Rice as a strategic weapon for profit

Companies and industrial countries want to win monopoly rights over Asia’s biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. They are using legislation known as Intellectual Property Rights, which enables the patenting of life forms.

Rice is the most important grain.
Rice goes back thousands of years in Asia’s agricultural history. Today, rice accounts for 80% of Asia’s daily calorie intake and therefore is the key to food security.

In India alone there are an estimated 200,000 varieties of rice. The diversity of rice in India is one of the richest in the world. They have a wide range of different purposes, some grow well during droughts, others can withstand certain pests. Some have long and slender grains, others are slow cooking or medicinal.

The story of Basmati
Basmati rice is distinct for its unique aroma and flavour. Basmati translates “queen of aroma”. There is reference to Basmati in ancient texts, folklore and poetry, as it has been grown for centuries. There are twenty-seven distinct documented varieties of Basmati grown in India.

In 1997 RiceTec, a transnational corporation got patent rights on Basmati rice and grains, through the US Patent and Trademark Office. This allows RiceTec Inc, an American subsidiary to sell a ‘new’ variety of Basmati, in the US and abroad. This ‘new’ variety of Basmati has been derived from farmer’s varieties. Indian Basmati crossed with semi-drawf varieties. Rice Tec are falsely claiming a ‘derivation’ as an invention or a novelty.

A patent can only be issued if it meets the three criteria of novelty, non-obviousness and utility. Novelty implies that the innovation must be new. It must not be part of ‘prior art’ or existing knowledge. Non-obvious implies that someone familiar in the art should not be able to achieve the same step.

The patent extends to “functionally equivalents”, implying that other people selling Basmati rice could be restricted by the patent. Rice Tec could have sole right to use the term ‘Basmati’ for marketing the rice anywhere in the world.

Farmers livelihoods, and heritage threatened

If this patent is enforced internationally under World Trade Organisation rules it could seriously affect the livelihoods of many Indian and Pakistani farmers who grow and trade rice. Farmers could find themselves paying royalties on varieties their communities have played a hand in breeding over centuries.

While the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is intended to carry out rice research which benefits poor countries, industrialised countries profit enormously from IRRI.

The wealth of farmer’s rice varieties and put seeds into the ‘gene’ bank, IRRI. This is one of the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARC) under the Consultative group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These centers facilitate biopircay, as they are funded by ‘donor’ countries who give ‘foreign aid’ investment for research. These countries (US, Canada, GB, and Austrailia) receive billions of dollars in annual return from crops obtained through IARCs.

There is an agreement between the United Nations, Food and Agricultural Organisation and CGIAR stating seeds from this IRRI ‘gene’ bank should not be patentable, but once a scientist has done breeding work, material can be patented.

Rice Tec got its basmati lines from IRRI. 75% of US rice harvest is based on resources from IRRI. They are many more applications for patents on rice by various companies.

IRRI promotes hybrids

The role of the IRRI has involved promoting the Green Revolution since the 1960s. In 1966 it released a variety of high-yielding rice, IR8 despite it’s poor quality and the variety lacked resistance to common rice diseases and pests, it got distributed widely. It was promoted as a miricle strain. It was hit by tungro disease, so growers switched to IR-20, which was fatally vulnerable to grassy stunt virus and brown hopper insects. So farmers moved to IR- 26, a super hybrid that turned out to be exceptionally resistant to almost all Philippines diseases and insect pests. It was too fragile for the islands strong winds, whereupon plant breeders decided to try an original Taiwan strain that had shown unusual capacity to stand up to winds – only to find that it had been all but eliminated by Taiwan farmers as they planted virtually all their ricelands with IR-8.

Now IRRI are promoting the gene revolution. They are developing a new “Super Rice” which will apparently be highly productive, producing it’s own herbicide through genetic engineering techniques.

Farmers need to become breeders again

IRRI need to be challenged so they stop replacing locally generated, indigenous techniques and expertise with unsustainable technologies. More plant breeding projects need to be established like MASIPAG, farmer-scientist participation programs which recover and preserve varieties of rice that have lost diversity over the last decades. The idea is to enable farmers to gain control of their seeds.

It is important that ownership of plant varieties and knowledge be rejected. Such resources should remain accessible to all people who require seeds or knowledge for agriculture. They are not commodities to be exploited by the corporate sector. Patenting life forms or knowledge is not acceptable. It is theft from generations past, present and future.