ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

29 November 2001


Jasmine Rice and the patenting of Asia's Rice Bowl
Masipag News & Views

29 November 2001

MASIPAG - The International Rice Research Institute has made itself safe keeper of the world's rice genetic resources. Collected from the farmers fields, it stores in its gene bank 86,000 rice strains.

Without a choice, we have "entrusted" with the institute our seeds -- our heritage. IRRI has betrayed us.

The controversy surrounding the improper distribution of Thailand's Jasmine rice has once again put into question the integrity of IRRI.

Released through the instituteís backdoor, American scientist Neil Rutger got the parent seeds of Jasmine from IRRI without the required Material Transfer Agreement (MTA). Rutger eventually gave them to American  breeder Dr. Chris Deren.

Under its 1994 trusteeship obligations to FAO, IRRI committed to regulate the distribution of rice samples from its genebank based on an MTA  that prohibits the recipient - and third parties - from taking out Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

Now, through the modern biotechnology, Dr. Deren has been transforming Jasmine rice to produce strains that will be grown commercially in the U.S. - a move that will hurt Thailand's export economy.

Thailand has been exporting 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes of rice annually to the U.S. Of which, 75% is Jasmine.

And with the U.S patent law allowing even a slight modification to call an "invention" and therefore subject to patenting, there is no guarantee no one will eventually lay claim of ownership over this genetic herigate unselfishly and freely shared by the Thai people for generations.

This incident is a cause for alarm among Filipino farmers. Especially that, it came amid cries of protests on the U.S. firm Rice Tec's existing patents on Pakistan and Indiaís Basmati rice variety.

The idea of claiming intellectual monopoly rights over rice, and life in general, is strange for Filipinos and other Asian people. However, the danger is imminent and real.

With the country's accession into the global trading scheme under the World Trade Organization, patenting of life forms, including rice, has paved the way for private ownership by giant agrochemical firms over genetic resources.

Until the late 1990ís, there are already some 160 biotech patents on rice in the world. Most of them are held by transnational companies in the U.S and Japan. The top 13 rice patent holders have just over half the biotech patents covering Asia's staple food.

Rice is more than just a food we find in our dining table. It is a cereal that has become the cornerstone of our food system, our language, our culture.

It is a collective heritage nurtured and developed by our farmers for generations. And with their noble work, they did not lay claim of ownership over this precious grain.

Note to the editor: Masipag or Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura is a network of farmers, NGOs and scientists promoting organic and sustainable agriculture in the Philippines.

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[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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