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Global push for rice ‘suicide seed’

The seed industry will do whatever it takes to stop farmers saving seeds. The only way it can make big money from seeds is to force farmers to buy from seed companies every year. With rice, one of the world’s most important crops, it is no wonder that there is a relentless push for a hybrid variety that is essentially sterile. Suicide seeds, so to speak. At the heart of this race for hybrid rice are the transnational corporations as well as the Chinese government, according to a new assessment by GRAIN, which promotes sustainable development and agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control of genetic resources and local knowledge.

The seed industry talks of higher yields and big profits for farmers to try and sell hybrid rice. But the situation in the fields is quite the reverse. In 2005, GRAIN released a report documenting the dismal performance of hybrid rice in Asia. The only country that was said to be reaping success from it was China, the birthplace of the hybrid rice “miracle”. But on a return visit, farmers in China confirmed that a wide gap existed between the yield projections made by scientists in the laboratory and farmers’ experiences in the field. Some farmers reported no increase at all in yields and, in areas where there were rises, they were modest and owed much to the liberal use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and steady irrigation. The Chinese peasants GRAIN met said that after three decades of hybrid rice development they were as poor as ever.

In some Asian countries where farmers are still growing hybrid rice, it is often only because of government programmes that heavily subsidise it or, as in the case of China and Burma, that leave farmers no other option. “Yet governments continue unperturbed with their ambitious projects to promote hybrid rice. In Asia and Africa, it is hailed as key to meeting the millennium development goal of food security. Packed within broad co-operation agreements that include oil exploration or agrofuel production, it is also seen as an important component of addressing the impending energy crisis,” says GRAIN. Field trials are also under way in Spain and Italy.

China is at the centre of this emergent transnational rice seed industry. Some of the corporates moving in on rice seeds are well-known transnationals, such as the pesticide and seed giants Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto or the agribusiness titan Charoen Pokphand. GRAIN says: “The Chinese corporations, operating inside and outside China, may be less well known, but they are pursuing the same path as these larger seed corporations, perhaps even more aggressively. Hybrid rice is indeed their entry point on to the stage of the global seed industry, and they have the backing of the Chinese government’s growing international presence to help things along.” Chinese companies and the country’s top public agricultural research system, has deals with Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Madagascar and a number of African countries, including Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Ghana, Egypt and Nigeria.

GRAIN concludes: “The threat that hybrid rice is posing to farmers’ agricultural biodiversity is no longer confined to genetic erosion. Many of the companies involved in this current hybrid rice explosion are also developing GM rice, and are involved in various incidents of contamination. They are taking control of the rapidly changing seed system. This undermines farmers’ livelihoods and food sovereignty, and eats at the very core of sustainable farming.”

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
24 October 2007

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