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CORPORATIONS POISED TO TAKE OVER ASIAN RICE MARKET

by Someshwar Singh


Geneva, 30 Mar 2000-- The market for rice, which forms the staple diet of billions of people in Asia, will be altered drastically with the introduction of hybrid rice - a handful of corporations gaining at the expense of millions of farmers, says an NGO study released Thursday. According to the Philippines-based Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG), Asia's farmers have relied on the natural ability of rice to reproduce itself. This has been the case for thousands of years. But all this is about to change.

A new report "Hybrid Rice: An Unfolding Threat" by a group of farmer and non-governmental groups in Asia, says the introduction of hybrid rice seeds - which farmers cannot save, but must buy new each season - threatens agriculture in the region.

The report was researched by Devlin Kuyek for a group of organizations and individuals cooperating in a joint project on current trends in agricultural research and development which will affect small farmers in Asia.

Among the NGOs that participated were: Biothai (Thailand), GRAIN, KMP (Philippines), MASIPAG (Philippines), PAN Indonesia, Philippine Greens and UBINIG (Bangladesh).

Participating individuals were Drs Romeo Quijano (UP Manila, College of Medicine, Philippines) and Oscar B. Zamora (UP Los Banos, College of Agriculture, Philippines).

The new report cautions that transnational agribusinesses are ready to feast on Asia's rice seed market, while poor farmers will lose control of their livelihoods.

"Hybrid rice is not about feeding people," the report says. "Rather, it is about creating a corporate controlled rice-seed industry: the technology blocks the natural reproduction cycle of rice, leaving farmers dependent on bought seed and expensive pesticide inputs.

The world's biggest pesticide and biotechnology companies are currently pouring money into hybrid rice research and development. Patented genes and genetic engineering are already being used to develop hybrid rice.

Hybrid rice will be a 'spring-board' for the introduction of genetically engineered rice for the Asian market, the report contends - with clear advantage going to those giant transnational corporations that control 40% of all patents in plant biotechnology.

Public and quasi-public research institutions such as International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are "selling the poor short by promoting hybrid rice in the name of increased yields," according to the report.

The real beneficiaries of their work will be the corporations. "Even IRRI itself admits that the hybrid rice varieties will not benefit small farmers, since the cost of hybrid rice is, they say, up to 15 times higher than seeds from conventional varieties, while the selling price for the farmer's harvest is significantly lower than conventional rice," it added.

In this scenario, small farmers already struggling with abysmal market prices and exorbitant rent will simply go under, says the NGO study. "No wonder some farmers are calling hybrid rice, 'The scam of the century.'"

The study has found that hybrid rice, :

* has failed to demonstrate a convincing yield advantage in farmers' fields

* requires more pesticides because it is more susceptible to disease and pests

* is low quality in taste and marketability

* will further displace local varieties and as such threatens agricultural biodiversity.

The development of hybrid rice in Asia is at a critical stage, the study maintains. If the technology can be made to work well enough in farmer's fields, the private sector will take over not just the seed market and breeding of Asia's staple food crop, but also take away most of the options left to small farmers.(SUNS4638)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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