Tuesday, May 4, 2004


Suman Sahai

The proposed permission to Bayer CropScience Ltd. (which has been held up for now), for importing genetically modified herbicide tolerant rice (LLRice62) into the EU, as animal feed has implications not just for the EU, but far more importantly, for the rice growing regions of the world. Such a step would have grave implications for the natural rice germplasm in rice growing areas of the developing world that are the centres of origin and diversity. 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. Therefore the rice that Bayer proposes to import would have to be grown in developing countries like India.

Gene Campaign, which is asking for a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in their centres of origin and diversity, is alarmed that India could be tempted to produce GM rice for the EU market. It would be 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 few rice-growing states of the EU by not seeking permission for cultivation in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal or France. 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.

There is reason to be concerned about the potential adverse impacts of Bayer’s application for 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 the rich rice diversity areas in India like Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

Gene Campaign stresses that 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 genepools. A centre of origin is the region from where a particular crop originated a few thousand years ago when indigenous communities developed edible crops from the wild plants found in the forest. The wild relatives and therefore the maximum diversity of crops is found in their centres of origin.

The importance of protecting the genes in centres of origin 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.

Centres of origin are considered high-risk areas for GM crops because if the foreign genes contained in the GM variety were to move into the natural gene pool, the results could be potentially catastrophic. Scientists promoting Agbiotech argue that rice is a self-pollinating crop and will not accept outside pollen and genes. This is simply not true. Several studies exist showing cross-pollination happens in rice. Recent reports from China and Latin America are showing that gene flow between GM rice and other rice happens at rates that are high enough to cause concern. Experiments have also found that the herbicide tolerance gene can move to native varieties and create new, difficult to control, weeds. There are other studies that show that the introduction of foreign genes by the process of genetic engineering can cause a phenomenon called ‘gene silencing’ in the plant that is receiving the foreign gene. This means certain genes in the plant will become silent ( non-functional) and not produce what they normally should. Gene silencing could have very grave implications if it were to spread to the natural gene pool by careless scientists.

Genetic diversity is crucial for the long-term survival of any crop. When a crop variety somewhere becomes vulnerable either due to the onslaught of a disease it cannot fight, or because the soil has become water logged or alkaline, scientists need to breed another variety of the crop for that region. They do this by searching for suitable genes in related varieties and the natural gene pool. If these genes were to be unavailable, the vulnerable variety would perish, depriving people in that region of food. That is why it is important to maintain genetic diversity. If GM rice were to harm the native gene pool of rice by making certain genes non-functional or changing the normal functions of other genes, it would have terrible implications for the food security of the rice eating regions of the world.

Gene Campaign considers GM rice to be a particularly sensitive issue for India and one 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) occurs at the rate of up to 2.19 % in the field[1]. This is quite significant for rice growing regions and 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[2].

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 this import, before considering any permission

Another disturbing development in rice, is the news that a California based Biotechnology Company is starting to plant two rice varieties genetically modified to produce drugs for diarrhoea. The cause for alarm at the planting of a drug producing rice in far away California is the near certain likelihood of contamination of natural rice gene pools by the genetically engineered ones. The American company Ventria Bioscience has produced GM varieties of rice in Sacramento that are engineered to produce two compounds called lactoferrin and lysozyme that are be used as drugs to treat diarrhoea. The plan is to extract these compounds from the GM rice since that would be much cheaper than setting up a factory. As with many other industrial products, the question is ‘cheaper’ for whom? The Ventria

GM rice poses a serious hazard to rice growing regions because as we have seen in the past, crops produced in one region easily land up in other regions through the channels of trade or because people just carry the produce to another country.

The American Starlink corn, which is a GM corn carrying a Bt gene was not approved for use as human food since it had an allergy producing tendency. Starlink corn was however approved by the US department of Agriculture for use as animal feed. To no one’s surprise, Starlink corn was found mixed up in food articles in Japan! The reason is simple and therefore worrying. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to segregate two versions of the same product in real life. One can make complex segregation plans on paper, as Ventria is undoubtedly doing but the likelihood of mix-ups is high because field operations over hundreds of hectare are not like the tightly controlled conditions of laboratories. Contamination of one type of crop produce with another is almost certain. And if American corn could land up in Japan, what is to prevent American rice landing up in India, especially when California is a large exporter of rice.

Another contamination episode with corn should teach us a lesson about centres of origin. Whether through international trade or through human traffic, GM corn has landed up in Mexico, and contaminated the natural gene pool of corn there. Mexico, which is a centre of origin for corn, has had a ban on the planting of GM corn since 1998, yet GM corn found its way there and has crossed with Mexican corn. The contamination is assumed to have come from two sources, one, from American exports of corn to Mexico and two, from Mexicans bringing in American seeds for planting. The fact of the corn contamination has caused great distress in Mexico where corn is not just the staple food but also plays a central role in the cultural heritage of the local people, like rice does for us. Mexico moved to take strong action after the contamination was detected and has banned even research on GM corn, to cut down all sources of contamination. It is however proving to be difficult to contain the situation since corn exports to Mexico are not being stopped due to American pressure.

In the case of the Ventria rice, US rice exports (the US is the second largest exporter of rice in the world and California is the principle rice-growing region in the US) will ensure that it is carried to other countries. A contamination scenario similar to the Mexican corn case would be a highly likely event in rice growing countries and centres of origin, with consequences that cannot be predicted. At the very least, the pharmaceutical rice could end up in the food chain and people could end up eating rice with diarrhoea drugs in it.

Rice is the staple food of over half the world’s population. For about two billion people in Asia alone, rice and rice products are the main source of food. Recognizing the centrality of rice to global food security, the UN has declared 2004 as the International Year of Rice. This is meant to focus on the threats facing rice production across the world and to develop a strategy for ensuring that sufficient rice is produced for the growing world population. The issue of genetic contamination, in the natural gene pools of rice is therefore a serious one. It is the genes found in centres of diversity like India, that enable rice cultivation to remain viable, despite natural stress like disease and drought. If such genes were to be lost or silenced, the future of rice cultivation could be in jeopardy.

The threat of genetic contamination from alien genes like those producing diarrhoea drugs is the last thing that stagnating rice productivity needs. So little is known about the long-term consequences of foreign genes moving into crop species, and almost nothing is known in the case of rice. It would be foolhardy to take a risk with a crop that feeds over half the world. May be nothing will go seriously wrong but if we were to discover 50 years down the line that foreign genes had resulted in the silencing of important genes in rice, there is nothing we could do to rectify the situation then.

The UN has declared 2004 to be the International Year of Rice in acknowledgement of the central role this cereal plays in global food security. Nearly half the world’s population eats rice as its staple food. The reason for focusing on rice is the fear of shortages because of declining productivity in some parts of the world and the burgeoning world population. In this backdrop, genetically modified rice is being discussed as an answer and both public sector and private sector research institutions in India and elsewhere, have launched projects to produce GM rice with various properties. Golden Rice is already well known, there are efforts to introduce resistance to fungal diseases, researchers are working to produce herbicide tolerant rice, similar to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and Mahyco, the company that gave us Bt cotton, is working, along with other research institutions, to produce a Bt rice. Other rice projects are attempting to change the quality of rice starch and disturbingly, a private company is producing rice containing the Bt cry9C gene, which is the gene used in Starlink corn, suspected of having allergenic properties and therefore banned for human use by the USDA!

The UN must protest America’s diarrhoea drug rice and other GM rice, as a challenge to its efforts to secure the future of rice and point out the potential threat of such developments to rice producing regions and global food security. India and other countries in Asia must take the lead in orchestrating such a protest. America’s economic interest in producing cheaper drugs cannot be allowed to jeopardize the food security of half the world.

The author can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org and www.genecampaign.org

[1] Chen LJ et al. (2004) Gene flow from cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) to its weedy and wild relatives

Annals of Botany 93 (1): 67-73

[2] Madsen KH, Valverde BE, Jensen JE (2002) Risk assessment of herbicide-resistant crops: A Latin American perspective using rice (Oryza sativa) as a model Weed 16 (1): 215-223

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