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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rice Futures

Air Date: Week of

As Asia's population grows, there is an ever-increasing need to develop rice varieties with higher yields. Producer Anne Marie Ruff reports that biotech companies are poised to get into the act which had once been the preserve of scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.


KNOY: The biotech industry has taken a keen interest recently in the international Rice Research Institute, in the small town of Los Banos in the Philippines. The Institute, also known as IRRI for short, developed the original high-yielding rice varieties of the green revolution. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary, IRRI is being called upon to boost yields again. And as Anne Marie Ruff reports, the Institute may turn to the biotech firms for help.

(Rice being scooped)

RUFF: In Asia, food is rice. From India to the Philippines, from Bali to Korea, every third mouthful people eat is rice. In China, where the customary greeting is "Have you eaten?" rice, quite simply, is a matter of survival. But the simplicity ends there.

(People speak)

RUFF: Rice vendors, like this one in Thailand, sell a range of rices.

VENDOR: Each village would have their own. So it's very hard to find.

RUFF: It turns out there are about as many different kinds of rice as there are dishes to eat it with. More than 100,000, in fact, all with slightly different genes. Many of those 100,000 are stored in an oversized freezer at the International Rice Research Institute.

JACKSON: So if you'd like to follow me, we're going to the cold rooms.

RUFF: Michael Jackson oversees the rice collection, or gene bank, at IRRI.

JACKSON: And you're now standing in what is essentially a very, very large cold chamber. There are rows of movable shelves containing rice seeds. There's probably about 90,000 samples in here. It's a very, very large collection. It is the most genetically-diverse collection of rice in any gene bank.

RUFF: There are rices that can grow under 50 feet of water during tropical monsoons, while others can grow on the sides of temperate mountains with hardly any water at all. Multiply this ecological diversity by the exacting culinary standards of thousands of different ethnic groups, and you get a sense of what Michael Jackson is keeping in his big freezer. The seeds, or germ plasm, as they are called, and their genetic diversity become valuable when they leave the gene bank to restore lost varieties or help breed new ones. A number of varieties will be sent back to Mozambique, which was recently hit with devastating floods.

JACKSON: And although the germ plasm from Mozambique only represents a few tens of samples, it could mean life or death in the future for rice farmers if they can get access to some of these varieties again.

RUFF: Farmers in Mozambique are not the only ones interested in IRRI's gene bank. The biotech giant Monsanto has recently announced it has deciphered a working draft of the rice genome -- basically a blueprint of rice genes. This blueprint will help them find valuable genes within IRRI's freely-accessible collection. Monsanto's not alone. The biotech companies Novartis and DuPont are also interested in IRRI's genes and research, which can help them develop seeds for the potentially giant Asian seed market. This interest has spurred the Institute to look to private companies for possible funding. While its budget has traditionally come from governments and private foundations, IRRI spokesman Duncan Macintosh says that's likely to change.

MACINTOSH: One of the main challenges IRRI faces in the future is how to form relationships with the private sector. Because the simple fact is, that's where the money is for research.

RUFF: The thought of IRRI trying to woo private funders is troubling for grassroots organizations across Southeast Asia. Fears that IRRI will turn its focus from the needs of rice farmers to the needs of the biotech giants have been heightened by IRRI's aggressive promotion of high-yielding hybrids. Farmers are not inclined to save these seeds for replanting, because yields go down after one generation. Hybrid seeds, in effect, secure markets for more seeds. This not only costs farmers more, it runs counter to a centuries-old tradition of saving seeds for replanting. But biotech companies are interested in hybrids because it's difficult to copy them. So a company selling hybrids doesn't have to worry about protecting their seeds in Asia, where patent enforcement is weak.

YAP: It's a big business for them. This is real politics. And these well-meaning scientists from IRRI better wake up.

RUFF: Emanuel Yap is with a Philippine farmer-scientist cooperate called Masipag. The group is part of a growing wave of Asian consumer opposition to genetic engineering. Sri Lanka has banned the import of genetically-modified foods. Anti-GM organizations are sprouting up in Thailand and Malaysia, and Indian farmers have ripped genetically-modified crops right out of the ground. But the fact is, Asia must increase rice production by 40 percent in the next 25 years just to keep up with population growth. IRRI's chief breeder, Gurdev Kush, thinks the opposition to GM crops will subside in the face of that need.

KUSH: My feeling is that this storm will blow over in a few years, and people will come around and use this technology. This is a part of the world where it is needed most. In Europe and the USA, it's not really that important to use this technology because there is no shortage of food.

RUFF: But Manny Yap of Masipag says GM crops are not the way to increase yields.

YAP: Masipag tries to support farmers in regaining the ability to conserve this biodiversity and use such biodiversity for their livelihood. We think you are better able to criticize if you have an alternative, and I think the 15 years of Masipag has shown that it's possible to do it. There's another way to do it.

RUFF: Yap's group teaches farmers to conserve rice diversity in their fields and use it to breed their own rice varieties. These farmer varieties, many of which are already yielding better than average crops, are freely shared with 30,000 farmers across the Philippines. While IRRI firmly believes in sharing seeds as well, biotech giants do not. Their marketing of hybrid rice in Asia will likely be followed by the marketing of genetically-modified rice for a profit. As IRRI struggles to maintain its budget and produce better rice seeds, critics wonder whether working with the private sector will help or hurt rice farmers. IRRI's Duncan Macintosh is optimistic.

MACINTOSH: We're quietly confident that it will work out in favor of the rice growers and not the private sector. Governments, societies, will not let companies go to the extent where they can openly be seen to exploit people in the developed world, or exploit, particularly, the rice farmers. It just can't happen that way.

RUFF: Which way biotechnology does go in Asia could hinge on how IRRI plays its influential hand. For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff in Los Banos, Philippines.



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