Thai Jasmine Rice and The WTO:
Bio-tech and patents on life
By: Marissa Vahlsing
Thai Jasmine rice- or Khao dawk mali- may be coming to a US farm near you. This strand of rice which has been grown and cultivated by farmers in the Isaan region of Thailand for over 500 years has become a topic of controversy among the Thai people and a US bio-tech agency in Florida. At present, Thai Jasmine rice is grown by 5 million Thai farmers, and makes up more than 90% of the Thai rice that reaches the US each year. Traditionally, this sacred strand of rice has been limited to the paddy’s of Isaan where the soil is just right for growth (dry and saline). Furthermore, it is regarded as a symbol of local wisdom and culture for the people of Isaan and of greater Thailand. However, two American scientists are about to change that. Chris Daren and Neil Rutger, of the University of Florida, obtained a germoplasm of the rice and have genetically modified it with gamma rays so that it can be sustained by the wet and swampy fields of southern Florida. If Daren and Rutger’s project is successful, then a United States Biotech company may take over the Thai farmers’ traditional role as the sole growers and merchants of this prized strand.
The 5 million Thai farmers who cultivate this rice are highly dependent upon the sales made from its exports for their income. Often, these farmers, who inhabit the poorest region of a struggling Asian country, are indebted to the government on account of Thailand’s debts to larger international banks, and thus only see a small portion of the earnings made from the rice to begin with. On average, the monthly income of an Isaan farmer is equivalent to $200 US. If Daren and Rutger are able to grow and market a modified strand of the jasmine rice in the US, the 5 million Thai farmers might be put out of business by the country that is now their best customer, the United States. As a result, both the Thai farmers and many of the Thai people in general are outraged. On November 9, 2001, in Bangkok, 1500 Thai farmers and activists took to the streets to protest against the United States and the policies’ of the WTO (World Trade Organization) under the TRIPS agreement that allow such a manipulation of indigenous agriculture to take place. This is not the first time that the US has sold and marketed Thailand or Asia’s culture with their own products, or products sold under the pretense of Asian origins. In 1998 there was a controversy over the legitimacy of a US corporation (RiceTEch)’s use of the name “Jasmati” to market a rice they claimed to be a combination of India’s Basmati and Thailand’s Jasmine rice. The issues not only involved the branding of Asian Culture, but the falsepretences of the Jasmati rice’s origins. Although the rice was advertised as having Indian and Thai origins, it was really a genetically engineered hybrid strand joining Italian Beratone and American Della rice. Thus, it is not shocking that the Thai people are outraged at both the US Biotech companies that promote and carry out this “bio-piracy” but with the International patent standards on agriculture that allow this to take place.
Legal Issues and Terms:
The TRIPS agreement of the WTO which governs this type of transaction involves Trade related aspects of international property rights, as denoted in its title. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) was signed at the end of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1994 and came into force in 1995. It is administered by GATT's successor, the World Trade Organization. TRIPs was strongly resisted by the South, as it forces all WTO member states to extend intellectual property rights to plant varieties, the basis of food security and health care. Until now, Asian countries have prohibited patents on life forms because corporate monopolies touching peoples' basic needs are dangerous. Also, many Asian cultures are based on a holistic view of and respect for life, which Western technologies and property systems fundamentally disregard.This agreement imposes uniform standards for intellectual property protection around the world. Consequentially, the TRIPS standards are the standards that allow patenting of life forms and agriculture to take place. Under this agreement, in order for a life form to be patented as property of an individual, company or country, it must be genetically altered in some way so that they are distinctively different from the original organism found in nature. “As a result, a country like Thailand has no authority to patent its jasmine rice as it already exists. It could only patent a new variety of it that altered one or two genes within the genome. This gives global biotech and drug companies the advantage for once their products are patented they can claim monopoly rights so that anyone wishing to use their product will have to pay the owning company. By building seed monopolies Biotech companies can further control the process of food production requiring farmers to buy seeds expanding their input costs significantly. By giving advantage to TNCs TRIPs implicitly favors the economies of the developed world, as almost all of the companies large enough to do global research on biological resources are based in the North. This is explains why a farmer from Isaan held a sign in Bangkok protesting the WTO TRIPs agreement reading "TRIPs: Seeds of Colonization."” [i]
Thus, a few main legal and ethical questions can be gleaned from this situation. First of all, the very way in which the germoplasm of rice was obtained by Daren and Rutger and brought to the US is still under heated debate. According to Daren, the rice germoplasm was acquired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Phillipines, which is a non-profit organization that operates under the World Bank. It was originally created with the intent of promoting food security and eradicating poverty. The institute itself holds a germoplasm strand of nearly every rice found around the world. However, rather than protecting the rights and needs of the impoverished farmers, many people claim that the IRRI instead favors agro-industrial organizations by “lending itself to Biopiracy”. [ii] According to IRRI standards, anyone who obtains a strand of rice from their bank must sign a mutual transfer agreement (MTA) which mandates that the recipiant agree not to patent or monopolize the donated seeds from the institute. However, when Daren borrowed the germoplasm of the Jasmine Rice he neglected to sign such an agreement. This obscures the issue even further. However, whether or not the IRRI aided Daren in a form of Bio-piracy may be reserved to another debate. At present, the most crucial issue involved is whether or not the genetic modification and patenting of life forms is ethical or just, and what its implications are for the small scale indigenous farmers around the world who may be put out of business by larger Bio-tech corporations.
Questions brought up in class discussion:
* Why should we give monopoly rights to a handful of plant breeders and nothing to the millions of farmers who nurtured and developed the materials these breeders rely on?
* Are patents on life forms ethical or just? If so, should there be limits?
* In the US, there is a very thin line between invention of a life form and discovery of one. While in less developed countries, the gap is recognized as much wider by their legal standards. What are the implications of differentiating between an invention and a discovery? Why is this important?
* If TRIPS have be shown to undermine sustainable development objectives, including eradication of poverty, meeting health needs, conserving Biodiversity, protecting the environment and economic and cultural rights, is it the responsibility of the developed countries to protect the developing ones from such policies?
* How should we judge intellectual property rights on indigenous and traditional knowledge?
* Is a innovative competition across cultures for new and better technologies necessary? Should there be a limit on such competition to protect those countries with fewer technological capabilities?
* Can we rely on the international market economy to protect the lives and needs of the impoverished farmers who are adversely affected by the “free” market competition for new technologies, even on things such as life forms and agriculture?
Good sources of reference:
If you wish to learn more about this issue, or to link up with other international activists to help the Thai Farmers of Issan, you can:
* Write a letter to your trade representative urging them to further revisethe WTO TRIPs agreement, calling for all biological resources to be void from the TRIPs agreement
* Write a letter to Chris Deren at:
5881SW Market St
Palm City, FL 24990-5124
or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Urging him to sign a formal agreement with the Thai government saying he will not sell his rice to a company who may control over his new strain of rice.
* Write a letter to the United States Department of Agriculture urging them to halt all research that will threaten the export viability of crops from the developing world, which millions of farmers depend on. Send to:
Office of the Administrator
Floyd P. Horn
Jamie L. Whitten Building 302-A
14th and Independence Ave
SW Washington 20250
Or email him at email@example.com
Organize teachings, rallies, actions in your local communities about the current context of Biotech corporations and their attempt to seize jasmine rice from poor farmers in Thailand.
For more information on the WTO's TRIPs agreement see:
For more information on the patenting and genetic engineering being done on Asian rice see:
For more information on the WTO and Globalization in general see:
Contacts to NGOs working on this issue:
Biothai (The Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity)
RRAFA (Rural Reconstruction Alumni and Friends Association)
Ms. Walaiporn Od-ompanich
ENGAGE (Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange)
In Thailand: Peggy Reents at firstname.lastname@example.org
In USA: Chris Westcott at email@example.com
EFTA (European Fair Trade Association)
Tel: (+32) 2 213 12 46
Fax: (+32) 2 213 12 51
ETC (formerly known as RAFI)
The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration
Tel: (204) 453-5259
[i] Thai Jasmine Rice and the threat of the US Biotech industry
Chris Wescott, December 18, 2001