Rice resistance

Rice farmers in Asia are fighting for food sovereignty and security.

*Should genetically modified food be forced upon unwilling populations?*

Biotech companies – and the governments that root for them within the WTO – think so. But a resounding, and increasingly effective, ‘no’ is gathering volume around the world.

A recent French poll reports that 78 per cent want a temporary ban on GM crops. Similarly a Europe-wide poll published by the European Food Safety Authority states that 62 per cent are worried about GM products in food.

This will come as no surprise to farmers and consumers in Asia who have long been fighting an alliance of biotech corporations and their own compliant governments.

‘It happened just after the Tsunami,’ says Revathi, an organic farmer from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

She is referring to the Indian Government’s first attempts to push through a new Seeds Bill which would make it illegal to keep and germinate seed that has not been ‘registered’ with the authorities. Those breaking the law would incur a six-month prison sentence. Traditionally women gather and keep seeds for use in future years. The objective of the legal requirement to register appears to be to take seed-germination out of the control of farmers and into the hands of biotech seed companies operating in India, such as Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and Dow Agro.

Biotech corporations claim that GM offers better yields. But farmers like Revathi only see deepening debt among peasants, who have to buy seed and other related products, and a rising suicide rate. Local seed diversity and food security itself are threatened by GM.

‘We have many different indigenous types of rice growing for different conditions,’ she explains. ‘On the coast we have a type that grows taller so it is unaffected by rises in water level. Inland there is another type that grows in areas where there is little water. We will lose all this. People will starve.’

The Seed Bill debate is ongoing and resistance is fierce. In Orissa more than 3,000 tribal women made a bonfire of GM seeds and demanded that theirs be declared an ‘organic state’.

But, across the border in Bangladesh, the Government is ready to approve the introduction of Golden Rice, a GM brand developed by the Swiss transnational Syngenta, sparking protests by farmers and scientists.

Syngenta claims its Golden Rice is enhanced with Vitamin A – lacking in the Bangladeshi diet. This vitamin helps protect against blindness. But a Greenpeace study worked out that if you relied on Golden Rice to meet your daily requirement of Vitamin A you would need to consume 12 times a normal daily ration. Alternatively, you could just settle for half a mango.

To protect their indigenous rice Bangladeshi farmers are contributing to the Community Seed Wealth Centre, which keeps 1,000 different varieties.

Elsewhere resistance to GM rice keeps mounting. A strong consumer movement in Japan has come out with a resounding ‘no’. And, perhaps most significant in terms of population, Chinese people are also resolutely opposed. Angus Lam of Greenpeace in China says: ‘In a recent poll 73 per cent said they would choose non-GM rice.’

In 2005 Greenpeace found illegally genetically engineered rice in Hubei province, in a store owned by giant French retailer Carrefour. China is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice – especially to Japan – and news of the contamination threatened to damage trade. It came at a time when the Chinese Government was considering the commercial release of GM rice.

Says Lam: ‘It is unacceptable for a small group of rogue scientists to take the world’s most important staple food crop into their own hands. China should halt the approval process for GM rice and immediately implement a decontamination plan to withdraw illegal GM rice from the food chain and environment.’

Last year, the US, Canada and Argentina complained that national safety bans on GM products and Europe’s moratorium on new GM foods between 1999 and 2004 were barriers to trade.

A report of the WTO’s draft ruling, leaked earlier this year, suggests a mixed result, with the WTO not ruling on some of the key issues. Environmental groups, meanwhile, are calling for such disputes to be taken out of the WTO and to be dealt with by an independent body. Friends of the Earth believes this could be the International Court of Justice or the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

New Internationalist issue 388 magazine cover This article is from the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop