October 30, 2001

Thai-phoon in the rice bowl?

U.S. Acquisitionof aromatic Thai rice breaks trust, tramples farmers, threatens trade and seed treaty talks

However US scientists got hold of Thailand's billion dollar 'Jasmine' rice, the reality is that US national public research has the potential to destroy a vital export market for poor Asian farmers. That the invaluable germplasm may have been sent, improperly, by an international public science body dedicated to poverty eradication, raises tough questions about the role of the public sector in privatized science. Ironically, the very treaty that could help resolve these issues is endangered by this latest biopiracy. ETC Group draws out the international consequences.

Roaming rice: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) improperly received seed samples of Thailand's famous aromatic 'Jasmine' rice, according to the researcher who is working on the seeds in Florida. The germplasm, requested from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI - Los Banos, Philippines) was acquired in December 1995 without the Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) that obliges the recipient not to patent or otherwise monopolize the donated seed. Instead, agronomists at the University of Florida, Arkansas, and the USDA are striving to develop a variation of the Jasmine rice that could be grown in the United States. If commercially successful, US-bred Jasmine could supplant much of Thailand's $1 billion export market not only to US gourmets but elsewhere in the world. Thailand is the world's leading rice exporter and its Jasmine aromatic rice commands a premium. Jasmine was bred and nurtured by Thai farmers from generation to generation and its market has become vital to the well-being of many farming communities in that country.

Research samples of Jasmine seeds are held by IRRI for safekeeping under a Trust Agreement with the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, Rome). The Agreement prohibits intellectual property claims on any 'in trust' germplasm. The Trust Agreement came into force in October, 1994. Jasmine rice was sent to the USA in December, 1995. 'At the time of the release,' says Hope Shand, Research Director at ETC group, 'there were no standardized procedures. The unique material was included in a shipment of rice breeding lines and not directly from IRRI's gene bank. We have no doubt that IRRI's failure to obtain signatory agreement from the US not to patent was unintentional. Nevertheless, it was a violation of the Trust Agreement, and the researchers involved must take immediate action to make the MTA retroactive, which I understand they have agreed to do. Ultimately, however, signing the MTA and agreeing not to patent does not solve the problem. IRRI and US researchers must also explore tougher moral questions about the social and economic impacts of research that threatens to endanger the livelihoods of poor farmers, and how to confront these issues head-on.'

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