And now, Thai Jasmine rice.
The protests by farmers have also forced Thailand's government representatives to raise the issue of protection of jasmine rice variety at the ongoing Fourth Ministerial World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Doha, Qatar. In mid-November, about 300 local farmers rallied outside the Maha Sarakham district office in northeast Thailand expressing concern that planting the new variety in the US would threaten the economic livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers particularly in Thailand's northeast region. Farmers' representatives and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also rallied in front of the US embassy in Bangkok. More nation-wide protests by Thai farmers are planned to continue throughout November and December.
The controversy over the US research into Thai jasmine rice variety or Hom Mali emerged after news that a US researcher Chris Deren had developed a new strain of early maturing jasmine rice that needs little sunshine and is short enough to be harvested easily by machines and thus could be planted throughout the flatlands of the US.
Deren said he obtained the original seeds of the Thai Khao Dok Mali 105 (KDM 105) jasmine rice variety from the gene bank of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 1995. Deren is a researcher at the Everglades Research and Education Centre at the University of Florida and works for the US Department of Agriculture's "Stepwise Programme for Improvement of Jasmine Rice".
The large-scale planting of the new jasmine rice variety in the US could damage Thailand's rice exports. The US is Thailand's biggest market for jasmine rice. Thailand earns more than Bt 26 billion (about US$650 million) a year from export of about 1.2 million tonnes of jasmine rice, of which 300, 000 to 400,000 tonnes is to the US. This volume represents about 25 per cent of global Thai jasmine rice exports and about 75 per cent of global rice imports in US.
Wijit Boonsong, one of the northeastern farmers protesting against the US, stated, "We are already in financial trouble due to rising fertiliser and oil prices. If the market price of jasmine rice declines further in the face of new competition from the US, many of us will go bankrupt."
US-produced jasmine rice would gain an immediate competitive edge, said Witoon Lianchamroon from Biothai, a nongovernmental organisation based in Bangkok that works on biodiversity issues.
"The US has all the economic advantages from large-scale farming to efficient crop harvesting methods. Operating costs in the US are lower and their farmers could produce cheaper rice.
"It would be another form of biopiracy and double standards. The US is complaining about bootleg music cassettes in Thailand while simultaneously robbing our farmer's knowledge and heritage," he stated.
US producers are excited about the new jasmine rice strain. Recently, the US-based Sem-Chi Rice company had expressed interest in planting 9,000 acres of the new jasmine rice if the research shows that the new strain is commercially viable.
Apart from the loss of export market share, the more serious concern for Thai farmers and NGOs is that the US would attempt to patent the new jasmine rice strain. "If that happened, all jasmine rice brands from Thailand would be taken off the market due to the risk of lawsuits filed by the patent owner," said Dr Chakrit Kuanpotte, an expert on intellectual property rights in Sukothai Thammatirat University in Bangkok.
The patent owner could also seek similar protections in other major rice markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and China, and further damage Thailand's jasmine rice exports.
So far Chris Deren says that he has no intention of patenting the rice variety he is working on. But given the sordid history at biopiracy and patenting of genetic materials by US corporations (such as the US-based Rice Tec corporation's attempts a few years ago to file a patent on "Jasmati" - the company's combination of Thai jasmine and Indian basmati rice varieties), there is no guarantee that some other institution or corporation in the US will not buy the jasmine rice variety and file the patent.
Thailand's farmers' groups have pointed out that there are more than 600 patents recorded so far on rice genes and plants and breeding methods worldwide, most of them owned by agroindustrial corporations in developed countries. These groups suspect that some of these firms have obtained the seeds from the IRRI's gene bank.
Thailand's NGOs have criticised the IRRI for failing to protect the genetic material of Thai jasmine rice held in its gene bank. The IRRI has admitted that some of its researchers could have provided jasmine rice seeds to Deren without formally notifying the institute or the Thai government, the donor and owner of the seeds.
Anyone who requests germplasm from the IRRI must sign a Materials Transfer Agreement (MTA) which compels researchers to inform, consult and negotiate with the country where the seeds originated. However, neither Deren nor the US government consulted or informed Thailand about the jasmine rice research.
Until recently the IRRI had remained silent to questions sent by the protesting farmers groups as well as from the media. Last week, William Padolina, the IRRI's deputy director-general for partnership, told Thailand's English-language newspaper, The Nation in its first interview with the press that it was IRRI policy not to comment or get involved in the domestic debates of its research partners.
Padolina said he didn't think the DNA material on which those patented rice varieties were based came from IRRI, and that it was difficult for the institute to trace the records to see whether researchers had taken the genetic material in violation of its Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) policy.
The non-profit IRRI was established in 1960 with the primary goal of finding sustainable ways of improving the living standards of rice farmers and consumers. Genetic material from about 5,500 Thai rice varieties is stored in the bank, making Thailand IRRI's fourth-largest donor.
Witoon Lianchamroon called on the Thai government to demand an inspection of IRRI's working procedures. "It seems that IRRI is under the control of developed countries - the US in particular. It should not be trusted with our rice genetic materials any longer if it does not allow us, as an important contributor of the materials, to inspect its working system," he said.
Recently, NGOs and farmers groups from all over Thailand supported by international environmental and biodiversity organisations submitted a letter to the US and Thai governments supporting the protests by the Thai farmers and calling for more effective protection of the rights of farmers to cultivate rice varieties.
Thailand's government representatives raised the jasmine rice issue at the Fourth Ministerial World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Doha, Qatar.
In November last year, Thailand's Commerce Minister Adisai Bodharamik said that the WTO members have agreed to Thailand's proposal to expand protection for products with specific geographical indicators. Currently, only wines and spirits have such protection.
The agreement on the Thai proposal will be reflected in the declaration due out at the end of the WTO ministerial meeting. This would be the first step for Thailand in pushing for its jasmine rice to have global protection under the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). In principle, such protection could prevent producers in other parts of the world from using the geographical names on their products.
"Since our ancestors began to grow jasmine rice, it has belonged to Thai farmers, and Thai village communities. Nobody, not anyone, can claim ownership or assume exclusive rights. Any attempt at patenting of jasmine rice or the misuse of its name is a shameless theft towards us, the small-scale Thai farmers, and a violation of our most basic rights," said Lai Lerngram, a farmer from Surin province in northeastern Thailand.