The journey of rice, beginning with the emergence of wild rice some 130 million years ago, transcending through the Himalayas, passing through southern China, hopping to Japan, travelling to Africa, traded to Middle East and the Mediterranean, shipped to Mexico and America, has finally ended at the banks of river Rhine in Basel, Switzerland.

Swiss biotech giant Syngenta, based at Basel in Switzerland, has tightened its monopoly control over rice. Seeking global patents over thousands of genes in rice (a single grain of rice contains 37,544 genes, roughly one-fourth more than the genes in a human body), the multinational giant is all set to "own" rice, the world's most important staple food crop.

Interestingly, Syngenta and another seed multinational, Pioneer Hi-Bred, were earlier agitated when the European Patent Office (EPO) on May 6, 2003 upheld the European Patent No. 301,749, granted in March 1994, which provided Monsanto exclusive monopoly over all forms of genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds -- irrespective of the genes used or the transformation technique employed. It appears Syngenta's objection to Monsanto's claim over soybean was only to ensure that the proprietary control over food crops remains with them.

The trade negotiators who have been relentlessly winding and unwinding the complex maze around intellectual proprietary at the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) negotiations, and the international scientific community had refused to see the signs on the wall. With the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) clearly and steadily backing the biotechnology industry's agenda of private control of the world's food supply, and with the governments of major rice producing countries of Asia refusing to wake up to the emerging threats, Syngenta has been allowed to take control.

Delivering a keynote at the inaugural ceremony of the International Year of the Rice 2004 at Basel in Switzerland, which for reasons understandable was jointly organised by the Swiss government, this writer had warned against the strengthening of the private control over rice: "The celebration of the year 2004 as the international year of the rice is a toast to acknowledge the emergence of Switzerland on the world's rice map". Incidentally, Switzerland does not grow any rice.

With the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) clearly and steadily backing the biotechnology industry's agenda, and with the governments of major rice producing countries of Asia refusing to wake up to the emerging threats, Syngenta has been allowed to take control.

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A year later, Syngenta spilled the beans. In August 2005, in a communication to four NGOs -- Berne Declaration (Switzerland), Swissaid (Switzerland), the German NGO "No Patents on Life" and Greenpeace -- Adrian Dubock, head of Biotechnology ventures in Syngenta, stated: "Syngenta's original commercial interest (discontinued for now, but not necessarily for ever) was for sales in the industrialised countries of nutritionally enhanced crops, included, but not limited to rice." Accordingly, the patent on the GE rice will not be dropped because "Our shareholders wouldn't thank us if we had forgone that possibility." Yet the company claims there are no commercial interests in this technology at the moment.

The civil society groups had asked Syngenta to drop some of its rice patent claims. The proprietary claims are also aimed at other important food crops like wheat, corn, sorghum, rye, banana, fruits and vegetables besides others. The company claims that most of the gene sequences that it has 'invented' are identical in other crops and therefore the patent needs to extend to those crops also. In all, Syngenta has filed for mega-patents on 15 groups of gene sequences covering thousands of genes, peptides, transgenic plants and seeds, method of genetic engineering etc. One patent application, for patent 1 through 6, belongs to the 'same patent family' (application # 60/300, 112) and runs into 12,529 pages.

Syngenta claims it invented more than 30,000 gene sequences of rice. Syngenta in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of USA had beaten Monsanto in the game of mapping the genetic structure of rice by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Top executives of Syngenta had then told the New York Times that while the companies would not seek to patent the entire genome, they would try to patent individual valuable genes. They categorically stated that Syngenta and Myriad were well on their way to finding many of those.

True to its words, Syngenta finally filed for global patents before the European Patent Office, US Patent and Trademark Office and the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (WIPO). Thanks to the untiring efforts of four civil society organisations, which have been on a hot trail of the patenting follies, the world would have never known the patently unfair designs of the private companies. While the company does acknowledge that the scope of many of these patents will be reduced as the examination of patents proceeds, but the mere fact that the scientific community and the Asian governments have turned into mute spectators is worrying enough.

Syngenta's efforts to seek control over rice have severe implications for the future of rice research and its resulting impact on food security and hunger. For countries like India or Japan, one of the seats of origin of rice, it is an ominous sign. In other words, biological inheritance of the world's major food crop is now in the hands of a Swiss multinational. If Syngenta's application for global patents is accepted, the Asian countries will lose all control that comes through 'sovereign' control over genetic resources (as defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992) of the staple grain.

Staple food for more than half the world's population, rice is part of the Asian culture, rice is the unstated religion of Asia, and in essence rice is the life of Asia. It is in Asia still that more than 97 per cent of the world's rice is grown. Nearly 91 per cent of world's rice is produced in Asia, and 92 per cent is eaten in Asia. Rice is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations: People's Republic of China, India and Indonesia. For more than 2.5 billion people in these three countries alone - rice is what they grow up with. For centuries, rice has been the sociology, tradition and lifeline for the majority world.

Syngenta has already made it clear that the patents will restrict access to the genomic map and expects proprietary control over any research carried out with the information. By denying access to these genes of commercial value, the company will in reality block public sector science in the developing countries. At the same time, it raises serious questions over the validity of the sui generis legislations that a number of developing countries are formulating to protect the rights of the researchers and farmers. This writer has time and again warned that the sui generis laws being framed under the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) regime is merely a strategy to allow the passage of time while the seed multinationals tighten their private control over public property.

In essence, it is the beginning of a scientific apartheid against all Third World countries.