Asian Times (Hongkong) Mar 13, 2004

Big firms dig in to Asian rice bowl

NEW DELHI - Control over rice, Asia's staple food, is steadily passing into the hands of transnational corporations that are based far away in Europe and the United States and that use unfair patents and genetic modification, food-security experts have warned.

As the world marks the International Year of Rice, agribusiness giants led by Du Pont in the United States are working overtime to select rice genes they reckon would be commercially useful from among the estimated complement of 50,000 genes.

The scramble for monopoly control over rice genes began two years ago after the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta and Myriad Genetics Inc in the United States announced the sequencing of 99.5 percent of rice DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Internationally known food-security expert Devinder Sharma says that since then some 900 genes, representing a variety of traits such as resistance to droughts, pests, pesticides and salinity and higher yield and nutritional characteristics, have already been patented by various multinationals. Du Pont, he says, tops this list.
"In the next three years, as a result of the mapping of the rice genome by Syngenta, a majority of the rice patents will be in the lap of a handful of multinational agribusiness corporations," Sharma predicted.

He says what has made the "daylight robbery of genetic wealth" possible is the "connivance of top scientists, international organizations and policymakers". They ignore the rights of Asia's farmers who toiled for generations to produce 140,000 rice varieties, critics add.
"The Rockefeller Foundation, the Convention on Biodiversity, the World Intellectual Property Organization and even the Food and Agricultural Organization and the United Nations Development Fund failed to stand up against these private companies," Sharma said.

But the worst betrayal, as Sharma sees it, is by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which controls the world's biggest rice germplasm collection. "The CGIAR not only welcomed the patenting but has even accepted Syngenta on its board, ensuring free access to the world's biggest rice germplasm collections," he said. (...)

After the "Green Revolution" technologies of the 1970s ensured the disappearance of thousands of valuable varieties from Asian rice paddies, an even more sinister threat to Asian rice genes is being posed by possible genetic contamination from genetically modified (GM) rice.

Gene Campaign and the Friends of the Earth in Europe are now jointly opposing a proposal by the Germany-based transnational Bayer Crop Science AG to import herbicide-tolerant GM rice especially grown in developing countries to be used as cattle feed in Europe.

"Bayer doesn't intend to grow this GM rice in Europe and threaten rice already being cultivated in member states like Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France," Gene Campaign's Sahai said.

Alarmed that India and other Asian rice-growing countries could be induced by Bayer to produce GM crops for the EU market, Gene Campaign is seeking a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in centers of origin and diversity because of the threat of genetic contamination through cross-pollination.

Research in China has demonstrated that transgene escape from cultivated rice to wild rice does occur. Studies in Latin America have shown that herbicide-tolerant gene transfer can easily take place.

"What is not realized is that if the genetic integrity of Indian rice is not maintained, it could end up threatening global food security itself," said Sahai. All rice is classified into two broad varieties - Japonica, which originated in Japan, and Indica, which originated in India.

Sahai said it was intriguing why Bayer has insisted on importing GM rice when it is still cheaper in Asia to produce ordinary varieties that do not attract royalties. "Surely the cows are not particular that they get the GM variety," she added.
By Ranjit Devraj, Inter Press Service

Times of India, MARCH 06, 2004

NGOs smell rat in MNC plea on transgenic rice

NEW DELHI : Indian and European NGOs are up in arms against a multi-national firm seeking permission to take transgenic rice into Europe for animal feed.

They allege it's the beginning of a market conspiracy to force developing countries like India to grow transgenic rice.

Indian NGO Gene Campaign and Friends of the Earth, Europe , have protested against this application in Europe . NGO activists have met European Union officials here in this connection. They urged the Indian government to protest as well.

Largely anti-transgenic Europe is being forced by trade disputes with the US into lifting some of the barriers to GM crops.

On Thursday, Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai said the first attempt to prise open the door to Europe was an application to the European Commission by Bayer Crop Science for import of genetically-modified, herbicide-tolerant, rice as animal feed.

"Of all things, do cattle in Europe only want to eat GM rice?," asked Sahai.

GM rice is in various stages of research in different countries, including India. Sahai said one of the institutes is even researching the use of a particular gene - infamously known for the allergenic Starlink corn case in the US. Starlink corn was banned for human use.

So far, GM rice has not been commercialised. But if the firm, signalling its intent to get a foot in the door through its application, gets permission, NGOs fear this would force developing countries to grow such rice by dangling the temptations of a ready market as a carrot.

Sahai argues: "Five countries in Europe - Italy , Spain , Greece , Portugal and France - grow rice. So, why should the firm just seek permission to import instead of growing the GM rice there?"