Monday, March 8, 2004


Suman Sahai

The multinational Life Science Corporation Bayer CropScience Ltd. has applied to the European Commission for permission to import a herbicide tolerant genetically modified rice. This GM rice belonging to Bayer is to be used as animal feed, not food. Although Bayer’s application is only for the import and processing of genetically modified (GM) rice into the European Union, there could be major environmental and health implication outside Europe, since this is where the rice –if approved- would have to be grown. It is noteworthy that Bayer’s application is only for the import and processing of genetically modified (GM) rice into the European Union. Bayer has not sought permission for cultivation because it doesn’t intend to grow this GM rice in Europe although rice is cultivated in five EU member states – Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France. This permission. if granted, could have grave implications for the natural rice germplasm in rice growing areas of the developing world, specially India.

It is a very worrying prospect that rice-growing countries could be tempted to produce GM rice for the EU market. It is particularly ironic that India and other centres of diversity for rice could end up jeopardising their principal food source for producing animal feed to support the meat consumption of the west. There is something decidedly unethical about Bayer wanting to protect the rice-growing states of the EU by not proposing cultivation there, only import. In applying to import GM rice for animal feed from developing countries, the corporation demonstrates its callous disregard for human life and food security in the poorer regions of the world. It is willing to put at risk the food staple of these poor people to support the unsustainable consumption of the west.

The suspicion cannot be wished away that this proposal is a strategy aimed more at forcing the adoption of GM crops, than finding an animal feed source for the cows and pigs in Europe. Rice is not the usual animal feed used in Europe and the question is why GM rice? Why not just ordinary rice, if shortage of animal feed is the issue. The trick would appear to be to provide incentives for cultivating GM rice by dangling the carrot of an assured market in front of rice growing developing countries.

There is reason for concern about the potential adverse impacts of Bayer’s application in developing countries like India where rice is grown and where the regulatory framework for GMOs is weak or even non-existent. Farmers in such countries are not aware of the larger issues and the possible implications of GM rice in their fields and thus not really able to take an informed decision on whether or not to grow the rice. Opening the EU market for GM rice would be a lure for rice producing nations to cultivate GM rice for the export market. It would be relatively easy to sell this proposal in the domestic context, because of the potential for export earnings, but this would overlook the very critical threat of genetic contamination in rich rice diversity areas like the Jeypore tract in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

India is one of the centres of origin and diversity for rice and has substantial concerns about the possibility of genetic contamination of native rice gene pools. The importance of protecting this as a world resource for global food security cannot be overstated. Resistance to two of the four main diseases afflicting rice, comes from a single landrace, Oryza nivara that is found in central India. Gene Campaign advocates that GM crops should not be cultivated in their centres of origin and diversity.

GM rice is a particularly sensitive issue for India and one area where the Precautionary Principle must be invoked because the implications of genetic contamination in rice can be very grave indeed for farmers and for food security. No studies are being conducted in India

to understand the levels of gene flow in rice, to assess what would happen if foreign genes were to escape from GM rice to farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of rice.

The Agbiotech industry is quick to project that there is no danger of foreign gene flow in rice because it is a self-pollinating crop (and would not accept genes from GM crops), but evidence is mounting that this is not the case. Recent studies show that gene flow in rice happens and should be cause for concern.

Recent research from China demonstrates that transgene escape from cultivated rice to wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) does occur in the field. This would mean that foreign genes could spread easily in the native population. Another recent study done in Latin America to look at the transfer of herbicide tolerant genes (same as in Bayer’s rice) to wild relatives of rice, showed that this transfer does indeed take place. The study also predicted that herbicide resistant weedy rice populations would develop quite quickly, within 3 to 8 years.

The EU has a moral obligation to undertake the most thorough and exhaustive analysis of the safety of this new GM crop. It is equally bound to assess the social, economic and environmental implications in developing countries, of allowing such imports, before considering any permission.

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