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2-Plants: Do Asian farmers need blast-resistant GE rice?

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TITLE:  A) Blast, biotech and big business
        B) Entry of GMO BB-rice stirs hornet's nest
        B) The Philippine Post, by Michael A. Bengwayan
DATE:   A) August 8, 2000
        B) July 31, 2000

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A) "Blast, biotech and bg business"
   New report shows corporate priorities driving rice research in Asia

Los Banos - Genetic engineering (GE) is fast taking the lead role in 
rice research, based on lofty promises of the "best tools science has 
to offer" against the pests and diseases that ravage the world's most 
vital food crop. However, it fails to offer real solutions to the 
problems affecting resource-poor rice producers in Asia. According to 
a new report, Blast, Biotech and Big Business*, "There is a 
fundamental conflict within agricultural research and development -- 
between an agenda that caters to the needs of industry and one that 
addresses the needs of resource-poor farmers, the bulk of Asia's 
population." The report investigates these issues through the case of 
blast, a fungal disease of rice.

Blast is big fungicide market -- and now a hot target for genetic 
engineering. Transnational corporations, which until now had little 
incentive to do rice breeding, are pouring money into rice research 
with the aim of doubling their income source from blast: not just the 
fungicide sales, but now also the genetically engineered seeds. 
Disease resistance genes are already being patented by major chemical 
conglomerates such as Syngenta (Switzerland) and DuPont (USA) and 
will soon be incorporated into GE rice. The catch is, the companies 
can prevent the disease resistance genes from functioning if the 
plants are not sprayed with their proprietary fungicides.

The motives are clear, but the science is shaky. GE rice will not 
provide effective or durable resistance to blast because the 
technology relies on a small number of genes when in fact disease 
resistance is much more complex. According to the report's principal 
researcher, Devlin Kuyek, "Genetic engineering is too static to deal 
with the dynamic relationships between plants and disease that are 
deeply tied to the surrounding ecology." In contrast, blast can be 
managed by farmers themselves through readily available means such as 
wider spacing between plants, less fertilizer, intermittent 
irrigation, and cultivating different rice varieties. "Genetic 
engineering will not provide poor rice farmers in Asia a solution to 
the blast problem." the report asserts. "Looking at it from their 
situation, the GE approach is impractical, expensive and unwarranted, 
as there are much more affordable and effective ways to control the 

As corporate payoffs are the fundamental drive behind GE research in 
rice, the real problems for rice farmers and consumers in Asia are 
disregarded. A recent study conducted in the Philippines identifies 
the most serious problems affecting the country's staple food supply: 
market conditions, lack of irrigation facilities, inadequacy of post 
harvest facilities, indebtedness due to high input costs, weak 
support services, typhoons, inefficient transport networks, and 
unequal land distribution. This shows that there is a severe mismatch 
between the real constraints to a healthy rice economy and the money 
being invested in biotechnological "solutions" such as blast 

*This briefing, available online at, 
was researched by Devlin Kuyek for a group of NGOs, farmers' 
movements and scientists cooperating in a joint project on current 
trends in agricultural R&D which will affect small farmers in Asia. 
Participants are Biothai (Thailand), GRAIN, KMP (Philippines), 
MASIPAG (Philippines), PAN Indonesia, Philippine Greens and UBINIG 
(Bangladesh), and in an invidual capacity, Drs. Romeo Quijano (UP 
Manila, College of Medicine, Philippines) and Oscar B. Zamora (UP Los 
Banos, College of Agriculture, Philippines).

Mr Kuyek is available to answer press queries at the GRAIN office in 
Los Banos, the Philippines, until 14 August. Tel: (63-49) 536 3979. 


B) Entry of GMO BB-rice stirs hornet's nest

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 

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 AgrEvosay 
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 Danger

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 
unrests, 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 

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.


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