GE Rice: For whose gain?
Masipag News & Views
Jun 02, 2000 03:29 PDT
ASIAN FARMERS HAVE EVERYTHING TO LOSE
The greatest human need has been the need for food. Agriculture was
borne out of the interest of nomadic groups for permanent food sources.
Since then, science has grown leaps and bounds – advances which led to
the use of machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and even changes in the
system of production to that which we know today.
Agricultural research centers have played a great part in incorporating
these changes in developed countries. In 1959, the Consultative Group of
International Research Centers (CGIAR), with funding from the Ford and
Rockefeller Foundations, established the International Rice Research
Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. With a goal to organize a team of
scientists and build an international laboratory with excellent
conditions for efforts in increasing rice production, IRRI has become
the most influential agencies in rice research in Asia.
But behind the mirage is an institution which has given birth to
technologies that, instead of alleviating the status of small farmers,
has further buried them in a mire of debt and destroyed the very fields
from which they eke out a living.
Gene Revolution solutions to the rice crisis
These grave mistakes have made it even more difficult to meet the
growing demands of an ever-increasing population. The truth however is
that deep underlying political, economic and social problems prevent the
just distribution of food, even if enough is produced. The reductionist
approach of these quick fixes are ignoring bigger underlying problems
which are constraining farmers from achieving higher agricultural
yields. Access to land and capital, unstable market prices, poor
infrastructure like farm to market roads and post production facilities
being among other problems which should be looked into as well.
Yet this has not stopped IRRI from claiming that the answer to the rice
crisis is with what they now label as the offshoot of the Green
Revolution – the Gene Revolution.
With the advent of genetic engineering, the manipulation of an
organism’s genetic make-up to transfer desirable traits from one
organism to another can now be employed to improve the quality and
quantity of crop yields. It has placed in human hands, the power to
alter what is to be passed on from one generation to the next,
collapsing the boundaries set by time and the uniqueness of each
species. It can now join or disjoin functions or traits that would
otherwise normally take thousands of years be passed on and adapt by
simply altering the contents of a chromosome.
In its early stages, researches on genetic engineering were mostly
devoted to high value crops and rarely on self-pollinated ones like
rice. This was due mainly to the fact that although the product market
was high, with Asia accounting for majority of rice consumption and over
90% of its production; rice seed production would not be as profitable
because resource-poor farmers constituting a large number of those
engaged in agricultural production, save their seeds for the following
cropping season. What has suddenly spurned the interest of
transnational companies to collaborate with research agencies, the
academe and the private sector to engage in such studies is the race to
patent novel genes, create new varieties and distribute them to a market
hungry for false hopes and promises.
As early as 1986, studies have already put rice, Asia’s premiere crop,
on the transgenic “operating table.” There has been an increasing trend
in that area of interest, which even private companies are now engaging
in. According to a survey conducted by SEED Europe, “the top five
transgenic Gene Giants (Astra Zeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and
Aventis) account for nearly two-thirds of the global pesticide market
(60%), almost one-quarter (23%) of the global seed market, and virtually
100% of the transgenic seed market. This makes rice production ripe
for a corporate take-over through the use of transgenic rice, which
include an apomixis gene for hybrid rice production/1 , N-fixing rice,
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) rice/2 , blight and blast resistant rice/3,
a perennial rice variety/4 and the incorporation of micronutrients/5
(vitamin A, Iron and Zinc) in the rice grains.
Loss of control over production
One of the key factors in agricultural production has always been the
control of the planting material. With TNC’s controlling rice seed
production, governments will tend to support its nationwide use and
offer transgenic seeds as part of a package of technology, alongside
inputs for machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and production
loans. Such an approach will choke rights of farmers to save their own
seed and even control production in their own fields.
Corporations aiming to monopolize the seed industry will definitely
exploit the insertion of an apomixis gene to complement hybrid and
transgenic seed production. These “improved” seeds will grant companies
the ability to mass produce planting material that farmers need to buy
every season. It will also enable them to dictate what inputs to use
(which are most likely to be their products as well), thus increasing
farmer dependence and indebtedness.
In addition, the performance of such varieties in the field is not
guaranteed since it generally decreases in germination rate after two
planting seasons. And although it claims to increase production,
farmers will not end up saving much as compared to traditional
Production in light of global competition
Asian peasants have already been shoved into the global trading system,
forcing them to compete in an international market against large scale
and resource-rich producers. On the average, a farmer in Asia owns
about 1.5 hectares of land, with some still even leasing lands they till
from large land-owners. To resort to the use of transgenic rice might be
the only means by which these farmers can avail of services from the
government. This desperate effort to survive in the midst of global
competition would further reduce the poor to an even poorer state by
increasing dependence on TNCs for seeds and other inputs.
Biopatenting and piracy
Rice has been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years, embedding it in
rich genetic diversity. It is estimated that rural communities have
generated about 140,000 rice varieties, all of which are adapted to
local conditions, farmer and consumer preferences. Genetic engineering
has manipulated biological resources, giving rise to a highly profitable
industrial process. This led companies into a race of biopatenting and
piracy of traditional varieties from many developing countries.
All processes in the development of blight and blast resistant rice for
instance, from the gene itself down to the markers and promoter, are
patented by Monsanto. Agroevo, on the other hand is the owner of a
patent on all transgenic crops containing Bt, such as in Bt rice. Japan
Tobacco, meanwhile, has rights to an Agrocetus patent on all forms of
Patents made on transgenic rices with traits from local traditional
varieties will be solely under the hands of the few TNCs who are
investing in it. There are already 160 patent claims on rice, with half
belonging to top the 13 companies. How can a technology then, which is
monopolized only by a few, claim to be for uplifting the lives of the
Farmers protest against patents
The public however, has not kept mum on the issue. In India, protesters
have rallied in the streets to denounce the monopoly claim on basmati
rice, a traditional variety which has already been planted by Indian
farmers for many years. “We have not done enough to protect our own
treasures of this country,” said Jaya Jetlie, general secretary of Hind
Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, an agricultural labor organization. “If we
lose our [rice] exports and lose whatever tradition and wealth we have,
we will soon become a country where every pebble and every stone is
owned by somebody else,“ she added.
Ka Memong Patayan, a farmer from Mindanao and advocate of peasant rights
meanwhile, says that “A patent on seeds is a patent on freedom. If you
have to pay for patented seeds, it’s like being forced to purchase your
Loss of diversity
Much of the rice diversity, once endowed to farmer communities, has
already been lost under the guise of feeding the world during the Green
revolution. Forty years later, the same strategy but under a different
name, comes to wreak the same havoc. IRRI has even served as a means by
which industrialized countries have come to access resources for their
own benefit – without any returns to the farmers from developing
A dark cloud of genetic uniformity is already gripping Asian fields
today with production being confined to only a few varieties. This is a
very dangerous situation for farmers and food security since it
increases dependence on toxic chemicals and genetic engineers to help
defend crops against inherent weaknesses of biological uniformity.
Diversity in the field is one of the factors to prevent mass infection
and traditional rice varieties (TRVs) have an advantage when planted
since they are more adapted to local conditions. Although susceptible to
pest attacks, the diverse nature distributes the damages incurred thus,
the over-all productivity is only slightly affected. There are cultural
practices and indigenous knowledge systems being employed to cope with
such attacks, which are equally if not more effective without destroying
the farm ecology.
Blast and bacterial blight for instance, is only a minor problem in the
rice field. Farmers are able to minimize damages through planting of
more than one variety at a time to serve as buffer to damages incurred;
correct timing of planting; proper water management and nutrient
management; and practices to reduce the inoculum infection for the next
cropping (i.e. care in transplanting seedlings from the seed bed to the
field, removal of stubble from the infected crop and weeds).
Transgenic rice posessing resistance to the said diseases, if planted in
large scale, will pose the same threats and even aggravate those
incurred by HYVs during the green revolution. Even approaches to
combat the undernutrition problem with nutrient fortified rice will
adversely affect the diversity of other nutrient rich alternatives
present with its large scale production. It is then essential that
control over these resources be kept at the farmer’s level, since it is
a key in preserving the balance of a now fragile ecosystem.
Raising the requirement and its effect on
Despite the offerings and promises of improved rice production, for the
past 40 years, production has improved little and has even declined,
with the Asian average reported at around 2 to 3 tons, the yield ceiling
of IRRI released rices are as high as 10 to 12 tons. The advent of
transgenics will further increase the said ceiling and thus further
widening the existing yield gap.
According to the countries comprising the International Rice Commission
at FAO, “Although there is an urgent need to increase yield potential
of rice in areas where yields are already high, there is a more urgent
need to increase yields in areas where farmers yields are far inferior
to the potential yields.” Yet strangely, raising a variety’s genetic
potential seems to be the only solution IRRI has to offer. With the
yield of transgenics expected to be even higher than HYVs, the yield gap
widens, with farmers not being able to catch up with the ceiling.
Here lies the error of assuming the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
High yielding varieties were presented as the solution during the 70’s
yet, national production levels have not increased considerably. The 3
to 4 ton yield gap was due to some other production constraint and not
in the seeds itself. Yet some farmers embraced the solution, even as it
dragged them into a quagmire of poverty and food insecurity.
Today, transgenics are targeting yields higher than those set by HYVs.
The same deep-seated problems plaguing farmers are expected to rear its
ugly head, farmers already buried in debt will have to scramble to reach
the yield potential to at least break-even.
Climatic conditions which have grown more erratic, such as what we have
been experiencing with El Niño and La Niña, will make targets even more
harder to attain. The patented technology will also increase cost of
production, and prevent saving of seeds and their exchange among
farmers. Eventually, large scale planting of transgenics will increase
susceptibility to pests and diseases. Farmers would then have to either
resort to some unsustainable means to reduce the attack or suffer the
consequences of the resulting yield decline. The result: a harvest, not
any different from what was previously obtained, perhaps maybe even
Clearly such a response caters only to the interests of large producers
who have the needed resources and not to resource poor farmers. For the
latter, half of their earnings in a season, are given to landlords as
The answer being presented is temporal as well as shortsighted since the
real and more threatening impacts of commercialization of this
technology on the users themselves are neglected. Transgenic rice does
not answer the more pressing needs of farmers nor is it able to enhance
their strengths and resources; instead, it preys upon their innocence,
weakness and poverty.
Farmers have everything to lose
Indeed the times are a lot different, they are harder and more
complicated. But the same underlying economic, political and social
issues which have to be dealt with, remain. Likewise, there is
substantial evidence to prove that the risks of GM crops to the
environment and health are real but its impact to small farmers, the
most vulnerable sector, is even more disturbing.
The right to food security is a right to life and therefore, the law of
profit cannot be applied to that which is essential for the fight
against hunger, disease and poverty. Transgenic rice is no panacea,
and should not be presented as one. It is not a technology for the poor
but selfishly caters only to the interests of the few who already have
For Asian farmers who have everything to lose with every planting
season, transgenics may be the biggest gamble they have yet to take.
There is no certainty, and the odds are already playing against their
1/ The apomixis gene will give the hybrid rice plant the ability to
produce offspring (F1) with the same traits as the parent since the
reproduction will not require the union of male and female floral parts.
2/ Rice will be able to exude a crystalline protein throughout its
body, which is able to ward off stem borers and other lepidopteran and
3/ Rice varieties are added with a gene to make it resistant to the
attack of blast and blight (two of the major diseases in rice, according
to its developers).
4/ Rice which is able to reproduce more than once in its lifetime and
can last for at least two years.
5/ Value-added rice, which scientists claim can solve Vitamin A
deficiency (VAD) and Iron deficiency, the world’s leading causes of
infant death and maternal complications during pregnancy.
Note: This article was published last May on the special edition of
Suhay, the official newsletter of Masipag.