Science in Society Archive

Rice Wars

Rice, the staple food crop for more than half the world’s population, among them the poorest, is the current target of genetic modification, an activity that has greatly intensified after the rice genome was announced two years ago (see "Rice is life" series, SiS 15, Summer 2002). Since then, all major biotech giants are investing in rice research.

At the same time, a low-input cultivation system that really benefits small farmers worldwide has been spreading, but is dismissed by the scientific establishment as "unscientific". This is one among several recent innovations that increase yields and ward off disease without costly and harmful inputs, all enthusiastically and widely adopted by farmers.

A war is building up between the corporate establishment and the peoples of the world for the possession of rice. The food security of billions is at stake, as is their right to grow the varieties of rice they have created and continue to create, and in the manner they choose.

Corporate Patents vs People in GM Rice

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching get to the bottom of current attempts by corporations to usurp rice varieties through genetic modification

Has the International Treaty sufficient bite to protect Farmer's Rights?

In 1998, masses of angry Indian and Thai farmers took to the streets of their capitals to denounce US company RiceTec Inc's claim of monopoly rights over their basmati and jasmine varieties of rice. US breeders had acquired samples from Philippines-based IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), which holds a large seed bank of Asian farmers' varieties. That was among the first warnings of a corporate agenda to usurp and control rice varieties created and used by local communities for thousands of years.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into force on 29 June 2004, facilitates "the free flow of genetic material to plant breeders" as well as to farmers and research institutions. This is achieved through a Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing, which covers a list of 35 food crops and 29 forage crops, among them rice.

The Treaty clearly acknowledges the contribution of farmers to agricultural biodiversity and recognises Farmers' Rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds. This is an important milestone in international law. However, it falls short of unambiguously banning patents on plant genetic resources, leaving farmers' varieties in international Gene Banks under the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), which come under the Treaty, just as vulnerable as before [1]. The text clearly states that no intellectual property rights (IPRs) may be taken out on the plant genetic resources and their components that are exchanged and as covered in the Treaty; but this is qualified by limiting the condition to resources "in the form received".

In short, this could leave the door open for unscrupulous patenting of plant genetic resources that are not "in the form received", for example, if, after they have been freely exchanged within the Multilateral System, they are genetically modified.

As the Treaty has just entered into force, its continuing interpretation and how it is implemented will need to be monitored closely, to prevent powerful countries (and their corporations) getting rights to extract and privatise genetic resources covered by the Treaty [2]. It is also crucial to strengthen the primacy of Farmers' Rights over IPRs.

Gene-patenting and corporate rice research

This fight will be critical as biotech companies are increasingly muscling in on rice research. "The advent of biotechnology has caused a spurt in patents on gene products associated with rice," said Ronald Cantrell, director of IRRI [3]. The sequencing of the rice genome has not only opened up largely untapped commercial possibilities but has also set the pace for potential IPR disputes between corporations and governments. "I'm really concerned that we should have enough public sector research that would generate knowledge, putting it in the public arena, and we should make sure that the private sector is properly regulated," he added.

The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, despite its honourable name is part of the biotech multinational Syngenta, and is now a member of the CGIAR. In one fell swoop, the private sector has become part of the network of international agricultural research centres, paving the way for it to participate in policy making and determining the kind of research that gets funded. This, critics say, turns the once publicly funded research body into "an agricultural research outsource for the multinational corporations" [4]. Although the Syngenta Foundation doesn't currently contribute to IRRI, there's no doubting the interest of the corporation in rice research.

An article published in the New Internationalist in September 2002 commented [5]: "The multinational biotechnology industry has global rice production in its gunsights. It is manoeuvring for control through intellectual property rights (IPRs), such as patents, and legislation is quickly being pushed into place in Asia and around the world to satisfy industry's demands."

GM rice versus people's sustainable agriculture

All this is coming at a sensitive time, as farmer-led movements for sustainable agriculture are also in ascendancy. For example, MASIPAG, the farmer-scientist network, is a farmer-led community-managed breeding and conservation effort on rice and vegetables throughout the Philippines. It started in 1986 and now involves 50 trial farms. Some 543 farmer-bred lines and 75 varieties of rice are grown and further improved by well over 10 000 farmers throughout the country. The Nayakrishi or 'New Agriculture' Movement in Bangladesh, where farmers typically use hundreds of varieties of rice, and have little trouble surpassing the productivity of the industrial model.

Asia produces over 90 percent of world's rice supply, and an estimated 140 000 different varieties of rice have been created by small farmers in Asia.

In the 1950s, the US put rice production at the centre of a strategy to address food insecurity and political unrest. The resulting campaign led by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, known as the Green Revolution, transformed rice production dramatically. Traditional farming systems and varieties were replaced by a package of credit, chemicals and high input varieties. By the early 1990s, just five super-varieties accounted for 90 per cent of the rice-growing area of Malaysia and Pakistan, and nearly half the rice lands of Thailand and Burma.

Several major transnational seed corporations - Aventis, Dupont, Monsanto, Syngenta - now have rice programmes. Rice is self-pollinated, making hybrid rice seed production costly and difficult, and nearly all rice in Asia is still grown with farmer-saved seed. The seed industry believes that the combination of genetic engineering and patents can overcome this hurdle.

"Through patents and contractual agreements, seed companies will seek to prohibit farmers from sharing or saving seed, control what pesticides are used and even assert ownership rights over the harvest."

In October 2001, an ActionAid study found that of the 250 patents on rice, 61 percent are controlled by just 6 seed companies, three of them also the world's largest pesticide corporations.

After the rice genome sequence was announced. Dr. Steven Briggs, head of genomics for Syngenta, told the New York Times that while the companies would not seek to patent the entire genome, they would patent individual valuable genes. He indicated that Syngenta and Myriad were well on their way to finding many of those.

China a major player

Meanwhile, the Chinese government, which has invested considerable public money into the sequencing of the rice genome, thereby breaking the 'knowledge monopoly' hitherto held by the developed countries in the West [6], is reported to be ramping up efforts to commercialise GM rice [7].

Chinese researchers have developed several GM rice varieties resistant to the country's major rice pests and diseases, such as the lepidopteran insect stem borer, bacteria blight, rice blast fungus and rice dwarf virus (see "Promises and perils of GM rice", this series). "Significant progress" was also reported for drought- and salt-tolerance. Zhen Zhu, a leading rice scientist and deputy director of the Bureau of Life Science and Biotechnology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Nature Biotechnology that "China [is] technically mature [enough] to commercialise several varieties of its GM rice".

China's biotech budget for 2001-2005 is $1.2 billion, a 400% increase compared with 1996-2000, and about $120 million out of the current budget is devoted to GM rice programmes, Zhu estimates, and more will be allocated to field trials of GM rice. At least 10 new field trials for GM rice are expected this year, keeping the planting level comparable to 2003 of at least 53 hectares.

In the United States, USDA authorized 10 GM rice field trials over 11 hectares in 2003 and 12 trials over 45 hectares in the first quarter of 2004, 90% of which done by Monsanto.

China will be closely watched by both the developed and the developing world. China's activities in GM rice have gone on simultaneously with extensive trials in sustainable, low input rice-growing systems that benefit small farmers (see "Fantastic rice yields fact or fallacy" and "Does SRI work?" this series).

Huanming Yang, Director of the Beijing Genomics Institute in China, the lead author of a paper on the rice genome sequence published side by side with Syngenta's in the journal Science two years ago [6], told ISIS recently that he is "strongly opposed" to patenting the rice genome.

"As one of the important sequencing centres [of the rice genome], we think it should be covered by Bermuda Rules and should [be] made freely available. That is the reason that we have released the rice genome sequences," Yang said.

The 'Bermuda Rules' refers to guidelines for releasing human sequence data established in February 1996 at a Bermuda meeting of heads of the biggest labs in the publicly funded human genome project [8]. The rules require the labs to share the results of sequencing "as soon as possible", releasing all stretches of DNA longer than 1 000 units, and to submit the data within 24 hours to the public database known as GenBank. The goal, as stated in a memo released at the time, was to prevent the sequencing centres from "establishing a privileged position in the exploitation and control of human sequence information."

Article first published 08/07/04


  1. Ho MW. Science for the poor, or procurer for the rich? Science in Society 2002, 15, 8.
  2. "International Seed Treaty comes into force today but will it undermine farmers efforts to conserve diversity? UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition, 29 June 2004,
  3. "Patents worry in rice research", Agence France Press / New Straits Times Malaysia, 8 December 2003,
  4. "CGIAR turns to outsourcing", by Devinder Sharma, via GM Watch List, 26 April 2004.
  5. Kyuyek D. Rice is life. New Internationalist 2002, 349
  6. Ho MW. Breaching the knowledge monopoly. Science in Society 2002, 15, 6-19.
  7. "China ramps up efforts to commercialise GM rice" by Hepeng Jia, KS Jayaraman and Sabine Louët, Nature Biotechnology News 2004, 22, 642.
  8. "Bermuda Rules: community spirit, with teeth" by Flint Marshall, Science 2001, 291, 1192.

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