Traditional Rice Varieties
Far Superior to GE Crops

Genetically engineered rice? Take a look at farmers' varieties
Soni Mishra, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, December 12,0008.htm

Even as the government is keen on introducing genetically engineered
varieties of rice which are drought, flood and salinity resistant,
environmentalists want the focus to shift to the numerous farmers' varieties
capable of beating the severest of environmental conditions.

Making genetic engineering seem like a laggard technology are the indigenous
rice varieties that can withstand the severest of climatic conditions.
Sample this: West Bengal alone grows 78 varieties of rice that are
suited to dry conditions, according to a 'Register' prepared by the
NGO Navdanya as part of its movement to fight for farmers' rights
on seeds.

Farmers of Uttararnchal are not far behind and they grow around 54
drought-resistant varieties of rice, which have been conserved through
regular growing and consumption.

In Kerala around 40 drought-resistant varieties have been developed while
Orissa, notorious for starvation deaths, is also the home to a few
drought-resistant varieties of rice.

"We have, along with farmers communities in nine states, collated the
varieties over a 15-year period to create awareness about the varieties and
to stress on the need to conserve them", says Vandana Shiva of Navdanya.

According to the Register, farmers in India have also developed rice that
can survive submergence of over 12-15 days while two to three days of
submergence is enough to kill ordinary rice.

As for resistance to salinity, what tougher test for rice than to be grown
in the salt-rich mangrove lands of West Bengal. There are three varieties
grown in the tidal waters of the mangrove area, which can bear up to 14 per
cent salinity. And the soil is so fertile that the crop needs no attention
from the farmer, who after transplanting the paddy can abandon it till
harvest time.

Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka too grow a wide variety of salinity-resistant
rice cultivars, according to the bio-diversity register.

Where these varieties score over genetically-engineered ones is that they
are in sync with the ecology. After all, farmers have tried and tested them
over hundreds of years, says Shiva.

Whereas the effects of genetically-engineered rice varieties on the ecology
is not so well understood, she says.

Moreover, the farmers' varieties, if not used regularly, would go extinct,
as did a number of such cultivars during the green revolution which made
thousands of indigenous varieties, that were not only capable of
withstanding harsh climatic conditions but also gave consistent yields,

While Dr S U Zaman, principal scientist, Indian Agricultural Research
Institute, plays down the fear of transgenic rice varieties, saying
there is a universally recognised bio-safety procedure that any new variety goes
through before it is introduced, he cautions that thought needs to be given
on how to conserve indigenous varieties at the same time.

Hence, he says, a comprehensive system needs to be formed wherein indigenous
varieties exist alongside new varieties: "If time-tested study, traditional
varieties are available in an area, it does not need transgenic varieties.
Accent should be on providing new varieties to farmers who do not have
access to good indigenous cultivars," says the rice expert.

Another argument against the use of genetically engineered varieties, to be
provided by multinational seed-developers, is that they are not really
creating them but merely taking genes from the varieties evolved by farmers
over time and repackaging them.

"It is a case of intellectual piracy: genetically engineering rice with
genes taken from farmers' varieties and then going on to claim a patent for
it under the Intellectual Property Rights regime is a form of intellectual
piracy and biopiracy," says Shiva.

Shiva cites as an example the patent claim of the US company RiceTec on a
variety of basmati rice which derived its genetic material from basmati
grown by Indian farmers.

The patent would have made it illegal for anyone else to grow rice with
similar characteristics as well as call it `basmati'. But a global campaign
launched by Navdanya and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and
Ecology led to the claims being struck down by the US Patent and Trademark
Office in August 2001.

"The Register is not a simple act of documentation. It is part of our
movement to create the awareness that the rice varieties developed by
farmers are theirs and to protect them from being stolen by multinational
seed companies," says Shiva.

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