Feb 5, 2001
Two companies announced that they had discovered the genetic composition of rice, the major cereal grain of the world. The companies are Syngenta, a major agricultural chemical and seed company in Switzerland; and Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company in Utah.
Scientists working for these companies say that this is just the first step, but that it has the potential to open the door to develop improved varieties of rice that could better resist disease and cold, and yield higher amounts of rice with less labor. Moreover, the knowledge gained from rice might make possible improvements in other cereal crops like wheat and corn, which share certain genes with rice.
Certainly, in many areas of the world, there is a need for better food production. But the problem is not just the lack of knowledge about food crops. Farmers have improved the strands of rice and other grains by selecting the better varieties and cross breeding them over many hundreds of years. But this hasn't done away with hunger. The problem is that poor people don't have the money to buy food. This is the problem of the social and economic system, not one of scientific knowledge.
This new genetic discovery simply illustrates the problem. The two companies making the announcement about rice genes said some of the data would be publicly available, but not the most important. Those wanting to use the data would have to pay a fee to access it. Moreover, if they made a useful improvement in the rice, the two companies would receive royalty payments for all the rice sold. And what does this mean for farmers who use a new strain of rice and cross breed it on their farms –will they owe royalties on their improvements too?
The companies will patent the most important genes of rice, making it their corporate property, in order to profit. They ignore the fact that these genes existed in nature and that their current composition is the result of centuries of human improvement.
The giant companies first have to get their profits, and this puts big obstacles in the way of these new developments reaching the poorest people who need it most.