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Who owns the food of the poor?

By Ron Cantrell - posted Thursday, 22 August 2002

Rice has been steamed, boiled, fried and puffed, but never before served up like this. The journal Science made headlines in April when it published the rice genome, the genetic makeup of the world's most important food crop. Science published two research results: the Beijing Genomics Institute's sequence of one subspecies, and the Swiss company Syngenta's sequence of another. Significantly, one of the projects is public, the other private.

Private research into the genomes of food crops draws unrelenting fire from those who abhor "patents on life." Rice in particular is a lightning rod, because it is the staple food of most of the world's poor, especially in Asia, which produces and consumes 92 per cent of the world's rice.

Cultivating rice is the mainstay of hundreds of millions of poor farm households, who on average eat half of the rice they grow - and often not much else. Only six percent of the harvest is traded internationally. While rice production is the foundation of food security, economic growth, and social and political stability in rural communities across Asia, it hardly registers in commerce.


At least not yet. The sequencing of the rice genome and the next step, assigning functions to individual genes and combining them to accelerate crop improvement, is revolutionizing rice science. How this genomics revolution plays out will determine whether poor rice farmers and consumers win or lose.

Critics fear that private ownership of portions of the rice genome will commercialize the crop in a way that subverts the right of farmers to grow the myriad traditional varieties their ancestors developed over millennia, as well as the improved varieties that publicly funded research institutions have bred and distributed as public goods over the past few decades. Insisting that rice must remain wholly within the public domain, they roundly condemn both private research and public-private research partnerships.

But they are silent on the question of how cash-strapped public research can maintain momentum without private-sector participation and the patents that corporations need to protect their investments.

Wholly public ownership of the fruits of rice research would require steadfast commitment to public support for that research. Sadly, funding trends tell a different story.

  • In 2000, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global association of 16 Future Harvest centers and their donor governments, agencies and foundations, spent US$305 million, or 10 percent less than the US$338 million it spent when funding peaked in 1990 (constant 1993 prices).
  • Core funding for the CGIAR's International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) will fall from $22.3 million in 1999 to $14.7 million in 2003, when the full force of a recent halving of one key donor's support for the CGIAR takes effect.

Meanwhile, private-sector investment in agricultural research is rising rapidly. And, as Syngenta illustrates, privately funded research is a prime mover in the genomics revolution, in rice as in other areas. The best response from IRRI and its public-sector partners is to augment their own research by bending private-sector achievements to the advantage of poor rice farmers and consumers. This requires partnerships with corporations.


One precedent for public-private partnership is Golden Rice. IRRI's right to develop tropical versions of the beta carotene-rich grain, which promises to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency and the widespread suffering it causes, hinges on the decision of 32 holders of 70 patents to donate their intellectual property rights to make Golden Rice freely available to people making less than US$10,000 per year.

Forging such mutually beneficial partnerships – beneficial to poor rice farmers and consumers, as well as to corporate shareholders – takes ingenuity, persistence and careful dedication to principles. It also requires something like parity in what public and private partners bring to the table.

Meeting this challenge – ideally with the help of more funding for public research – will both protect the intellectual property rights that facilitate advances in rice science and deliver to poor rice farmers and consumers the improved livelihoods and nutrition that are their birthright.

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This article was released in preparation for the "Food for the Future: Opportunities for a Crowded Planet" conference, held at Parliament House Canberra on 8 August 2002.

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About the Author

Ronald P. Cantrell is Director General of the International Rice Research Institute.

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