversity, and the knowledge and culture it embodies is the real basis for future food security. Vandana Shiva says: "We must fight to keep rice free in all its amazing diversity. Because on the freedom of rice depends the freedom of millions of Third World farmers."

Navdanya, a Delhi-based NGO, has, together with farmers of nine States, developed a Register documenting in detail over 2,000 rice varieties. According to the Register, GE appears a laggard technology compared to the indigenous rice varieties that can withstand the severest climatic conditions. For example, West Bengal grows 78 drought-resistant rice varieties; Uttaranchal grows 54; and Kerala 40. Orissa, notorious for starvation deaths, is also home to a few drought-resistant varieties of rice.

According to the Register, farmers in India have also developed rice that can survive submergence for up to 15 days, when two or three days of submergence can kill ordinary rice. "As for resistance to salinity, what tougher test can there be for rice than to be grown in the mangroves of West Bengal?" asks Vandana Shiva. Three varieties of rice are grown in the tidal waters of the mangrove area. And the soil is so fertile that the crop needs no attention from the farmer who, after transplanting the paddy, all but abandons it until harvest. Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka too grow a wide variety of salinity-resistant rice cultivars. These varieties, unlike the G.E. ones, are eco-friendly too. "After all, farmers have tried and tested them over hundreds of years, while the effects of genetically engineered rice varieties on the ecology are not yet understood," says Vandana Shiva.

S.U. Zaman, Principal Scientist, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, plays down the fear of transgenic rice varieties, saying that any new variety is put through a set of well-recognised bio-safety procedures. Yet, he cautions that thought needs to be given to how to conserve indigenous varieties. A comprehensive system needs to be formed wherein indigenous varieties exist alongside new ones. "Accent should be on providing new varieties to farmers who do not have access to good, indigenous cultivars," says the rice expert.

In this International Year of Rice, the U.N. has called upon different stakeholders to promote the sustainable future of rice. Says Sze Pang Cheung: "If we are to promote the sustainable future of rice farming, G.E. rice is simply not the answer." Despite what the biotech cheerleaders say, alleviating poverty and feeding the world requires more than a technological solution. G.E. rice does not solve these problems. "One is not against the G.E. technology. It is important to be clear about how and for which crop it is used. A lot of research needs to be done and safety measures put in place before opening up Indian farms to G.E. crops," says Suman Sahai. An open, transparent public debate could be a good starting point.

The International Year of Rice has wound to a close. Now it is important to understand that rather than leaving the lives of millions of farmers and consumers in Asia at the mercy of private-sector-controlled technology, it is crucial to look at socio-economic issues such as access, distribution, sustainability, food security and seed and land ownership. Only this can ensure a hunger-free world, particularly for Asia, for whose people rice is indeed life.

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