The rice genome is in many respects much more significant than the human genome, because the potential to use (and hence abuse) it is much greater. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins report.
It offers real opportunities for scientific studies and selective breeding of monoculture crops, neither of which is feasible, nor morally acceptable in human beings (see "Inside human genomics & genetics" series, Science in Society 13/14, February 2002). Whether it can contribute to improving local varieties is much less clear.
The rice genome is the smallest of all cultivated cereals, 466 million bases (Mb), compared to the 3 billion Mb in the maize genome, 4.9 billion in barley genome and 16 billion in wheat genome. Evolution is very conservative among the cereals. They tend to have the same genes in the same order - a condition called synteny. Therefore, knowing the rice genome sequence can enable researchers to decipher the much bigger genomes of other cultivated cereals.
Whole genome comparisons, or expressed sequence comparisons can be done using gene chips that could allow identification of genetic markers for important traits such as yield, drought resistance, or flowering time in relation to day length, thereby speeding up conventional breeding of desirable varieties. In fact, many scientists and biotech companies have suggested that such marker-assisted breeding may render it unnecessary to make transgenic crops.
The rice genome data is also invaluable for basic research, such as working out evolutionary relationships of living species and studying plant development.
There is a distinct danger, however, that the scientific elite may take research in directions that are of no benefit for the farmers and worse, displace indigenous varieties with more monocultures and transgenic crops controlled by corporations. It is all the more important for scientists and farmers to work in partnership towards making agriculture more sustainable and to resist corporate takeover.
Rice has been domesticated by human beings for 5000 years. It is grown in 100 countries, but nine-tenths of the world's crop is produced in Asia, providing four-fifths of the calories consumed in South-East Asia, which have some of the world's poorest countries.
When biotech giant Syngenta announced the rice genome sequence in January 2001, it triggered alarm from Action Aid, the hunger charity. There were already hundreds of patents on rice, and it is feared that the diet of the world's poorest will become the preserve of big business.
Indeed, if the present intellectual property rights regime were to continue, poor farmers may be prevented from using their own varieties, let alone generating new varieties or saving and exchanging rice seeds.
The publicly funded International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), one of the 16 research centres belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has been subject to fierce criticism from the poor farmers whom it is supposed to serve, as has the CGIAR itself (see "Science for the poor or procurer for the rich?", this series). In a commentary congratulating "BGI and Syngenta on their milestone contribution science and to human kind", IRRI advocates " broad collaborations" between "the public and private sectors", and is completely silent on the intellectual property rights issue.
More worrying is the message from another commentary co-authored by a scientist from IRRI, the intention to "tap" into the "over 100, 000 accessions of traditional rice varieties and wild species collected from a broad range of geo-climates" and held in trust in the IRRI Genebank. IRRI runs the risk of officiating largescale biopiracy of indigenous rice varieties from around the world, and delivering the poorest to corporate serfdom, lock, stock and barrel, unless patenting of research using its collection is banned.
Ismail Serageldin, chair of the CGIAR, bombards us with statistics on the present woes of the world that science must address, including poverty and inequality. He went as far as to call for different kinds of science and technology, though all that amounts to is, "We need more examples like Quality Protein Maize (QPM) and vitamin-A-rice (Golden Rice)".
Serageldin notes the special challenge of dealing with the emergence of private sector-driven science, "which increasingly poses the problem of how to protect intellectual property rights without impeding free access to research tools and the equitable sharing of benefits with the poor who cannot afford to pay". Although the CGIAR has called for a moratorium on patenting research results and material held in its centres, it has failed to ban it. Now is the time to take decisive action.
Article first published 19/04/02
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