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The Solution That Wasn't

In vitro cultivation of genetically modified rice.

Photo By: IRRI under a CC licence.

Rice - the world's most popular foodstuff and an important symbolic crop across many cultures - now faces an uncertain future. Nowhere is rice more important both culturally and economically than in Asia. Lorena Luo looks at the situation in China and India and explains why genetically modified rice – now being touted as the Second Green Revolution – cannot be the answer to the looming crisis.

Millions of people are facing food shortages, unaffordable food prices and in many cases, hunger. Asia is a continent with a huge population and the majority of its population depends on rice. It is not only the staple food for millions; it is also a symbol of national history, culture and pride. China, for instance, is one of the countries in which rice originated, and it still has many wild varieties. Japan holds festivals for the rice harvest each year and in Thailand people are proud of their renowned Jasmine rice. But this symbolic crop could have a gloomy future, as corporations take over rice patents and genetically engineer it, thus gaining control over one of the most important crops in the world.

China and India are the two most populous countries in Asia, and producing enough food to feed their still-growing populations is a top priority. Scientists and corporations have been promising that genetic engineering (GE) will provide more, and better, food, and as a result the Chinese and Indian Governments have focused their efforts on GE rice development and commercialization. Since 2003 the Chinese Government has invested a total of 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in GE technology. In early 2006, around 100 GE rice lines were at the experimental testing stage, eight to ten were at the stage of small-scale environmental release, and three were waiting for approval for commercial production. In June 2008 the Government approved a 12-year, 20 billion yuan project focusing on GE technology development.

China and India are the two most populous countries in Asia, and producing enough food to feed their still-growing populations is a top priority

In India, there are 23 GE rice lines under development, mostly at Indian universities. Roughly six of them are at the field trial stage and about four or five years from commercialization. Currently, the more mature GE varieties are anti-pesticide or anti-herbicide, but the scientists are also working on varieties that increase yield.

The main reason for government-oriented development is food security, but research by Greenpeace and Third World Network has shown the varieties of Chinese GE rice which are closest to commercialization all have foreign patents. This means that foreign corporate control could soon be a threat to national food security.

Foreign patent holders include Monsanto, Bayer Crops and Syngenta. Transnationals such as these have a history of using (or threatening the use of) lawsuits to protect their patents. When a company owns more patents, it has more power to define the terms and conditions for their commercial use, which in turn enables the company and its shareholders to profit more.

Upping the price

Case studies in other countries have shown that the price of GE seed is much higher than that of conventional non-GE seed. Eventually this leads to increases in the price of all seeds within that market. The higher price of GE seed is due to the patent holders, or their authorized agents (such as seed companies) collecting extra fees for the technology under signed agreements.

In 2005, Monsanto’s Bt corn seed cost up to three times as much as conventional corn hybrid seed in the Philippines. Yet the yield of the GE seed was found to be similar to that of conventional seed. In the US, the price of GE cotton seed was up to four times more expensive, and conventional seeds were difficult to find in the market.

If the interests of farmers continue to be impinged, it will reduce their motivation to plant crops and result in a less secure long-term food supply. Supply shortages will further raise food prices and people with lower incomes, for whom food expenditure uses up a large portion of their income, will be hardest hit. With rice being the staple food grain of most Chinese, even a small price increase will greatly impact the life of ordinary people.

The US and the EU are putting pressure on China to implement ‘higher standards’ in the protection of intellectual property. In the US and Canada, patent holders often take legal action against farmers who allegedly infringe their patents. Even countries which have not granted seed patents have been affected. In one well-known case Monsanto filed lawsuits against European importers of soybean meal from Argentina. By filing lawsuits for alleged patent infringement in Europe, the company hoped to force Argentina to pay fees, despite the fact that there are no patents related to GE soya grown there.

The large-scale planting of commercialized GE rice seed will inevitably lead to the contamination of conventional seeds, either through natural occurrences or human error

In addition, the large-scale planting of commercialized GE rice seed will inevitably lead to the contamination of conventional seeds, either through natural occurrences or human error, such as leaking or mixing. If GE seed contaminates conventional seed, local seed companies and farmers will become embroiled in lawsuits, including cases where the GE seed had not even been approved in the country affected. Patent holders may enforce their patent rights and require compensation. All of which suggests that commercialization of GE rice with foreign patents may lead to lawsuits against Chinese producers (the majority of whom are small farmers) and companies.

Chinese guinea pigs

In China and India, the Government is the biggest investor in GE development. However, in other Asian countries, it is transnationals such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer which are the main driving force.

Syngenta is targeting its GE rice, Golden Rice, at Asian countries. In 2004 it undertook field trials in Bangladesh, and it is now doing field trials in the Philippines. Syngenta claims that Golden Rice could help poor people get enough Vitamin A to prevent Vitamin A deficiency. But to prevent or combat Vitamin A deficiency, a more balanced diet and access to fruit and vegetables is required, not GE rice.

In fact, the Chinese Government recently stopped a Golden Rice feeding trial. The trial had been approved by the US Government’s National Institute of Health, and was due to take place in China during June and July. It involved feeding Chinese children Golden Rice and taking blood samples to study its effects. However, Golden Rice has not received any safety approval from any government in the world, and when the Chinese authorities learned about the trial, it was halted. China is investing heavily not only in GE rice but also in cotton, corn, soy bean, rape, trees and even GE animals. After ten years of commercial growing of GE cotton in China, scientific studies on the problem of secondary pest and cotton disease outbreaks are beginning to emerge. Despite the latest findings, news coming out of the industry is that a GE corn containing the phytase gene may soon be commercialized in China, currently the world’s largest producer of non-GE corn. This GE corn will be used mainly for animal feed production, but if it is approved for commercialization, China may face risks including gene pollution, patents being controlled by foreign countries and increased costs.

Despite being the country’s biggest investor in GE, the Chinese Government is still concerned about its safety. Twenty per cent of its latest funding is going into bio-safety research and capacity building.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that GE food may have a negative impact on human health and the environment, and market surveys have indicated that Chinese consumers are cautious about GE food, with over 90 per cent believing GE food should be labelled.

The real solution

So GMO does not solve the agriculture problem, what are the real solutions? The real solution is to recognize the fundamental problems in the current system, and to make essential changes.

The current system based on external input and is not based on the way nature works. It is believed that by adding extra into the eco system, output can be raised. However, it is clearly not the case; we need to work together with nature rather than trying to ‘manage’ it.

The IAASTD is a unique collaboration initiated by the World Bank in partnership with a multi-stakeholder group of organizations, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environmental Programme, the World Health Organization and representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific institutions from around the world.

The IAASTD report is a call for governments and international agencies to redirect and increase their funding towards a revolution in agriculture that is firmly agro-ecological. The core message of the final IAASTD report is the urgent need to move away from destructive and chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and to adopt environmental modern farming methods that champion biodiversity and benefit local communities. More and better food can be produced without destroying rural livelihoods or our natural resources. Local, socially and environmentally responsible methods are the solution. The IAASTD also concluded that such techniques as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty. The final report of the IAASTD, published in April 2008, is likely to become a key reference point for future national and international investments in agricultural research.

Many believe that genetic engineering and the principles of heavily industrial agriculture which lie behind it cannot be the answer to the agricultural problems facing Asia and the world. It is no way to address the needed fundamental changes in farming practices and deal with soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters.

*Lorena Luo* works in the Greenpeace office in Beijing.

Read more about the background into how the stage for hunger was set decades ago, and how current global financial and economic systems are worsening the situation for poor farmers across Asia and undermining food security in Pesticide Action Network's article Rice Under Threat.