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Scientists Prepare to Use Nanotechnology to Poison Us All?

ETC Group
News Release
Thursday, March 25, 2004
www.etcgroup.org

Jazzing up Jasmine:
Atomically Modified Rice in Asia?

A nanotech research initiative in Thailand aims to atomically modify the
characteristics of local rice varieties - including the country's famous
jasmine rice- and to circumvent the controversy over Genetically Modified
Organisms (GMOs). Nanobiotech takes agriculture from the battleground of
GMOs to the brave new world of Atomically Modified Organisms (AMOs).

In January, Bangkok Post reported on a three-year research project at Chiang
Mai University's nuclear physics laboratory,(1) funded by the National
Research Council of Thailand, to atomically-modify rice. The research
involves drilling a nano-sized hole (a nanometer is one-billionth of a
meter) through the wall and membrane of a rice cell in order to insert a
nitrogen atom. The hole is drilled using a particle beam (a stream of
fast-moving particles, not unlike a lightening bolt) and the nitrogen atom
is shot through the hole to stimulate rearrangement of the rice's DNA.

Pipe Dreams from Particle Beams? One of the attractions of this technique,
according to the director of the Fast Neutron Research Facility in Chiang
Mai where the research is being conducted, is that it does not require the
usual (and controversial) technique of genetic modification, where genes are
transferred between unrelated organisms or are removed or rearranged within
a species. "At least we can avoid it," Thiraphat Vilaithong, the Facility
director said.(2)

"We don't consider atomically modified rice any safer or more socially
acceptable than genetically modified rice," explained Witoon Lianchamroon of
Biodiversity Action Thailand (BIOTHAI), a civil society organization based
in Bangkok. "It sounds like the same high-tech approach that does not
address our needs and could cause severe hardships for Thai rice farmers."

According to BIOTHAI, scientists at Chaing Mai University have already used
nanotechnology to modify the colour of a local rice variety, "Khao Kam."(3)
The word "Kam" means deep purple, and the rice variety is known for its
purple stem, leaves and grains. Using nanotechnology, the scientists changed
the colour of the leaves and stems of Khao Kam from purple to green. In a
telephone interview, Dr. Thirapat Vilaithong told BIOTHAI that their next
target is Jasmine rice. The goal of their research is to develop Jasmine
varieties that can be grown all year long, with shorter stems and improved
grain colour.

The research at Chiang Mai is related to other types of "mutation breeding"
in that the cell's DNA is manipulated to cause a change in gene function.
The difficulty lies in finding safe passage through a plant cell's wall and
membrane without compromising the cell's ability to survive or allowing
essential cellular contents to leak out. Mutation breeding and nuclear
physics have a long history, with most work coming out of a joint United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation/International Atomic Energy Agency
programme in Vienna beginning in the mid-1960s. Over the last 40 years,
researchers there have bombarded plant cells with x-rays, beta and gamma
rays, among other particles, to induce alterations in the genomes of crop
plants.(4)

The Bigger Picture: The project being undertaken at Chiang Mai's nuclear
physics lab is a testament to Thailand's commitment to nanotechnology. In
January, the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, ordered the establishment
of a nanotechnology center to be headed by the government's National Science
and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).(5) In addition to the rice
project, researchers in Chiang Mai are working to alter the surface of silk
at the nanometer level to make it water- and dirt-resistant, hoping to give
Thailand a competitive advantage over the world's other major silk
exporters, which include India and China Industry analysts predict that the
nanotech revolution will someday allow researchers to engineer new materials
and modify existing ones so that they exhibit whatever property is most
desirable for a given application - strength, weight, electrical
conductivity, colour could all be manipulated at the molecular level. In
theory, production, including agricultural production, would no longer be
dependent on geography, labour or raw materials, rendering some natural
resources obsolete - with especially serious disruptions for Third World
economies.

"Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant:" For example, consider the
potential of nano-scale innovations to affect the market for rubber:
researchers in the US are designing nanoparticles to strengthen and extend
the life of automobile tyres as well as new nanomaterials that could be used
as a substitute for natural rubber, especially in medical gloves. "If
nano-designed tyres and other products require little or no rubber in the
future, it will mean less demand for natural rubber with potentially
devastating impacts for the livelihoods of rubber tappers and plantation
workers worldwide," explains Jim Thomas, ETC Group researcher from Oxford
UK. Malaysia and Thailand are currently the world's top producers of natural
rubber.

Prime Minister Thaksin is placing special emphasis on research in
nanobiotechnology, such as the atomically modified rice project, in an
effort to distinguish Thailand from other regional nanotech research.
Because living and non-living material are indistinguishable at the
nano-scale - at this fundamental level, they are both simply atoms and
molecules of chemical elements - physicists, genetic engineers and material
scientists are exploiting this "material unity at the nano-scale" to combine
biological and non-biological material in unprecedented ways. While global
investment in nanotechnology - both private and public - is estimated
between five and six billion dollars (US) per annum, the focus on
nanobiotechnology is significant. Since 1999, venture capitalists alone
have devoted over $450 million to nanobiotechnology.

The rice research in Thailand is just one small piece of the nanobio picture
related to food and agriculture. According to Helmut Kaiser Consultancy,
some 200 transnational food companies are currently investing in nanotech
and are on their way to commercializing products. The list includes many of
the world's largest companies: Ajinomoto, Campbell Soup, ConAgra, General
Mills, H. J. Heinz, Kraft Foods, McCain Foods, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Sara Lee,
Unilever, and more.

Miracle Rice Re-visited? The United Nations has designated 2004 the Second
International Year of Rice. Neth Daño, executive director of SEARICE in the
Philippines, recalls that the first International Year of Rice was
thirty-eight years ago in 1966, the year that the International Rice
Research Institute (IRRI) launched the Green Revolution in Asia with the
release of IR8, the first semi-dwarf rice variety. "The so-called 'miracle
rice' required irrigation and a costly package of chemical fertilizers and
pesticides that drove poor farmers deeper into debt," said Daño. "IR8 was
not only highly susceptible to pests and diseases, it also introduced
massive genetic uniformity, displaced poor farmers and their traditional
rice varieties."

"Will 2004 bring us full circle?" asks Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC researcher. "At
what cost to farmers, food security and the environment are researchers now
tinkering with atomically-modified rice? Will 2004 be remembered as the year
that launched atomically-modified rice and the Nano-Rice Revolution?"

Both ETC Group and SEARICE are members of the CBDC Programme (see box,
below).

Later this year ETC Group plans to release an in-depth report on impacts of
nanobiotechnology for food and agriculture, especially in the developing
world. The report will also consider food industry applications, such as
nanosensors embedded in food packaging and in food itself, "interactive"
food and beverages - products that would change colour, flavour or nutrients
to accommodate the individual consumer's tastes or health condition, and
ultrasound-activated animal vaccines using nanoparticles, among many others.

For further information:

Jim Thomas, ETC Group, email: jim@etcgroup.org
Tel: +44-1865 201719
Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group, email: kjo@etcgroup.org
Tel: 1-919-960-5223

Witoon Lianchamroon, BIOTHAI, email: biothai@biothai.net
Tel: +662 952 7953
www.biothai.org

(1) Ranjana Wangvipula, "Thailand embarks on the nano path to better rice
and silk," Bangkok Post, Jan. 21, 2004. Available on the Internet:
http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=7266
(2) Ibid.
(3) Personal communication from Witoon Lianchamroon of BIOTHAI, 25 March
2004. Witoon spoke to Dr. Thirapat Vilaithong and other scientists at the
Fast Neutron Research Facility in Chaing Mai by telephone.
(4) http://www.plantmutations.com/mutation_breeding.htm. According to the
FAO/IAEA Mutant Varieties database over, well over 2000 varieties have been
released in 52 countries. See http://www-infocris.iaea.org/MVD/
(5) Anonymous, "Prime Minister orders establishment of nanotechnology
center," Pattaya Mail, Vol. XII No. 2, Friday January 9 - January 15, 2004.
Available on the Internet: http://www.pattayamail.com/545/business.shtml.
See also, Jen Lin-Liu, "Thailand's leader plants the seeds for a future in
nanobiotech, Small Times, Feb. 28, 2003. Available on the Internet:
http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5588


The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI, is
an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. The ETC
group is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity
and human rights. www.etcgroup.org. The ETC group is also a member of the
Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme (CBDC). The
CBDC is a collaborative experimental initiative involving civil society
organizations and public research institutions in 14 countries. The CBDC is
dedicated to the exploration of community-directed programmes to strengthen
the conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity. The CBDC
website is www.cbdcprogram.org.