ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

6 December 2001


Masipag News & Views

On Jasmine issue:

LOS BANOS, Laguna - 'How safe are our seeds at IRRI's safe keeping?'

Once again, the International Rice Research Institute is in hot water with the recent discovery of a shipment of farmers' rice seeds from its gene bank to researchers in the United States without a needed transfer accord.

In a rally on November 29, peasant organizations assailed IRRI 'for betraying the farmers' by giving Jasmine rice seeds to American scientist Neil Rutger without the required Material Transfer Agreement to guarantee that the seeds will not be in any way patented.

Theft & Betrayal

Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas chair Rafael Mariano voiced outrage at this 'clear indication of theft' while other farmer groups expressed fears over the safety of Philippine aromatic rice varieties in IRRI's custody.

Collected from the world's rice paddies since the Green Revolution, IRRI has in its gene bank today more than 90,000 distinct strains of rice, most of them developed by Asian farmers.

'Without a choice, these seeds our heritage  are under IRRI's control,' said Abigail Verdillo, advocacy officer of the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura. 'IRRI has claimed that it will make sure no one gets intellectual property over these materials, but it has betrayed us.'

Under an October 1994 trusteeship agreement negotiated with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, IRRI committed to regulate the distribution of rice samples from its gene bank through an MTA.

This MTA prohibits the recipient and any third parties from claiming intellectual property rights on the seeds. In January 1995, IRRI sent Dr Neil Rutger of the University of Arkansas several samples of Thai Jasmine rice without an MTA. 'It was a personal request', IRRI explained.

Destroying Livelihoods

Through mutation breeding, University of Florida breeder Dr. Chris Deren, with whom Rutger then shared the seeds, is transforming Jasmine to produce strains he hopes will be grown commercially in the U.S. -- an action that could hurt Thailand’s export economy.

Thailand exports 1.2 million tons of Jasmine rice for about US$6 billion each year. One-third of that goes to United States alone. The five million Jasmine rice farmers in Thailand depend heavily on the crop for their meager US$200 monthly income.

'This shows how easily modern technology destroys people's livelihoods,' said Mariano.

Global Uproar

The discovery last September of IRRI's 'improper release' of Jasmine rice samples has caused an uproar among civil society organizations throughout the world and compelled Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to order a legal action against the US research project.

'This move amounts to a loss of our own sovereignty. Rice is our life. You take it away from us, you take away our right to live,' Veerapon Sopa of the Assembly of the Poor, a network of farmer’s organization  in Thailand, said before a hundred protesters here.

Dr. Edwin Javier, acting head of IRRI's Genetic Resources Center, said that the seeds were released without an MTA because a model Agreement was not drafted until August of 1995.

In the case of the Jasmine samples, IRRI got Rutger and Deren to sign a belated MTA in late October 2001 one month after the scandal broke out in Thailand and nearly six years after the seed transfer was made.

Full of Holes

Despite the assurance given by Javier that the American scientists will not claim patent ownership over the material, critics are unfazed.

'This trusteeship system is full of holes,' said Renee Vellve of the Genetic Resources Action International. "Under both US patent law and plant variety protection law, scientists can get intellectual property on modified versions of the Jasmine rice. The MTA doesn’t stop that.

'In fact, IRRI has made clear that it will not monitor compliance with these MTAs, only get people to sign them,' Vellve added.

Javier admitted that the MTA only prohibits recipients from seeking intellectual property on the seeds in the form they were received from IRRI, not their derivatives or genetic components. US scientists could conceivably isolate and purify a gene from the material and get a patent on it.

'The Thai farmers' loss of control over Jasmine rice is an alarm bell for Filipino farmers,' said Verdillo. 'Especially since it follows right on the heels of a US patent on Basmati rice.'

Daycha Siripatra, of the Alternative Agriculture Network in Thailand, said that 'IRRI has clearly proved that it cannot serve as custodian of the world’s rice seeds' and therefore should return them to the hands of the farmers.

There are currently over 600 biotechnology patents on rice worldwide. Most of them are held by a few transnational companies in the U.S and Japan, led by DuPont Corporation.

‘Rice is a collective heritage nurtured and developed by our farmers for generations,’ said Verdillo. ‘IRRI would never even have its hands on the 90,000 accessions it now holds if the farmers had claimed monopoly rights on them.’ (MNV, with a report from Inquirer News Service)

[Masipag News & Views is an occasional information release of the Farmer Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG). This report, in whole or in part, could be freely published.]

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