Next year will mark the International Rice Research Institute's (IRRI's) half-century of existence. No doubt it will be a grand day for the Institute that claims to "help feed almost half the world's population".1 IRRI is an international research institution established in 1960, entrusted by the United Nations to safeguard the diversity of the world's rice germplasm at its International Rice Genebank, and mandated to support the development of rice research within national agricultural research systems (NARS). It is the self-proclaimed "home of Green Revolution in Asia"; the central institution through which the Green Revolution model for rice expanded throughout Asia in the 1970s.
IRRI will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the midst of a global food crisis. The United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the right to food says the number of the world's hungry will reach 1 billion this year2 while at least 2.9 million people (and counting) have already died of hunger as of today3 and there is ample reason to believe that another rice crisis like the one of 2008 will soon strike again. IRRI cannot escape some responsibility for this situation. It played a critical role in the development and expansion of a model of agriculture that has left farmers and the poor at the mercy of a transnational agribusiness industry which is reaping obscene profits as people starve. Moreover, pesticide poisonings (estimated at 25 million occurrences involving agricultural workers per year), environmental and health calamities, soil degradation and major pest outbreaks, such as brown plant hopper infestations, continue to haunt farming communities across Asia because of the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides that IRRI's modern rice varieties require. After 50 years of IRRI, with poverty and food crises as rampant as ever in Asia, it is time to take a hard look at how this institution lives up to its mission "to reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure that rice production is environmentally sustainable".4
What has IRRI accomplished over its 50 years?
IRRI has narrowed down genetic diversity through a top-down, scientist-led approach to rice seed development.
Thousands of traditional, local and farmer-bred varieties of rice and the rich diversity of farmer seed systems and knowledge that produced these varieties were wiped out by IRRI's Green Revolution. In exchange, farmers were promised a miracle, but this "miracle" quickly faded as large monocultures of the uniform, IRRI varieties were soon overrun by massive disease and pest outbreaks. Farmers then entered a ruinous pesticide cycle that continues to wreak devastation across Asia. Yields on the farm have never come close to the promised levels, and the overuse of fertilizers and the corresponding soil degradation are now eroding the limited yield gains that were realized. While IRRI maintains that one of its priorities is to "reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems", its research continues to be oriented towards plantation-type monocultures based on a narrow diversity of "modern" rice varieties that only respond well to the heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. As a consequence, resource-poor farmers and landless peasants have been marginalised and removed from the entire food production process. While they are called "beneficiaries" of IRRI's technologies, in reality, they are victims.
Over the past half a century, not only has a rich diversity disappeared from the fields to be kept frozen at IRRI's genebank, but many of the traditional knowledge systems that once accompanied seed development on the ground have also been lost. IRRI's model of centralised research has been a dismal failure-it is high time for farmers to take seeds back into their hands.
IRRI has paved the way for corporations to take control of the rice seed supply.
IRRI's agribusiness ties go way back, but lately, with sources of public funding drying up, it has been getting more and more entwined with the giants of the transnational seed and pesticide industry. In 2000, IRRI formed a public-private partnership with Syngenta and several national research centres to develop and commercialise a genetically engineered (GE) rice with a high Vitamin A content, known as Golden Rice. The Golden Rice Network is coordinated by IRRI's Gerard Barry, who was formerly an employee of Monsanto. Although Vitamin A deficiency does exist in Asia, Golden Rice is an inappropriate and ineffective solution. There are already ample sources of Vitamin A in fruits and vegetables, which are plentiful and cheaply available throughout Asia. The problem thus requires political and social solutions, not a techno-fix, especially not one like genetic engineering that would introduce all kinds of risks to Asia's most important crop in food and agriculture.
In 2007, IRRI moved even further down the corporate path when it announced its intentions to form a Hybrid Rice Research and Development Consortium. IRRI plans to charge private companies an annual fee to be part of the Consortium, which will provide them with privileged access to IRRI's breeding material. Details of which seed companies are part of the consortium have yet to be released.
Then, in March 2009, IRRI announced a research collaboration with US-based DuPont, the world's second largest seed company and owner of Pioneer Hi-bred International, to develop and commercialise new hybrid rice lines under the Scientific Know-How and Exchange Program (SKEP). The program establishes a new model for public-private sector collaboration in which products of their research-derived in one way or another from access to the genebank that IRRI holds in trust for the world-can be controlled exclusively by a private company. The partnership will give DuPont privileged access to IRRI's hybrid rice breeding lines, while IRRI will gain access to DuPont's lab equipment and its field stations. Such deals with transnational seed/pesticide corporations not only erode IRRI's mandate for public research, they also effectively propel corporate control over seeds and the entire rice farming system.
IRRI and its corporate partners continue to stubbornly pursue hybrid rice even though it has not only failed to provide farmers in Asia with the promised high yields, but has also been shown to increase problems with pests and diseases, encourage the use of more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have poor eating/taste quality, and reduce incomes of farmers. Complete crop failures are not uncommon with hybrid rice either. The only reason why hybrid rice is thriving is because it is being relentlessly marketed by seed corporations seeking to take over Asia's rice seed supply, with the help of IRRI and governments in Asia which subsidize and promote hybrid varieties. In truth, the seed corporations are only interested in hybrid rice because it prevents farmers from saving seeds and forces them to buy new seeds every year. A further motive is that hybrid rice is a step towards the introduction of GE rice. The benefits of this technology are clearly for corporations not farmers.
Farmer seed systems and community conservation can do wonders for food security if we would only support them and let them thrive. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people across Asia will be holding celebrations, rallies and forums for the People's Year of Rice Action (YORA) from 4 April 2009 to 4 April 2010 on the theme: Rice for Life and Livelihood!5 YORA will culminate on 4 April 2010 on IRRI's 50th anniversary with the call: 50 Years of IRRI is Enough! 50 years of Green Revolution, yet our food systems are in crisis with poverty and hunger rising across Asia. New technologies and modern varieties are clearly not the answer. The best thing IRRI can do for rice is to close down and give the seeds it has collected back to the farmers.
We need food systems based on small farmers' control over seeds, land, water, and energy.
We need them now. Not another year of IRRI.
1st August 2009
1 IRRI website
4 IRRI website
5 For more information, visit http://www.panap.net/yora
We endorse this statement in support of and in solidarity with the millions of small farmers and landless peasants across Asia who continue to suffer the malady that is the Green Revolution.