The entire rice genome sequence was announced Jan. 26 by the European agribusiness giant Syngenta and US company Myriad Genetics which patented two breast cancer genes. They beat a public consortium of scientists in Japan, China, Korea, Europe and the US by two years. Rice is the first crop plant to be sequenced. The entire 430m basepairs of its genome have been read to 99.5% accuracy, and is estimated to contain up to 50 000 genes.
The announcement triggered alarm from Action Aid, the hunger charity. There are already 229 patents on rice; the diet of the world's poorest will become the preserve of big business. Rice is grown in 100 countries but nine-tenths of the world's crop is produced in Asia, providing four-fifths of South-East Asia's calories. Rice has been domesticated by human beings for 5000 years.
Syngenta intends to sell data on the rice genome to seed businesses and other commercial groups, and to make the information to scientists "through research contracts". It would also provide information "without royalties or technology fees" to scientists helping subsistence farmers. The two companies said they would not patent the rice genome but they would patent particular uses of the genes as they were identified.
ISIS is not at all assured. If human genomics is anything to go by, it would take no time at all to cover the rice genome dozens of times over with patents that will not only stifle independent research and innovation but also seriously undermine farmers' rights to create new varieties or to preserve existing ones.
Source: "Scientists unravel genetic code of rice" Tim Radford The Guardian Saturday January 27.