by Michele McKay
In the course of 8,000 years, innovative Asian farmers have bred over 10,000 varieties of rice, each suited to different growing conditions and tastes. Today, centuries-old practices of traditional rice cultivation are threatened by corporate financial interests and technologies known as "biopiracy" and "bioengineering."
Basmati rice, bred into many strains over thousands of years by Indian and Pakistani growers, is prized in the world market for its quality and fragrance. Approximately 80 percent of India’s Basmati rice is grown for export, and thousands of farmers depend on it for their livelihoods. In 1997 the Texas-based corporation RiceTec, Inc., was granted a U.S. patent on the name Basmati, giving it commercial ownership of the name for rice seed, rice plants, and rice grain. This case of “biopiracy” raised global outrage, as Indian rice growers and exporters would have to pay royalties to RiceTec if they sold their traditional product under the familiar Basmati name. International organizations launched a challenge to the patent, and in 2001 their effort was successful. In addition to forcing RiceTec to drop its Basmati venture, the campaign raised awareness and understanding about biopiracy and the issues associated with patenting living organisms.
Although the Basmati patent was struck down, biotech giants Monsanto, Syngenta, and others are moving forward with genetic research and are patenting “bioengineered” rice. One controversial example is Golden Rice, a genetically modified organism (GMO) created by adding genetic material from flowers and bacteria to the DNA of rice. The resulting rice grain contains vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, and is touted as a solution to childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Scientists and activists who are opposed to the GMO-related corporate control of agriculture argue that vitamin A deficiency in developing countries is not caused by deficiencies in crops themselves, but by the loss of diverse sources of food. Golden Rice provides only a minimum percentage of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, while a varied diet including leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fruit would provide families with plenty of vitamin A. If the money spent on developing Golden Rice could be spent instead on distributing seed for safe, naturally vitamin A-rich crops, a serious health issue would be addressed, while fostering biodiversity and sustainable traditional agriculture.
What you can do:
- Vote with your dollars by purchasing GMO-free products.
- Visit www.gefoodalert.org for information on global biopiracy and bioengineering issues.
Visit www.higean.org for information on GMO-related cultural and agricultural issues in Hawaii.