The Philippine Post
Los Banos, Philippines --- There's an eerie calm among rice farmers here who live a couple of miles away from the sprawling International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world's leading rice research agency. It is because of an apprehension that something unwanted is about to happen. Come July, there's no telling if the calm will reach boiling point.
That is the time IRRI has set to conduct the first ever open field test of transgenic or genetically modified rice in Southeast Asia. The transgenic rice has been genetically engineered to resist bacterial blight (Xanthomonas oryzae pv. Oryzae) or termed Xoo in short, a destructive fungal disease of rice. The genetically modified crop is called BB-rice. The test to be conducted by IRRI is not far from farmers fields.
For years, IRRI, has collected from farmers' fields rice varieties numbering more than 80,000 which it keeps in its genebank. This is more than half of the 140,000 rice varieties that rural communities have generated for thousands of years. From 1960 to 1990, it has developed so-called high yielding varieties (HYV) which indeed increased production but caused tremendous environmental and economic problems. Along with the HYVs it introduced came use of heavy pesticides and herbicides as well as inorganic fertilizers. The efforts to increase diversity and crop yields in less advanced regions of the world like the Philippines came to be known as the Green Revolution.
Many believe IRRI has not acted as the "savior" farmers expected it to be. The varieties it introduced caused the disappearance of farmers' traditional varieties which, although gave lower yield than IRRI's, were resistant to many pests and diseases and required less fertilizers. Tata Gonying Velasco, a sustainable farmer says "use of IRRI varieties has not only eroded the diversity of rice nurtured for years. It is wiping out his and his ancestor's history as farmers, as stewards of seeds."
Specters of the Past
Farmer Pedring Pangan of Calauan still recalls the time when the deadly brown planthopper (BPH) laid to waste his father's rice fields in 1970. "We planted IR8 and threw away our traditional rice. We had a good first harvest, after that, we harvested almost nothing."
The BPH outbreak was not only in the Philippines. As IRRI's HYVs dominated India, Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan, almost one third of Asia' riceland, the BPH outbreaks cost the countries and the Philippines almost $700 million in crop damages. Crop losses were worst in the Philippines where it reached 56 per cent of all ricelands in 1976.
Followingly in 1991, over half a million hectares of rice in Southeast Asia were fully destroyed by BPH, the worst in Thailand.
Under the guise of feeding the world, IRRI has been able to launch a vast campaign to bring Asia's peasantry into the grips of the world trade system. Suddenly, packages of uniform technologies-inorganic fertilizers, high yielding but disease and pest susceptible seeds, mechanization, irrigation, credit and marketing schemes-displaced the ecological wealth, the skills and the self-esteem of many farmers. All in the name of modernization.
In 1980, IRRI illegally brought rice blast fungus to the Philippines form its research, unmindful of the dire consequences that were to happen. The public and the Senate were outraged causing an investigation for its importation of pathogens without permits. In 1996, it once again tried to import transgenic BT rice, causing an angry Congress to say "IRRI failed to follow prudent compliance.. as well as public deliberations on public safety"
Breeding the Seed of Hostility
Velasco and Pangan are not the only farmers who feel "ripped off" by IRRI's controversial programs. Leopoldo Guilaran and Memong Patayan, who like Velasco are farmers now allied with MASIPAG, a farmer-led, community-managed breeding and conservation network, feel they have been sleeping with the enemy and that the long of honeymoon of farmers with IRRI should end. The entry of BB rice to their farms may be the day.
The farmers are fearful of the GMO rice. They have learned from NGOs that hybrid rice will result to monopoly control of rice by transnational companies in the Philippines. "Patents on seeds illustrate the extent to which transnational want to establish monopolies on life, maximize profit and dominate the world," claimed Guilaran who apparently has been taught well of the evils of biotechnology.
"A patent on seeds is a patent on freedom", Patayan added. "If you have to pay for patented seeds, it's like being forced to purchase your own freedom," he philosophically said.
Some farmers of Calauan who were earlier involved in protests against Monsanto and Du Ponts's testing of Bacillus thuringiensis corn (BT-Corn) here early this year have equally voiced their opposition of a genetically-engineered rice. One, like Carmen Toquillas said "Hindi na natural na pagkain yan, kung ano ano na lang ang inilagay nila, ". "Kaya ang daming nagkakasit ngayon eh," she theorized.
Farmers and environmentalists also point out to highly possible health and environmental threats that BB rice pose to humans and the environment. These reasons have been enough for many to express hostility against IRRI.
But IRRI remains unfazed. It says the tests will go on. For the sake of food security. The government has given its backing, even allowing the government owned Philippine Rice Research Institute (PHILRICE) to do its own open field test simultaneous with IRRI at Maligaya, Munoz, Nueva Ecija.
What is BB-Rice?
Devlin Kuyek, a researcher and writer of the booklet "BB Rice, IRRI's First Transgenic Field Test" released last May says BB-rice is a genetically modified crop of the rice variety IR72. It is genetically engineered with a gene from an African rice found in Mali called Oryza longistaminata . The gene, called Xa21, is found in the chromosome of the African rice. It was discovered in 1977 as resistant to bacterial blight by the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) of India.
IRRI, through its chief breeder Dr. Gurdev Khush who is also head of the Genetic and Biochemistry Division, was able to get a sample of the gene and conducted years of breeding to transfer the gene to IRRI's IR24 variety. The gene was successfully isolated to produce resistant lines against bacterial blight.
The Xa21 gene was cloned by Dr. Pamela Ronald, then of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) in 1995 for genetic engineering. But it was done closely with Dr. Swapan Datha, IRRI's biotechnologist. Together with colleagues, from UC Davis, they filed and now own the patent of the gene.
Their efforts were complemented by the International Laboratory for Tropical Agriculture Biotechnology (ILTAB) in California. Today, the XA 21 gene has been genetically engineered with the wild West African rice, a Chinese rice variety and two IRRI varieties-IR64 and IR72. The gene XA21 showed resistance to 29 strains of bacterial blight.
While there is no way to determine how the wild West African rice was plucked out from its natural habitat by a an Indian scientist working for the CRRI in 1977, it is most likely that the wild rice was pirated, without the knowledge of the native Mali people who have nurtured the rice for centuries. XA21, a product of that wild rice, has become a potential multi-million dollar source of income by the scientists and institutions that patented it.
Does Bacterial Blight Need GMO to be Controlled?
Metaphorically-speaking, bacterial blight , a water-borne disease which is aggravated by use of heavy nitrogen fertilizer, can be said as a rice plague made worse by IRRI's faulty program. Before 1950, the blight was not a serious problem in Southeast Asia. Traditional practices and native rice varieties of farmers "kept the disease at bay", wrote Kuyek.
But IRRI in 1959 introduced the IR8 rice variety, a voracious of chemical fertilizer user, especially of nitrogen. In only ten years, the disease spread throughout the region as the use of the IRRI variety became widespread. Farmers lost up to 80 per cent of their harvests. In 1970, no less than the Japanese Technical Cooperation Agency (JTCA) blamed IRRI for the spread of the disease saying "It is clear that such varieties (IRRI varieties) are assisting the disease to spread wider. JTCA's director general questioned the logic behind the use of the HYV's to increase production, Kuyek said.
"Bacterial blight has made little harm as far as local varieties had been cultured without any fertilization.. But almost all HYV varieties which Southeast Asian countries adopted are very susceptible to bacterial blight. Besides, they require large amounts of fertilizer, which, therefore, is considered a big barrier to the implementation of increased production of rice", lamented the JTCA director general.
The use of IRRI's HYVs which turned out in reality to be like Input Intensive Varieties (IIVs), made life miserable for thousands of farmers in Southeast and South Asia. As traditional varieties were lost, replaced by IRRI varieties, " use of nitrogen fertilizers soared up to 9.6 million tons in 1980 for 34 million hectares planted to IRRI rice, wrote Kuyek. Fertilizer companies' gains jumped while farmers started to experience more problems such as the widespread infestation of bacterial blight.
Fortunately, IRRI and national research agencies were able to incorporate traditional farmers varieties resistant to bacterial blight into their breeding program which brought the problem to manageable level.
Is there a need for the BB rice?
Engr. Robert Verzola, Secretary General of Philippine Green, and a member of the country's National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) said there is no need to create a GMO rice to control bacterial blight. "Again, we are seeing the creation of a technology intended to solve a problem created by no less than the creators of the problem", he told the Post in apparent reference to IRRI.
Verzola sniped at members of the NCB for allowing the field tests despite potential risks that the tests are likely to meet. The members of NCB, he claimed, are very much biased in favor of GMOs, making himself the exception.
The use of GMO to control bacterial blight by IRRI is as controversial as the spread of the disease. No less than Rockefeller Foundation, the creator of IRRI, never considered bacterial blight as a priority for biotechnology research.
According to the 1991 "Rice Biotechnology", a publication of the CAB International, a leading international research agency on plant diseases, bacterial blight as a research priority is at the bottom of research problems with potential for biotechnology applications for IRRI. The conclusion was made by Dr. Robert Herdt, director of Rockefeller's Agricultural Sciences. To Dr. Herdt, conventional approaches to the disease were already "effective and sustainable". In short, Herdt indicated that, as Kuyek wrote "there is no real need for BB rice."
As a hybrid rice, production of BB rice is very expensive and farmers are likely to bear the brunt of the costs when seed companies monopolize this. "Even Dr. Gurdev was quoted to have said "Producing hybrid seeds is very much expensive - about 10 times more costly than producing ordinary rice. This is one reason why farmers, especially in India, are hesitant to adopt hybrid rice technology".
So Why Is IRRI Pursuing BB Rice?
IRRI's main argument is that there exists a world food crisis where there is shortage of food. In its 40th anniversary celebration from March 31 to April 3, its theme was "rice research for food security and poverty alleviation".
IRRI said that to assure food security and to continue the advance against poverty in the rice-consuming countries of the world, farmers will have to produce 40 to 50 per cent more rice with improved qualities to meet consumer demand in 2025. To meet this challenge of increasing rice production, scientists must develop rice varieties using molecular biology. There, so biotechnology, according to IRRI, is the only way out.
Surprisingly, however, IRRI does not respond to root causes of the problem of food production. It does not say there is an imbalance of food production and consumption. It does not make mention of the fact that access to food is a more pressing problem rather than food production itself.
The Coalition to Fight World Hunger says there is enough food for all but people go hungry because they cannot buy food; poverty prevents them to meet their basic needs. It adds, no access to land for food production is another reason.
Obviously, equitable sharing of world resources is another reason, made so by political reasons Many poor countries who cannot raise enough food for their populations are actually growing food to benefit rich countries.
With IRRI justifying the need for more food production, agrochemical and food companies are quick to trumpet the same line, saying that the food production of the next century is not enough to feed the people of the world.
Proponents of genetically modified rice like Novartis and AgrEvo say that by 2020, there will be eight billion people in the world and that five billion of these will need to eat rice. To do this, more crops have to be cultivated in more lands but since land is limited, the only answer to the growing food need is to intensify productivity through genetic engineering.
They contend that with their technology, farmers are likely to use lesser chemicals because they have created transgenic crops which can eliminate pests and diseases.
So, is IRRI testing BB rice to ensure food production? Not so, Kuyek's booklet says. It is more apparent that IRRI and Philrice will conduct the tests to " convince the public of the benignity and benefits of biotechnology', Kuyec says. "The field release of bacterial blight resistant IR72 transgenic lines will be the first major demonstration that genetic engineering is an invaluable tool in rice improvement programs", he added.
Kuyek, however says that "the BB rice test should be seen as a trial run to test the regulatory waters and the public's reaction. If IRRI and Philrice can overcome public opposition to genetic engineering and carry the tests smoothly, it will set a solid precedent for future biotechnology research and development in rice. "
It now appears that IRRI's test is not only to prove that genetic transformation of BB rice is more efficient than conventional breeding. Or that it can cut back on the time it normally takes to transfer characteristics of a wild plant into an HYV. And that "genetic engineering is a more precise process". It is actually a deliberate plan to push biotechnology in the Philippines.
Kuyec wrote that the "test is primarily an exercise of public relations, to establish a precedent in terms of public acceptance of transgenic rice in general."
IRRI's biotechnologist Dr. Swapan Datha, said "We have plenty of transgenic plants available for field testing. The introduction of GMO rice can enhance yield and boost production in Asia in the coming years." Evidently, he stressed that in increasing production, the only method acceptable to IRRI is biotechnology.
The reasons are obvious. Genetically engineered seeds with specific traits can reach a very high market value. BB rice as a hybrid crop would then emerge as a very strong commodity for the world's farming sector.
What fails to erase suspicion from the public is that IRRI has been working closely with agrochemical and food companies in its research with rice. Its research on Bt-rice was done with Novartis and AgrEvo. The two agencies belong to the top 20 list of world seed corporations who virtually control the world food market.
More and more, IRRI cannot escape from the fact that it is serving the interests of transnational biotech corporations.
The Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development or MASIPAG in its March publication of "Genetic Engineering and GMO in Agriculture " says the real intention of companies and institutions doing genetic engineering is to control the technical and marketing aspects of food production.
Business giants modify seeds and patent them which gives them the right to breed and sell the seeds. It is no different with the BB rice. Users of the seeds will have to pay license fees to be able to grow or have possession of those seeds. Monsanto, one of the world's top seed corporations, is suspected to be interested in hybrid rice, so is Dole company, which is doing its own genetic engineering rice research in Mindanao.
What is surprising about IRRI's insistence to conduct its open field tests is its failure to admit that the tests may go wrong and harmful effects may be unleashed into the environment.
The gene XA21 is not resistant to all races of bacterial blight. Some bacterial blight races, discovered in 1990 by IRRI itself, can overcome the gene XA21. These races exist in the Philippines. Thus, BB rice is not a solution to bacterial blight, Kuyec said.
Even Dr. Pamela Ronald who holds the gene's patent with UC Davis said "three existing bacterial blight isolates can overcome XA21 resistance". Five more strains of bacterial blight were discovered as resistant to XA21. It is a likely possibility that if XA21 is overcome by the resistant bacterial blight strains, then an epidemic of unknown proportions can occur.
When that happens, no amount of ire and grumbling from farmers can stop the menace from spreading like wildfire.
Does IRRI have an alternative approach in case it creates, rather than prevent, a bacterial blight spread? It has not said anything publicly.
Kuyek wrote that "IRRI is once again confronting the wrong question with the wrong answer In advertising the benefits of BB rice, it conveniently forgets its role in spreading the disease.
Unable to Learn from Past Mistakes
By pushing biotechnology as the only and the best alternative, IRRI has not learned from its mistakes. "Biotechnology could give you a quantum leap in yield that was seen in the early Green Revolution and therefore it is the only viable solution", Paul Teng, an IRRI plant pathologist and program leader said.
Apparently, he forgot the destruction the Green Revolution brought to farmers. "If there is not enough rice to feed the population, social and political unrest will happen", he added. Such statements are viewed careless by anti IRRI people. "In most social and political unrest, food were not the main reason. The two world wars were not fought because of food, the killings in Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Burundi were caused by other reasons but definitely not food," Tybran Alocod, a Baguio-based pro-organic farming advocate of the Benguet organic Farmers Association (BOFA) said.
IRRI projected that rice demand by 2020 will reach 820 million tons, 700 million tons of which will be needed in Asia alone. "New technologies like biotechnology is the key. It is a science that enables precise manipulation of the genes of crop species or by introducing new genes."
The question whether the genes introduced are safe to human beings and the environment remain unanswered, yet IRRI is willing to take the risks with the lives of humans at stake.
MASIPAG and Philippine Green do not look favorably at the way IRRI wants to tackle the bacterial blight problem It recommends six cultural management practices in which farmers can control bacterial blight.
This include low use of nitrogen fertilizer, adequate irrigation and drainage, seedbanking of resistant plants, maintaining crop diversity, appropriate transplanting and proper disposal of infected plants.
Unfortunately, these sustainable farmer-led solutions are not being given importance by IRRI.
The IRRI test is also a test of the government's willingness to hear its farmers. Already, there is a growing opposition against the test from farmers. Various NGOs are drum-beating the issue, pointing out the potential hazards of genetically modified organisms.
Opposition is also mounting in the Cordilleras led by the environmental NGO ITAG and the Benguet Organic Farmers Association (BOFA). Organic farmers during a trade fair of organic products launched by PLAN International in Baguio City denounced the IRRI plan. In Mindanao, farmers associations have said they will not allow such tests to happen in their place. In Nueva Ecija, farmers and students have voiced their discontent against PhilRice for agreeing to do similar tests.
It would do well for the government to test the public pulse, especially where farmers' passions are likely to lead. Last time it allowed the field testing of BT-corn in General Santos City, scores of farmers and policemen were hurt in a protest rally.
The government need not have a protest of farmers they will find hard to quell. The Indian and Thai farmers who protested the theft and patenting of basmati and jasmine rice almost crippled their governments. With the fighting in the south and the daily bomb threats, some of which were real, a war with its own farmers is the last thing the government can hope for. (MNV)
[Masipag News & Views is an occasional information release of the Mga Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Ikauunlad ng Agham Pang-Agrikultura (MASIPAG)]
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Last Updated on 9/11/00