Against the grain 31 March 2000 http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=107 Rice research losing the patent battle [Los Baños, 31 March 2000] Rice - the basis of life for half the world's population - is fast falling under the control of the biotechnology industry. Genetic engineers are aiming to capture huge markets in Asia, where farmers still save seed from their rice harvest for planting the next season. The best way to do this? Use science to stop the reproductive capacity of rice or use law to patent the plant, so no one can commercially exploit it without your permission. The real impact to expect from genetically engineered rice is not how it might feed Asia, but how it will expand the wealth of transnationals poised to enter the rice market in Asia. Intellectual property rights (IPR) are a key component of this strategy. Until recently, patenting of food crops was mainly restricted to industrialised countries, where highly subsidised farmers manage to pay royalties to access new strains that are tailored for factory farming conditions. Now it is spreading to the poor countries of the South, as a requirement under the World Trade Organisation. Rice is on the front line. And rice research in the public interest will be severely affected. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines, is celebrating its 40th anniversary next week. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution, which, despite the hype about feeding the world, has actually left many people poorer and hungrier than in the past. In its media work to draw attention to its celebration, IRRI is rightly raising the spectre of rice patenting. However, the Institute is alarmingly misleading the public about what is going on. According to a recent press statement, IRRI says that "The main worry is that [Plant Variety Protection] and [intellectual property] legislation, if not properly handled, may restrict the free exchange of genetic material, or seeds, needed by scientists to develop new higher yielding varieties." Farmers groups and non government organisations have been shouting this for decades. But IRRIs response to the issue now - to urge countries to accept IPR as inevitable - will ensure exactly what the Institute is so worried about, that is, restrict free exchange of seed and genetic material. IRRI, who is very late to get a grip on these legal realities, seems to imagine that the best approach for the poor countries of Asia is to join the IPR race as soon as possible. Rather than working against the introduction of intellectual monopolies on rice biodiversity for example by changing the rules of the WTO IRRI is encouraging Asian governments to buckle up and accept it as some kind of hopeless fate. This is terribly unjust, especially for the countless generations of rice farmers who unwittingly donated the world's rice varieties to Science for free, only to see them patented. At present, over 160 patents have been granted in the field of rice biotechnology worldwide. Over half of them are held by 13 companies in the industrialised countries. If patents on life are accepted in Asia, rice scientists will have to pay to use genetic resources and technologies, and the bill will be passed on to the farmers. The development of Vitamin A rice, which has been so highly commended in the Western press, involved wading through no less than 70 patents, according to Dr Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, one of the scientists who developed the rice. He himself is party to a patent application on it. IRRI keeps saying that Vitamin A rice will be available for free. After complex licensing negotiations, it might be. But that doesn't answer the question: who will pay for it? The big corporations keep arguing that patents are needed to recoup their R&D costs. A little bit of charity might win them some public relations points in the short-term, but it won't support their investments. IRRI's Dr William Padolina blithely states that the new laws "will also affect how rice is grown, processed and sold." Disingenuously, he fails to inform the public that IRRI itself has filed for a trademark on its own rice varieties and breeding lines, and that the Institute's internal IPR policy is to proactively seek intellectual monopolies over the products of its own biotechnology research. IRRI is taking Asian scientists for a ride. IPR on rice will benefit neither public science nor the poor. It is not only deeply unethical and unjust, it will allow for the corporate takeover of the world's most important staple food. Moreover, it will harm biodiversity, as IPR systems on plant varieties restrict free access to seeds and require genetic uniformity as a criterion for legal protection. IRRI just sees no alternative that is their problem. An effective alternative exists: the prohibition of patents on life forms. This is the position that many developing countries are pursuing with strong commitment at the WTO, and this is the demand of countless civil society groups - from major development agencies to farmers groups - both North and South. There are many other incentives that can stimulate research and innovation. These can be propagated once we have a democratic way of deciding what research is worth funding in the first place. Until then, however, genetic engineering and intellectual property will logically be seen as enemies of the poor. Pulling the rice cultures of Asia into the grip of corporate intellectual property systems is not a win-win scenario. Farmers will lose control over their production systems and biodiversity will suffer. The right way forward is to resist the privatisation of what rightfully belongs to the people and to restructure agricultural research so that it is truly controlled by those who should benefit the poor, not the TNCs.