Rice and sovereignty

The grain that sustains more than half of the world's population may soon be owned and controlled by a private company.

The launch of a high-yielding dwarf rice variety by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on 28 November 1966 marked the beginning of Asia's struggle for freedom from hunger. Perhaps drawn by the promise of the 'miracle rice' — the IR8 rice variety — the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) dedicated 1966 as the International Rice Year. Thirty-eight years later as the United Nations dedicates the year 2004 to the world's most important staple food once again, celebrating it as the International Year of Rice, the starchy grain has undergone complete metamorphosis.

In 1966, the miracle rice seeds that ushered in the green revolution belonged to the species Oryza sativa (the biological name for rice). Since the time the indica variety of wild rice was known to be growing in the northern and southern slopes of the Himalaya – some 15,000 years ago – rice has been regarded as probably God's greatest gift to humankind. Staple food for more than half the world's population, rice has come to be a part of the Asian culture itself. Nearly 91 percent of the world's rice is produced in Asia (nine of the top ten rice-producing countries are from Asia) and 92 percent of the produce is eaten in Asia. Rice is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations: the People´s Republic of China, India and Indonesia. Rice is what sustains more than 2.5 billion people in these three countries alone. For centuries, rice has been the sociology, tradition and lifeline for the majority world.

That was an era associated with Oryza sativa – a period when rice was freely available for farmers, consumers and the scientists. Whether it were the 200,000 plant accessions of rice that were known to be cultivated some 200 years ago, or the handful of dwarf and high-yielding rice varieties and its numerous national variants the world over that have led the march against hunger in the recent past, rice was a realm of nature.

As the world begins to commemorate the International Year of Rice 2004, a leading multinational agribusiness giant, Syngenta, has already claimed ownership of rice. In other words, the biological inheritance of the world's major food crop is now in the hands of a Swiss multinational. The journey of rice, beginning with the emergence of wild rice some 130 million years ago, crossing the Himalaya, passing through southern China, hopping to Japan, travelling to Africa, traded to the Middle East and the Mediterranean and shipped to Mexico and America, has finally ended at the banks of river Rhine in Basel, Switzerland — under the monopoly control of Syngenta.

Over the years, agribusiness giants kept assuring a worried scientific community that crops like rice, wheat and other cereals are of no commercial interest to them. Their focus was, they said, on such cash crops as strawberries, cut flowers, tomatoes with the potential of big profits. This prompted universities, which developed such technologies in the first place, to license these to the private corporations. Knowing well that patenting alone will determine who wields power over farming and the world food system, a tug of war began between the multinationals over who controls the rice plant genome – the raw sequences in the genetic code (a gene is an ordered string of DNA nucleotides that we inherit from our parents whereas genome refers to the entire constitution of our genetic material or make-up).

The tussle over the monopoly control of rice extends to its 12 chromosomes. These chromosomes contain 430 million base pairs of DNA, and are expected to have about 50,000 genes. Syngenta, in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of the United States, has beaten the other food biotechnology giant 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.

Top executives of Syngenta have already told The New York Times that while companies would not seek to patent the entire genome, they would try to patent individual valuable genes. They categorically stated that Syngenta and Myriad were well on their way to locating many of those. First it was Monsanto which made international headlines in April 2000 by announcing to share its working draft (rough version, 60 percent) of the genome map with international researchers sequencing the rice genome under a publicly funded International Rice Genome Sequencing Project (IRGSP), and now it is Syngenta making clear its efforts to seek patents on genes with visible commercial output — the race is on to draw proprietary control over something that is actually part of nature and a human heritage.

There are conflicting reports of the latest tally of patents over rice genes. Some researchers say that more than 900 genes have already been patented. Earlier, the Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) had compiled a list of 609 patents on rice genes drawn till September 2000, 56 percent of which were owned by private companies and research institutes in Western countries. On top of the list was the American giant Du Pont with 95 patents, followed by Mitsui, Japan, with 45 patents. In the next three years, especially after the mapping of the rice genome by Syngenta, a majority of the patents would surely be in the lap of a handful of multinational agribusiness companies.

The daylight robbery of genetic wealth – appropriately termed biopiracy – is happening with the connivance of top scientists, international organisations and the policy makers. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which governs the 16 international agricultural research centres for public goods, has actually welcomed the recent developments in rice. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and even the FAO and UNDP have refrained from standing up against the nefarious designs of private companies in the name of research and development. In fact, CGIAR has even gone a step ahead by taking Syngenta on its board – thereby ensuring that the company gets free access to the world's biggest rice germplasm collections that it holds.

Golden Rice

In fact, Syngenta subsequently has gained exclusive rights on the controversial Golden Rice technology (a vitamin-A-fortified strain of rice that could stave off progressive blindness from vitamin deficiency in as many as 250,000 poor children globally a year) in exchange for help with Intellectual Property Rights issues and the different testing of the rice for a humanitarian project. This happened even as the international community was negotiating an agreement to see that the 70-odd patents that were coming in the way of free transfer and application of the technology were removed. Ingo Potrykus, university professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who developed the Golden Rice, was in a desperate haste to see that his name is enshrined in history as the saviour of the malnourished. Greenovation, a spin-off company from the University of Freiberg in Germany, was therefore founded in 1999 to out-license university research to life science companies.

The patent was applied for a year later, naming Ingo Potrykus and his colleague Beyer as the inventors, facilitating an agreement with Zeneca, now Syngenta. For the Swiss company, the IPR over Golden Rice provides a human face to its manipulative gene control designs. The company has already announced that the technology will be free for farmers in the developing countries with annual incomes of less than USD 10,000 — a wonderful exercise in public relations knowing well that Golden Rice has little utility and relevance for developing countries.
The quest for control over rice does not end with patenting of its genes. In 2002, stung by criticism, Syngenta India had to pull out from the controversial research collaboration with the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (IGAU) at Raipur, Chattisgarh. The collaboration would have given the company commercial rights to over 19,000 strains of local rice cultivars held by the university. These rice varieties were painstakingly gathered by the agricultural scientist RH Richharia in the 1970s. In exchange, the university would have received an undisclosed amount of money and royalties. Environmentalists and some scientists had opposed the deal on the ground that Richharia´s collection was national wealth and not the private property of the university and that opening the database to a multinational company was a 'sell-out'. "We are very disappointed to see the misleading and false accusations that were made (against the collaboration)", a company official was quoted as saying. What is however relatively unknown is the fact that the Richharia rice collections were not the only plant species that the company had an eye for. It has reportedly gone to numerous agricultural universities in India, singing agreements that enable the company commercial rights over the hybrid rice varieties in lieu of five percent royalties from sales.

Patrick Mulvany of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) is a distinguished researcher who has closely followed the biodiversity trail. "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, to exchange the genetic resources in genebanks under public control for traitorous pieces of silver", he warns. Also, 'Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture' is defined in Article 2 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources (2001) as "any genetic material of plant origin of actual or potential value for food and agriculture" — it should be quite clear from this that IPRs are NOT to be allowed on these genetic resources.

However, the eminent Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR), set up by the UK government (2001), has already jumped the gun and has interpreted Article 12.3(d) which states that "recipients shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights…in the form received from the Multilateral System (MLS)," as meaning that patents can be taken out on genes derived from the seeds kept under the rules of the MLS (those 35 genera of food crops, including rice, wheat, maize and potatoes, and 29 forages covered by the MLS in its Annex 1). Mulvany explains: "The crucial words 'in the form received' mean that material received cannot be patented as such, but they do allow patents to be taken out on modifications (however defined) to that material".
In simple words, even the CIPR has failed to foresee the underlying threat to food sovereignty. Not realising that such an interpretation will lead to scientific apartheid against the people of developing countries. After all, with the product and process patents coming into vogue in agriculture, the dice is loaded against public-sector agricultural research. As a result of private control over genes and biological processes, farm research in the public sector will be rendered redundant. It has already happened in the rich industrialised countries where universities have increasingly gone private or are surviving on private funds. Rice research will be the biggest casualty, and with a few private companies vying for the crumbs, rice is essentially in the grip of Syngenta.

The International Year of Rice 2004 is in reality a celebration of the private control of one of the mankind's most precious heritage – rice plant. It is a toast to acknowledge the emergence of Switzerland on the world's rice map. Oryza sativa, therefore for all practical purposes will become Oryza syngenta.

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