The Guardian August 23, 2000


Philippines:
Genetically modified rice tests alarm farmers

Rice farmers in the Philippines are apprehensive about a plan by the 
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world's largest rice 
research agency, to field test a controversial genetically modified 
bacterial blight rice known as BB-rice.

The farmers are afraid that entry of genetically modified rice into the 
Philippines will further deplete traditional rice varieties that are 
sustainable. They also fear that it will mark the beginning of the monopoly 
and control of rice seeds by multinational companies.

BB-rice is a genetically modified crop of the rice variety IR-72 that is 
produced by the IRRI. It is engineered with a gene called XA21 to resist 
the common rice disease bacterial blight (Xanthomonas oryzae).

Pedring Pangan, a farmer in the town of Calauan still recalls the time when 
the IRRI introduced the so-called "miracle rice", IR-8.

"We planted IR-8 and threw away our traditional seeds", said Pangan.

"We had a good first harvest, after that, we harvested almost nothing."

IR-8 caused the proliferation of the deadly pest brown planthopper which 
was the carrier of the deadly rice disease tungro.

The brown planthopper was not limited to the Philippines. At the time it 
devastated rice fields in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan  an 
area covering about one third of Asia's ricelands.

Farmer Tata Gonying Velasco says the use of IRRI varieties has not only 
eroded the diversity of rice the farmers have nurtured for years, it has 
also wiped out much of farmers' history as "stewards of seeds".

Farmers whose fields are near the test areas are also afraid that the tests 
on BB-rice may go wrong and genetically modified material may be released 
into the environment.

There is also the problem of blight developing a resistance to the BB-rice.

According to researcher Devlin Kuyec of the Genetic Resources Action 
International (GRAIN) who first revealed the IRRI's plan to conduct the 
field tests last July, "The XA21 [gene] 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. So, BB-rice is not a solution to 
bacterial blight", Kuyec said.

Even Dr Pamela Ronald who holds the gene's patent with a Californian 
university, acknowledges the problem of blight resistance.

"Eight existing bacterial blight isolates can overcome 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", she said.

When that happens, "Bacterial blight disease can spread not only in the 
Philippines but in Asia like wildfire", Kuyec said.

The IRRI has received government approval to conduct the field tests 
together with the Department of Agriculture's PHILRICE, and still plans to 
plant the test crops.

The IRRI has been working closely with giant agrochemical and agribusiness 
companies in its research on the BB-rice. Its research on BB-rice was done 
with Novartis and AgrEvo, two of the top 20 seed corporations who virtually 
control the global food market.

"Patents on seeds illustrate the extent to which transnational companies 
want to establish monopolies on life, maximise profit and dominate the 
world", farmer Leopoldo Guilaran said. He belongs to MASIPAG, a network of 
scientists and farmers promoting sustainable agriculture in the 
Philippines.

"A patent on seed is a patent on freedom. If you have to pay for patented 
seeds, its like being forced to purchase your own freedom", said Memong 
Patayan, another MASIPAG farmer.

MASIPAG recommends six cultural management practices to control bacterial 
blight instead of planting BB-rice. These include low use of nitrogen 
fertilizer, adequate irrigation and drainage, seedbanking of blight 
resistant plants, and maintenance of crop diversity as well as appropriate 
transplanting and proper disposal of infected plants.

* * *
Acknowledgements Michael Bengwayan

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