It's all in the name

Thai farmers and activists object to a US company's use of the name Jasmati for a rice variety

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

 The aroma of profit: Rice Tec rice tec inc, the us seed company that sent shock waves across India by staking patent rights on a particular variety of basmati rice at the us Patent and Trademark Office, will not be able to pull the same trick on Thailand. Thai farmers have pledged to protect Khao Dawk Mali, a local rice variety better known as jasmine rice, from the hands of such 'seed sharks'. Egged on by farmers, non-governmental organisations (ngos) and other citizens' groups, the Thai government has announced that it is "preparing to patent the fragrant jasmine rice". "We will also launch an international campaign to inform consumers that the best jasmine rice comes only from Thailand," said Newin Chidchob, deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives.

Alarm bells started ringing when it was realised that along with a variety of basmati, Rice Tec is marketing another proprietary variety of rice artfully christened "Jasmati". This brand has no connection with the Thai variety. It is derived from Della , a variety that originated in Italy. Thai farmers believe that by linking the name of their product with Thailand's precious jasmine rice, Rice Tec is deceiving consumers. More seriously, they might begin to encroach upon Thailand's export market.

Rice is an important export commodity in Thailand, with more than five million tonnes per year going to countries in the Middle East, the us and Hong Kong. Jasmine rice, which grows in the sandy and saline soil in the north-eastern part of the country, makes up about 25 per cent of this. Thailand has invested large sums of money in the last two years to expand the rain-fed areas under jasmine rice cultivation. More than five million farmers depend on cultivating jasmine rice for their livelihood. The government hopes to earn us $2.5 billion from the export of the rice variety in the coming year.

Obviously, Thailand cannot afford to let Rice Tec hijack jasmine rice, even if it is only the name. "The unique quality of jasmine rice comes not only from the variety but from our soil, which we have inherited from our ancestors. Someone who grows another variety in another environment should not claim it is jasmine rice," says Noo-porn Poomta, a 53-year-old farmer who is a member of the Forum of the Poor, a mass movement in Thailand that consists of over 100 networks of people's organisations, farmers and labourers, which is leading the campaign to protect jasmine rice.

The activists are convinced that Rice Tec will not stop at borrowing the name -- it is bound to go the basmati way. The Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (irri) holds the germplasm of jasmine rice in its genebank. irri acts as a repository of seeds collected from countries across the world and distributes them for "the purpose of scientific research". In practice, seed corporations from the North acquire their raw materials from this precious collection, develop their own varieties, and then claim patents on them. According to reports, Rice Tec got the strain of basmati from this source.

Thai farmers fear that Jasmati seeds would be used in the same manner. The irri has already developed more than 1,500 varieties of strains from the jasmine rice seeds and distributed them to over 20 nations including the us . Companies such as Rice Tec have had ample opportunity to work on the germplasm to develop a particular new strain. Result: Thai exporters would find their market shrinking as Rice Tec expands its base.

ngo s, such as the Bangkok-based Biothai, share the apprehension of the farmers. The World Trade Organisation ( wto ) requires all the member nations to provide protection of plant varieties by the end of 1999. This will only benefit corporate plant breeders like Rice Tec because the wto does not recognise farmers or communities as legal entities. "We want our government to work with other developing countries to have biodiversity (biological resources) removed from the wto trade regime," says Witoon Lianchamroon of Biothai.

The Thai government has completed the drafting of a Plant Varieties Protection Bill. If this bill is enacted after being tabled in Parliament, foreign companies using Thai grains for commercial purposes would be required to pay a royalty of at least five per cent of total sales.

Robert Havener, director general, irri , has now officially clarified that the germplasms held in trust by his institute cannot be patented by any party, whether an individual or a corporation -- a loud and clear message for companies like Rice Tec to watch their step in future.

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