This month US-based DuPont, the world's second largest seed company and owner of Pioneer Hi-bred International, made two startling announcements that make clear its ambitious plans for hybrid rice. The first involves a deal giving DuPont privileged access to IRRI's hybrid rice breeding lines. The second, coming just a couple of weeks later, involves a similar deal with Indonesia's Centre for Rice Research, Balai Besar Penelitian Padi (or BB Padi). Both deals followed an announcement in 2007 of a partnership with the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center "to advance hybrid rice in Asia".
Few details of the agreement with IRRI have been made public. Although the deal is referred to as an "Exchange Programme" it sounds much more like a joint venture, with a behind the scenes plan not only for joint research and development but also for commercialisation of hybrid rice varieties developed through the partnership. DuPont is to provide its lab equipment and field locations for the partnership while IRRI's main contribution seems to be its germplasm.
How this squares with IRRI's recently launched Hybrid Rice Consortium is to be seen. The controversial Consortium was supposed to be IRRI's major platform for partnerships with the private sector in hybrid rice-- and some companies have already signed-on as members to get a chance to bid for exclusive rights to IRRI's hybrid rice lines. IRRI and DuPont have said the deal will "complement" the consortium, without elaborating.
But the difference is that, whereas the Consortium is mainly a mechanism for licensing out IRRI's hybrid varieties to private companies interested in taking on the commercialisation, the deal with DuPont is an exclusive partnership, where IRRI is working with a particular company, DuPont, to develop new hybrid rice lines that it will market, with some portion of royalties likely flowing back to IRRI. The deal with DuPont appears to be both disconnected from IRRI's historical mandate to support the national agriculture research systems (NARS), and it complicates its relations with the NARS and the other Consortium members by potentially locking-up IRRI's best hybrid rice germplasm under broadly-defined "confidential information" obligations. These obligations are spelled out in the Guiding Principles for "Scientific Know-How and Exchange Program" projects agreed to by the CG centres and the main multinational agrochemical corporations on May 20, 2005.
It's a sure-win deal for DuPont. It gets privileged access to the most important collection of hybrid rice parental lines and germplasm outside of China, and certainly the most advanced breeding programme for tropical hybrid rice seed production.
The Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) reacted strongly and immediately to the news. “With what DuPont is doing, an Asia-wide man-made catastrophe is on the looming if they are successful to penetrate Asian countries’ rice agriculture and wiping off indigenous varieties in favor of their commercial varieties,” said Danilo H. Ramos, APC Secretary-General.
Less than two weeks after announcing the IRRI deal, DuPont announced a similar agreement with BB Padi in Indonesia. BB Padi is Indonesia's premier public hybrid rice breeding programme. Its public status hasn't stopped it, however, from licensing a number of its most promising hybrid lines to private seed companies, including Syngenta and DuPont. Indeed, both of its most recent varieties, which are still in the registration process, are licensed to DuPont (Hipa 7 and Hipa 8). But now DuPont is taking its engagement with the Indonesian government a step further. According to news reports, on March 16 DuPont signed an MoU with Indonesia's Research and Development Agency under which BB Padi will collaborate with DuPont on research and development for new hybrid rice varieties, with DuPont taking responsibility for the marketing. DuPont now gets "the exclusive right to commercialize any new selected material," and in return it has pledged to provide BB Padi with $100,000 and a portion of the royalties it collects.
In the press release for the Indonesian deal, DuPont once again used the word "complement" to describe its relation to the IRRI deal. "Integration" would probably be more appropriate-- since through these deals, DuPont has brought two of the most-important public hybrid rice breeding programmes into its fold.
As for what farmers can expect from DuPont's deal-making, the APC's Ramos had this to say: “The losers are primarily the peasants who are double-whammy exploited and oppressed, they are doomed in debt, exposed to health hazards of agro-chemicals, hybrid varieties and GMOs, and displaced from the lands caused by land use conversions and crop conversions."