The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was established in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations in cooperation with the government of the Philippines. Its research activities began in 1962 and in the mid-1960s the IRRI's launch of a high-yielding dwarf rice variety (IR8) was a significant contribution to the Green Revolution in Asia, where nearly 91 per cent of world's rice is produced and where it is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations: China, India and Indonesia.
IRRI is the world's leading international rice research and training centre. It describes itself as an 'autonomous, nonprofit institution' that is 'focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes'. The Institute's research headquarters are part of the main campus of the University of the Philippines Los Banos, about 60 kilometers south of the Philippine capital, Manila. IRRI also has offices in 11 other countries.
IRRI is also part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies that funds 16 international research centers, which was created 11 years after the IRRI to help promote and protect such agricultural research centres.
However, both IRRI and CGIAR have come under criticism for supporting a corporate agenda. IRRI under CGIAR is supposed to contribute to sustainable improvements in the productivity of agriculture and in particular, as we have noted, to help low income people. But IRRI programmes have been judged by many to be both environmentally and socially destructive.
This is because IRRI programmes have increased productivity though breeding seeds that rely on the heavy use of chemical inputs. For these inputs to be taken up by the plant requires conditions of heavy and frequent water use via irrigation.
There is also the issue of monocultures. As biotechnology analyst, Dr Richard Hindmarsh of the University of Queensland notes, to date, IRRI has produced more than 300 High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of rice, but prior to the diffusion of these varieties over 100,000 different rice varieties thrived in farmers' fields.
The IRRI's rice variety IR8 launched the Green Revolution but it was variety IR36 - released in 1976 - which became the world's most widely planted variety of rice with 11 million hectares planted in Asia during the 1980s. The trend of displacement has continued. By the mid-1980s, just two HYVs occupied 98 per cent of the entire rice growing area of the Philippines.
Dr Hindmarsh points out that such widescale adoption of monocultures has had severe effects on crop genetic diversity with many local cultivars and landraces becoming extinct - some without any seed collection or documentation. Genetic uniformity also increases the vulnerability of monoculture crops to disease, pest invasions, and biological stress. Such crops are also vulnerable to weed proliferation due to intensive fertiliser use.
In other words, adoption of IRRI's HYVs has created excellent opportunities for costly intensive agriculture inputs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, IRRI’s annual reports from 1963-1982 show grants from a whole array of US and European chemical corporations including Monsanto, Shell Chemical, Union Carbide Asia, Bayer Philippines, Eli Lily, OccidentalChemical, Ciba Geigy (later part of Novartis Seeds which is now part of Syngenta), Chevron Chemical, Upjohn, Hoechst, and Cyanamid Far East. (Laying the Molecular Foundations of GM Rice Across Asia )
But while the IRRI's impact on Asian agriculture has proved lucrative for the agrochemical industry, dependency on expensive intensive inputs has meant increasing numbers of small farmers going into debt and leaving the land. Unemployment, hunger, and malnutrition can be the consequence, quite apart from pesticide poisonings and other health hazards arising from the chemicals farmers and landless labourers have been made dependent on. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that some 25 million workers suffer from pesticide poisoning annually.
The ultimate irony is that, while farmer dependency on expensive external inputs has increased hugely, yields from Green Revolution cultivation are in wide decline or are stagnating. And even when looked at from a national economic level, it is not clear that the price has been worth paying. In the Philippines, for instance, despite years of assiduously following IRRI programmes, the country has been importing increasing amounts of rice every year. (Dismantle CGIAR/IRRI )
Interestingly, in the rush to introduce the crop varieties of the Green Revolution, indigenous varieties which were capable of giving a higher yield were deliberately excluded. In 1983 the most eminent Indian rice scientist, Dr R.H. Richaria, prepared an action plan to increase rice production in India at the request of the Prime Minister's Office but it was never acted upon. The indigenous high-yielding varieties were closely related to varieties farmers were already familiar with and about which they possessed knowledge of 'their environmental and nutritional requirements, their properties and peculiarities... they know them more accurately then we do'. (Neglect of indigenous rice varieties )
At the time that Richaria's plan was first commissioned and then neglected the IRRI was headed by the plant geneticist and Godfather of the Indian Green Revolution, M.S. Swaminathan. It has been alleged that Swaminathan's rise to prominence went hand in hand with the suppression of the work of Indian scientists like Richaria who were making a case within the agricultural mainstream for less input-intensive farming.
Dr Richharia - whose guiding principle was, 'Your work is only valuable if it helps the poor farmers' - had warned from an early stage that the Green Revolution's widescale, hasty and indiscriminate introduction of exotic varieties would disturb the agro-ecological balance which had been built up over centuries by the natural process of breeding and selection by farmers, which allowed ecological balance in different environments. (Neglect of indigenous rice varieties) The Green Revolution's intensive use of inputs such as genetically uniform seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and water and energy, certainly resulted in major environmental degradation, including salinity, soil erosion, desertification, chemical pollution of land and waterways, die-back, loss of crop diversity, and the turning of renewable resources, such as soil and water, into non-renewable resources.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that when the CGIAR held its Annual General Meeting in 2002 near the IRRI in the Philippines, it was met with farmers' demonstrations and street protests calling for both institutions to be dismantled. The protesters issued a statement saying IRRI and CGIAR were failed research institutions. 'We believe that a genuine, farmer-centered research institution should develop technologies that shall liberate farmers from dependence on any agro-chemical TNC, promote sustainable agriculture, conserve the environment, and protect the health of farmers.' (Dismantle CGIAR/IRRI )
IRRI has also been accused of 'complete disregard for its workers' because of an immunity granted to it by former President Marcos, which they have used, it is claimed, to fire workers at will and to deny accountability for illnesses caused by the use of chemicals. It is alleged that since 1975 over 200 people from the IRRI community have died due to such toxic chemicals.
The year before the street demonstartions, IRRI had launched its controversial Golden Rice project. The genetically modified rice, which contains small amounts of pre-cursor vitamin A, arrived at the IRRI in January, 2001. IRRI’s Director-General, Ronald Cantrell was quoted as saying, 'The arrival of these initial samples at IRRI is a very significant step and allows us to finally start on the required testing processes using local rice varieties. IRRI expects to play a major role in the ongoing 'Golden Rice' research effort and its eventual introduction to the world’s millions of poor rice farmers and consumers.' The arrival of Golden Rice triggered protests from peasant farmers. (Protests take the shine off Golden Rice)
Still more controversially, in 2003, Gerard Barry, a leading Monsanto executive who had played a key role in achieving industry support for the Golden Rice project, was appointed Coordinator of the IRRI's Golden Rice Network. Barry's task was 'to facilitate the development and deployment' in Asian countries of the GM rice originally developed in Switzerland by Ingo Potrykus. What added to the controversy was the fact that Barry's appointment came just a year after the surprise appointment of Syngenta Foundation to CGIAR's board.
Within IRRI, however, there appear to be few qualms over the growing corporate alignment of public science. The IRRI's most famous plant breeder, Gurdev Khush, who worked there for 35 years and is still a consultant, is among those who have expressed strong support for 'collaborative arrangements' with private-sector corporations. He argues, 'IRRI has tremendous assets that the private sector does not possess, such as genetic resources, knowledge, and links with the national agricultural research and extension systems of rice-growing countries. The private sector, on the other hand, has resources to invest in cutting-edge science and the generation of technologies. So, the roles of IRRI and the private sector should be synergistic.' On his retirement from full-time employment at IRRI Khush is said to have received invitations to serve on the boards of several private companies. He is currently part of the 'scientific network' for 'product and technology innovation' and development of the controversial California-based bio-pharmaceutical firm Ventria Bioscience. (Gurdev Khush, Biography)
Barry's role at IRRI stirred further controversy in 2004 with rumours that Swapan Datta, the rice crop leader of the CGIAR's Challenge Program on Biofortification and the leading plant biotechnologist at IRRI, was being asked to step down to make way for Barry to take entire control of the Golden Rice project.
Many see the Golden Rice project as symbolic of IRRI's future research direction. IRRI biotechnologist Swapan Datta said 'that scientists are at a very important crossroad as they work with Golden Rice'. In fact, as Hindmarsh notes, it was simply a staging post on a more than decade long journey:
1990 • Beginning of production of transgenic rice at IRRI 1990 • First rice biotechnology training course at IRRI
1993 • Initiation of the Asian Rice Biotechnology Network (ARBN)
1993 • Completion of transgenic greenhouse for evaluation of GM plants
1996 • Tenth rice biotechnology training course (seventh under ARBN)
1996 • Genetic engineering of popular Asian cultivars under ARBN (Laying the Molecular Foundations of GM Rice Across Asia )
IRRI is using these resources not just to develop its genetically modified rice varieties but to release them across Asia. Planned areas for releases already include not just the Philippines but West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and other parts of India, northeast Thailand, and the coastal areas of Bangladesh. (Laying the Molecular Foundations of GM Rice Across Asia )
Ironically, it is the very problems that have been generated by earlier IRRI agricultural programmes which have been used to promote GM research, ie environmental degradation, the heavy reliance on pesticides, the growing concern about the over-exploitation of non-renewable resources. The agrochemical giants are reinventing themselves with biotechnology 'solutions' that prolong the dependence on their products. As Dr Hindmarsh notes:
'In the midst of a soil and water crisis, the solution to salinisation is salt-tolerant crops, while desertification is addressed with research ondrought resistant crops. Instead of critically arresting the erosion of the natural resource base by supporting the adoption of 'ecologically intelligent' technologies, biotechnology R&D is directed simply towards maintaining and extending the status quo by appearing to ‘reinvent’ the flawed agrochemical agricultural model... the crops of the so-called new green revolution are designed to work within the environmental problems and constraints caused by the mismanagement and over-exploitation of external inputs and natural resources that underpins monoculture cropping and industrial agriculture.'
A similar irony applies to Golden Rice and similar GM products. IRRI is one of the centres of research for the CGIAR's US$90 million Challenge Program on Biofortification (also known as HarvestPlus) which aims to 'improve' grain to be richer in such micronutrients as iron, zinc, vitamin A, selenium, and iodine, etc.. But, as Hindmarsh amongst others notes, the micronutrient deficiencies are attributable to the introduction of the Green Revolution varieties of rice, wheat, and maize, which lacked those micronutirents and other compounds and essential to health. In addition, the increasing production of staples displaced the raising of local fruits, vegetables, and legumes that were the chief sources of micronutirents. The result was increasing malnutrition. Dr Hindmarsh concludes, 'The deep and tragic irony is that biotech proponents are now introducing the flawed technology fix of Golden Rice to address this earlier round of flawed technology'. And, once again, this flawed techno-fix is being presented as a miracle solution.
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