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Cropping controversy

Small-scale farmers of Thailand face a serious problem. Jasmine rice — grown only by Thai communities — may be developed by the U.S. for the world market. The WTO has agreed to a proposal to expand protection to products with specific geographical indicators. Whether this will ensure a safe economic livelihood for the thousands of farmers remains to be seen, writes NOEL RAJESH.

It is a life of toil and hardship for farmers everywhere.

SINCE early November, hundreds of farmers in Thailand have staged protests against the U.S. government for its attempts to genetically modify the popular Thai jasmine rice variety (Hom Mali) for planting by U.S. farmers.

The protests have also forced Thailand's government representatives to raise the issue at the ongoing Fourth Ministerial World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

Last week, about 300 local farmers rallied in northeast Thailand expressing concern over planting the new variety in the U.S. which would threaten the economic livelihood of thousands of farmers, particularly in Thailand's northeast region.

Farmers' representatives and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) also rallied in front of the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. More nation-wide protests have been planned throughout December. The controversy arose after a U.S. researcher Chris Deren had developed a new strain of early maturing jasmine rice that needs little sunshine and is short enough to be harvested easily by machines and thus could be planted throughout the flatlands of the U.S..

Deren said he obtained the original seeds of the Thai Khao Dok Mali 105 (KDM 105) jasmine rice variety from the gene bank of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 1995. Deren is a researcher at the Everglades Research and Education Centre at the University of Florida and works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's stepwise programme for improvement of jasmine rice.

The large-scale planting of this rice could damage Thailand's rice exports. The U.S. is Thailand's biggest market for jasmine rice. Thailand earns more than Bt 26 billion (about US$ 650 million) a year from export of about 1.2 million tonnes of jasmine rice, of which 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes is to the U.S.. This volume represents about 25 per cent of global Thai jasmine rice exports and about 75 per cent of global rice imports in U.S..

Wijit Boonsong, a northeast farmer, said, ``We are in financial trouble because of rising fertilizer and oil prices. If the market price of jasmine rice declines further in the face of new competition from the U.S., many of us will go bankrupt.''

The U.S.-produced rice would gain an immediate competitive edge, says Witoon Lianchamroon from Biothai, a non-governmental organisation based in Bangkok that works on biodiversity issues. ``The U.S. has all the economic advantages from large-scale farming to efficient crop harvesting methods. Operating costs in the U.S. are lower and their farmers could produce cheaper rice. It would be another form of biopiracy and double standards. The U.S. is complaining about bootleg music cassettes in Thailand while simultaneously robbing our farmer's knowledge and heritage,'' adds Witoon.

The U.S. producers are excited about the new jasmine rice strain. The U.S.-based Sem-Chi Rice company has expressed interest in planting 9,000 acres of the new jasmine rice if the research shows that the new strain is commercially viable.

Apart from the loss of export market share, the more serious concern for Thai farmers and NGOs is that the U.S. would attempt to patent the new jasmine rice strain. ``If that happened, all jasmine rice brands from Thailand would be taken off the market due to the risk of lawsuits filed by the patent owner,'' said Dr. Chakrit Kuanpotte, an expert on intellectual property rights in Sukothai Thammatirat University in Bangkok.

The patent owner could also seek similar protection in other major rice markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and China, and further damage Thailand's exports. So far, Chris Deren says, he has no intention of patenting the rice variety he is working on. But given the sordid history at biopiracy and patenting of genetic materials by U.S. corporations (such as the U.S.-based Tec corporation's attempts a few years ago to file a patent on ``Jasmati'' — the company's combination of Thai jasmine and Indian basmati rice varieties), there is no guarantee that some other institution or corporation in the U.S. will not buy the jasmine rice variety and file the patent.

Thailand's farmers' groups have pointed out that there are more than 600 patents recorded so far on rice genes and plants and breeding methods worldwide, most of them owned by agro-industrial corporations in developed countries. These groups suspect that some of these firms have obtained the seeds from the IRRI's gene bank.

Thailand's NGOs have criticised the IRRI for failing to protect the genetic material of Thai jasmine rice in its gene bank. The IRRI has admitted that some of its researchers could have provided jasmine rice seeds to Deren without formally notifying the institute or the Thai government, the donor and owner of the seeds.

Anyone who requests germplasm from the IRRI must sign a materials transfer agreement which compels researchers to inform, consult and negotiate with the country where the seeds originated. However, neither Deren nor the U.S. government consulted or informed Thailand about the jasmine rice research.

Until last week the IRRI had remained silent to questions sent by the protesting farmers' groups as well as from the media. Last week, William Padolina, IRRI's deputy director-general for partnership, told Thailand's English-language newspaper, the Nation in its first interview with the press that it was IRRI policy not to comment or get involved in the domestic debates of its research partners.

Padolina said though he did not think the DNA material on which patented rice varieties were based came from IRRI had thought it was difficult for the institute to trace the records to see whether researchers had taken the genetic material in violation of its Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) policy.

The non-profit IRRI was established in 1960 with the primary goal of finding sustainable ways of improving the living standards of rice farmers and consumers. Genetic material from about 5,500 Thai rice varieties is stored in the bank, making Thailand IRRI's fourth-largest donor.

Witoon Lianchamroon wants the Thai government to demand an inspection of IRRI's working procedures. ``It seems that IRRI is under the control of developed countries — the U.S. in particular. It should not be trusted with our rice genetic materials any longer if it does not allow us, as an important contributor of the materials, to inspect its working systems,'' he said.

Last week, NGOs and farmers' groups from all over Thailand, supported by international environmental and biodiversity organisations, wrote to the U.S. and Thai governments supporting the protests by the Thai farmers and calling for more effective protection of the rights of farmers to cultivate rice varieties.

Thailand's government representatives have raised the jasmine rice issue at the ongoing fourth ministerial World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

On November 12, Thailand's Commerce Minister Adisai Bodharamik said that the WTO members have agreed to Thailand's proposal to expand protection for products with specific geographical indicators. Currently, only wines and spirits have such protection.

The agreement on the Thai proposal will be reflected in the declaration due out at the end of the WTO ministerial meeting. This would be the first step for Thailand in pushing for its jasmine rice to have global protection under the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). In principle, such protection could prevent products in other parts of the world from using the geographical names on their products.

``Since our ancestors began to grow jasmine rice, it has belonged to Thai farmers and Thai village communities. No one can claim ownership or assume exclusive rights. Any attempt at patenting jasmine rice or the misuse of its name is a shameless theft towards us, the small-scale Thai farmers, and a violation of our most basic rights,'' said Lai Lerngram, a farmer from Surin province in northeastern Thailand.

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