The Great Gene Robbery by Claude Alvares

In 1982, Dr M.S. Swaminathan withdrew from his position as Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC) and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission – he was also earlier secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture – and defected to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based at Los Banos in the Philippines as Director-General. The word ‘defected’ is used here on purpose: in no other country of the world would a scientist in such a strategically important position, privy to all the country’s scientific secrets particularly of those related to food, be permitted to leave and overnight become the employee of an institution controlled by two private foundations so closely allied to American capitalism and US foreign policy interests.

IRRI had been set up in 1960 as part of America’s efforts to control and direct rice research in Asia, even though American is hardly a rice eating country. A famous plant-breeder had once said, in regard to rice: ‘He who controls the supply of rice will control the destiny of the entire Asiatic orbit. The most important thing to the majority of the Asia is not capitalism or socialism or any other political ideology but food which means life itself, and in most of Asia, food is rice.’

Earl Butz, a former US Secretary of Agriculture, is notorious for one sentence that he uttered in a course of an otherwise utterly insignificant life: ‘If food can be used as a weapon we would be happy to use it.’

And today, as we near the end of the twentieth century, we have to admit that the research concerning the two major cereals that rule our lives – wheat and rice – is wholly directed and controlled by institutions set up under American imperialism.
In many ways Dr Swaminathan’s appointment to IRRI would have been considered a demotion. While in India, he had lorded it over a scientific establishment that employed thousands of scientists, in the Philippines he would have not more than 200 scientists under him. The principal compensation, however, was the money, income tax free.
Already this international institute, always run by American directors, was facing the collapse of its High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) strategy, as seed after seed fell victim to waves of pest epidemics. Urgently required was a massive expansion of IRRI’s rice germplasm, genes from which were essential for passing on resistance to the HYVs. The largest collection of rice varieties, of rice germplasm, remained in the Indian sub-continent. Swaminathan’s appointment was critical to this quest.

The IRRI is not a premier institute of science. It is a privately-controlled agricultural research centre. Even so, it is difficult to conceive of a man with Swaminathan’s record becoming its director general. Unless of course the person being appointed is known more for his ability to get things done than for his scientific work. Certainly no scientist with an equivalent scientific record would have found an appointment as director of, say, the Max Planck Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). I ask[ed] knowledgeable people in the Philippines how Swaminathan could have been appointed to the post of director general of IRRI. The most plausible answer was also the funniest.

There were apparently three applicants for the post. The first, a vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation, insisted on coming to the institute with both his wife and his mistress, if he got the job. The second candidate, from West Germany, was found, upon examination, not to have a degree that he had stitched on to his name. In comparison, Dr M.S.  Swaminathan whom an article in the 1979 Yearbook of Science and the Future, published by the Encyclopedia Britannica, put in the company of Paul Kammerer and Cyril Burt, two of the leading scientific frauds of the twentieth century, appeared white as snow.

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India is rice country. Rice is a critical component of a complex eco-system, tied to legends, used as symbol, essential witness at religious ceremonies and rituals. Such an immense preoccupation with rice would, which is to be expected, call forth its own brand of competence to grow it; so we find a bewildering number of techniques, some of which even today place Indian rice farmers, some Adivasis, in a class far ahead of international science.
In the Jagannath Temple at Puri in Orissa, I was told, freshly harvested rice is presented to the deity everyday, and various varieties of rice, placed in pots, one on top of the other, with a single flame beneath the lowermost, still cook simultaneously. In Chhattisgarh region there is a rice variety called Bora, which can be ground directly into flour and made into rotis. Other varieties have fascinating names, like the kali-mooch of Gwalior, the moti-chur and the khowa; the latter, as its name signifies, tastes like dried milk. The dhokra-dhokri, with its length of grain over 14 mm is the longest rice in the world and the variety Bhimsen has the largest width; there is variety called udan pakheru – because of its long, featherlike structure.
There may have been as many as 1,20,000 varieties of rice in the country, adapted to different environments, and selected and evolved by farmers for specific human needs. These varieties are a product of nature’s desire for diversity, eagerly husbanded by indigenous and non-formal science.

The Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), at Cuttack, had been working on the different problems associated with rice culture ever since it had been set up in the late 1950s. Dr R.H. Richharia took over as its director in 1959, and a number of competent scientists had come up with interesting work that sooner or later would converge into a strategy to produce more rice. Already in 1963, C. Gangadharan, a CRRI scientist had, for example, produced a mutant variety that was short-statured and produced high yields. The institute had also been working on Taiwanese and Japanese varieties. The work was slow because it takes time to discover which varieties are stable, and resistant to diseases and pests.

Gangadharan has placed the history of rice research in India into three major periods and the developments are highly suggestive. The first phase, from 1912 to the 1950s, concentrated on pure line selections, and by the end of the period, a total of 445 improved rice varieties, mostly the result of pure line methods of selection, were bred.

But what is interesting for our purpose and which starkly illuminates the major schism that would soon develop between indigenous science and ‘international science’ is the broad list of objectives of this early research. Gangadharan lists nine including earliness, deep water and flood resistance, lodging resistance, drought resistance, non-shedding of grain, dormancy of seed, control of wild rice, disease resistance and higher response to heavy manuring. Since pure line selection is itself based on natural selection occurring over centuries, there was no problem of incompatibility between genes and the environment, and therefore no pest problem.

The second phase was less promising. It involved the initially unsuccessful effort at hybridising the Japonica and Indica varieties. The objective, writes Gangadharan, ‘was to transfer the high yielding ability and response to fertilisers that characterise the Japonicas into local Indica varieties which are adapted to local conditions of culture and to the prevalent diseases and pests. Japan had used chemical fertilisers from the beginning of this century and Japonicas showed a response under Japanese conditions whereas the Indicas had not been cultivated under high fertility conditions.’

Only four successes were reported from this programme. The problem was that the Japonicas were both photo-period and temperature sensitive and additionally the seed had been brought from some of the coldest regions of Japan. When these varieties were planted in the tropical environment, they not only gave different but negative results. The introduction of the Philippines semi-dwarf varieties put an abrupt end to this line of research. Later the CRRI imported seed from the milder, temperate region of Japan. This time the efforts were successful but IRRI’s control over the rice research programme would effectively keep these efforts out of circulation, and science.

Which brings us to the third phase inaugurated by IRRI, and also the subject of this investigation.

IRRI was established on the basis of a note written by a Rockefeller official in 1959. Both the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations put up the money to start the institute, which was established formally in 1960 and began functioning fully in 1962. From start to finish, the CRRI would be no match in an unequal battle all the way. The IRRI officials would literally buy rice scientists from different parts of Asia, and take over most of the outstanding talent simply because of IRRI’s ability to offer them salaries not only in dollars, but out of proportion to what they received in their own countries, and its ability to provide accommodation, and opportunities for educating staff children anywhere in the world.

By 1966, IRRI had come up with its first success. It is important to emphasise that whereas the CRRI had nine objectives governing its research, IRRI had only one. IR8 was a semi-dwarf rice variety, the result of a cross between an Indonesian tall rice plant and a Taiwanese dwarf variety. Distinctive of the plant was its ability to stand heavy fertilisation, and heavier yields, without lodging. (It also inaugurated a vast market for American fertilisers all over Asia). Without water, fertilisers and pesticides, IR8 did not perform extraordinarily better than the older rices. The disadvantage of the latter was solely that they tended to lodge when given extra nutrients, thus leading to losses.

The CRRI had, as mentioned earlier, been working with identical material and in fact had isolated dwarf varieties from Taiwan that were free from susceptibility to viral attacks. When the news arrived that the Indian government was planning, at the insistence of IRRI experts, to import the new IRRI seed in bulk into India, Dr Richharia, CRRI director, objected.

The government seems to have found Dr Richharia’s advice contradictory: earlier, it had been informed by the CRRI that Taichung varieties could provide a breakthrough in rice production; now Richharia was objecting to their import. The contradiction stemmed from the fact that bureaucrats and politicians have little grounding in genetics: they did not seem to understand that seed tested after numerous adaptive trials over many seasons, and then selected and multiplied, is radically different from seed imported in bulk from abroad. The latter, because of its mixed population, will contain seed carrying disease and which might be susceptible to pests. IRRI at that point of time was too keen to get its seeds grown on a large scale before decisions could be reversed, to subscribe to caution of any kind.

It was also the tremendous leverage that the Americans maintained over the Indian science establishment that enabled IRRI to ride roughshod over the protests of Indian scientists. Though the country was allegedly nonaligned in politics, most of its policies in science and economics were largely under the control of Americans. Thus the community development programme originated with Albert Myers. Douglas Emswinger of the Ford Foundation once boasted that he had better access to Pandit Nehru than any of the latter’s cabinet colleagues. Dr Richharia first came to know of his appointment to the director’s post at the CRRI from an American, Prof Claim. Dr. Robert Chandler, director of IRRI, reported directly to Agriculture Minister, C. Subramaniam.

Chandler, in his recent account of the IRRI, An Adventure in Applied Science, has admitted that he had never seen a rice plant when he took over as director of IRRI. Yet, it was at his instigation, and because he had been castigated once by Dr Richharia for bringing rice seed into the country without a quarantine certificate, thus violating the country's laws, that the government decided to retire Dr Richharia, at that time one of the world's leading rice specialists.

Once IR8 and TN1 had become fairly established within India and all rice research oriented solely in the direction of semi-dwarfs using these parents, IRRI would naturally retain the lead, with large doses of political clout and advertising to make up for shortfalls in science. Rice scientists from Asia, if they wished to make a career, would have to support the IRRI research direction.

One additional significant factor that seems to have made an impact on the government at the time was the disastrous harvests of 1965 and 1966. What weighed with the Government of India (and also former President Marcos of the Philippines) in choosing to uncritically deploy IRRI technology, was that the latter, for the first time, offered an almost automatic method of raising food that would place it within the control of the administration, taking it out of the hands of the peasants. If the government concentrated its resources in a few, well-endowed areas, using the HYV package, it could produce a sizeable output of food that would be independent of the whims of the monsoons. Again, the very method of agriculture, based on expensive inputs, required credit, and this assured the government that a good proportion of the grain thus produced would end up in the market, in the hands of government procurement agencies, and could then be used to keep prices stable in the cities.

Two major developments totally ruined the prospect of a promised land overflowing with rice and honey. The first was economic: the oil price hike of 1973 effectively limited a fertiliser-based agricultural strategy. It would make Green Revolution inputs so expensive that they would have to be subsidised by Governments if farmers were not to give up using them forever. The second major problem, also irreversible, arrived in the form of disease and insects. The growing of varieties with a narrow genetic base (all with the same dwarfing gene, dee-gee-wo-gen), upset insect ecology and invented entire generations of pests. Dr Swaminathan has himself made quite a shameless summary of the fate of IRRI varieties, in a recent issue of Mazingira. He writes:

‘It is difficult to develop a variety that has a useful life of more than five to six years in tropical environments unless genes for horizontal (more stable) resistance are identified and incorporated. Year round rice cultivation causes disease and insect organisms to occur in overlapping generations and increases the chance of new races or biotypes developing; thus new pest problems continuously arise. Variety IR8, released in 1966, suffered from serious attacks of bacterial blight (BB) in 1968 and 1969. In 1970 and 1971, outbreaks of rice tungro virus (RTV) destroyed IR8 yields throughout the Philippines. The IR20 variety, released in 1969, had BB resistance and RTV tolerance, and it replaced IR8 in 1971 and 1972. However, outbreaks of brown plant hopper (BPH) and grassy stunt virus (GSV) in 1973 destroyed IR20 in most Philippine provinces. Variety IR26, with BPH resistance, was released in 1973 and became the dominant Philippine variety in 1974 and 1975. In 1976, a new BPH biotype attacked it and IR36 was released; it had a different gene for resistance to the new BPH biotype and replaced IR26 within one year. It is now the dominant variety in the Philippines. Its resistance to BPH has held till recently, but it is now being threatened by ragged stunt and wilted stunt (both new diseases), as well as by another new biotype of BPH (No. 3).

In India, the situation was equally horrifying. All of Dr Richharia's predictions had come true. ‘The introduction of high-yielding varieties,’ noted a task force of eminent rice breeders, ‘has brought about a marked change in the status of insect pests like gall midge, brown planthopper, leaf folder, whore maggot, etc. Most of the HYVs released so far are susceptible to major pests with a crop loss of 30 to 100 per cent... Most of the HYVs are the derivatives of TN1 or IR8 and therefore, have the dwarfing gene known as dee-gee-wo-gen. The narrow genetic base has created alarming uniformity, causing vulnerability to diseases and pests. Most of the released varieties are not suitable for typical uplands and lowlands which together constitute about 75 per cent of the total rice area of the country.’

The IRRI counter-strategy against the pests involved breeding of varieties, with genes for resistance to such pests, taken from wild relatives of the rice plant and its traditional cultivars. All of a sudden it seemed critical that massive efforts be made to make as complete a collection of the older varieties: many of the traditional Indicas were found to be important donors for resistance. Gene incorporation strategy, in other words, required vast germplasm resources, most of which were to be found in India. The recruitment of Dr M.S. Swaminathan would be instrumental in the task of collection.

In India, again, Dr Richharia stood in the way.
After he had been retired from service at Chandler's insistence, Richharia had gone to the Orissa High Court, where for three years, alone, he fought a legal battle that ruined his family, disrupted the education of his children, and brought tremendous strains on his wife's health. The legal battle was successful, for in 1970, the Court ordered his reinstatement as director of the CRRI. He had redeemed his honour.

In the meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh government had appointed Dr Richharia as an agricultural advisor, and the rice man set about his disrupted rice work once again, with his usual zeal. Within the space of six years, he had built up the infrastructure of a new rice research institute at Raipur. Here, this extraordinarily gifted and imaginative rice scientist maintained over 19,000 varieties of rice in situ on a shoestring budget of Rs. 20,000 per annum, with not even a microscope in his office-cum-laboratory, situated in the neighbourhood of cooperative rice mills. His assistants included two agricultural graduates and six village level workers, the latter drawing a salary of Rs.250 per month. Richharia had created, practically out of nothing, one of the most extraordinary living gene banks in the world, and provided ample proof of what Indian scientists are capable of, if they are given proper encouragement.

An attack of leaf blight that devastated the corn crop of the US in 1970, and which had resulted from the extensive planting of hybrids that shared a single source of cytoplasm, and the continuous attacks on IRRI varieties, impelled IRRI to sponsor a Rice Genetic Conservation Workshop in 1977. Swaminathan attended it as an ‘observer’. The report of that workshop begins with the statement: ‘The founders of IRRI showed great foresight when in 1960-61 they planned the establishment of a rice germplasm bank.’ Nonsense. The certified aims and objects for the institute merely talk of a collection of the world's literature on rice. The workshop, being held 17 years after the establishment of IRRI, indicated that the germplasm problem was becoming important only now.

After the workshop, IRRI's covetous gaze fell on Richharia’s 19,000 varieties at the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute (MPRRI). Not only had Richharia now uncovered a fascinating world of traditional rices, some of which produced between 8-9 tonnes per hectare – better than the IRRI varieties – he had also discovered dwarf plants without the susceptible dwarfing gene of the IRRI varieties. His extension work among the farmers would soon begin to pose a direct challenge to IRRI itself.

IRRI staff members journeyed to Raipur and asked for his material. Still moulded in the old scientific tradition, he refused because he had not studied the material himself. He was decidedly against any proposal for ‘exchange’, for this could only mean giving up his uncontaminated varieties for IRRI's susceptible ones.

So the IRRI did the next best thing: it got the MPRRI shut down!

The ICAR floated a scheme for agricultural development in Madhya Pradesh, particularly for rice. The World Bank contributed Rs.4 crores. The condition laid down was: close down the MPRRI, since it would lead to a ‘duplication of work.’ At a special meeting of the MPRRI Board, Madhya Pradesh's chief secretary who was not a trustee was present. He had been earlier connected with the Ford Foundation. A resolution was passed closing down the Institute, and the rice germplasm passed over to the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya (JNKVV), whose vice-chancellor Sukhdev Singh also joined the IRRI board of trustees. Scientists were sent to IRRI for training in germplasm transfer, and Richharia's team was disbanded.

This time too, they locked Dr. Richharia's rooms and took away all his research papers.

On June 4, 1982, Dr M.N. Shrivastava, rice breeder, JNKVV, wrote to P.S. Srinivasan, the IRRI liaison officer, addressed it care of Ford Foundation, New Delhi, enclosing two sets of material as requested by T.T. Chang of IRRI: ‘First set (264 accessions) is from our early duration collection and second set (170 samples) is part of those varieties which were identified to be popular with the farmers of Madhya Pradesh and Dr R.H. Richharia, former director of MPRRI, purified them and recommended replacing originals with these purified versions.’

But with Richharia out of the fray, nature herself now jumped into the ring. It responded with the necessary mutations, and began to lay low the new pest resistant varieties, rendering even the strategy of gene incorporation, of temporary utility. And then, in a fashion that only those with some respect for nature's awesome ways would understand, it delivered the coup de grace.

The distinctive success of the HYVs lay in their being short stemmed, able to stand heavy nitrogen applications without lodging, when compared with the older varieties. The incorporation of more and more genes from traditional cultivars not only passed on resistance characters, but also the tendency to lodge. Ergo, modern varieties began to lose their non-lodging character, the main advantage they had against the older cultivars. Research Highlights for 1983, an IRRI publication, observes:

‘Modern rices produce high grain yields with large amounts of applied nitrogen. However, heavy applications increase lodging, which reduces yields. Additionally, as higher levels of insect pest and disease resistance have been bred into modern semi-dwarf varieties, lodging resistance has tended to decline.’

The green revolution in rice had begun to involute.

What then have been the ‘achievements’ of such corrupt and politically naive science? (One set of all IRRI germplasm has been sent to Fort Collins, the maximum security installation in the US, without the permission of the Indian government). Has such science achieved any of its declared aims? Bharat Dogra summed it up:

‘Starting from just five million hectares in 1970-71, over 18 million hectares or nearly half the area of (rice) has now been brought under the HYVs programme till 1982-83... Therefore, this crop must have received a substantial share of the benefit of the overall increase in irrigation and the increase in the overall consumption of NPK fertilisers. However, compared to the increase in the area under HYVs and the increase in fertilisers and irrigation, the production of rice has increased to a lesser extent. During the period mentioned above (1970-71 to 1982-83), the production of rice has gone up from 42.23 million tonnes to 46.48 million tonnes. Assuming the production of non-HYVs did not experience any increase at all and all the difference in rice production was on HYVs land, we get an increase in production of about 4 million tonnes as a result of extension of HYVs programme to nearly 13 million hectares of land. In other words, an increase of 0.31 tonnes was achieved with HYV per hectare. This is a relatively small accomplishment which could have been easily achieved even without the expensive HYV programme and its infrastructure by making better use of village-based resources.’

A 33-member official working group headed by K.C.S Acharya, additional secretary in the ministry of agriculture, has determined that the growth rate of rice production after the Green Revolution has been less when compared with the pre-Green Revolution period.

Millions of hectares of rice are now routinely devastated by BPH and other pests and no compensation is available to farmers who are induced to take to such ‘modernised’ agriculture. Such pest infestations have been introduced into the Indian environment. The IRRI officials knew what they were doing, and they did it for the cheap objective of wanting to assert IRRI primacy.

The unmonitored, hasty introduction of HYVs of seed has led to genetic erosion of tremendous proportions, as hundreds of priceless traditional varieties have been lost to mankind. It is only in the eighties that the IRRI has begun to acknowledge the true worth of the older varieties. What a curious circle of events!

The IRRI inaugurated the revolution in rice by holding in ridicule the basis of traditional agriculture – the traditional cultivar, itself the result of close trial and error experimentation by farmers over decades – and sought to displace it with its own product, the HYV. However, since the HYV was not closely adapted to any environment, it required extensive support, having attracted pest infestations on a mass scale. Protection could only come from the same traditional cultivars, which at the time of HYV propagation, had been loaded with abuse.

Is there a way out: how can such a state of science exist nearly 40 years after independence? Why does the director of the CRRI continue to remain as a trustee of the IRRI, which he has been since 1979? To continue and deepen the dependence? The IRRI has no future, politically, and also as far as research is concerned. Politically, its future was tied to former President Marcos, and Filipino farmers and scientists had already begun to demand its closure. As far as research is concerned, the IRRI has no new ideas, and is now eagerly visiting China to learn Chinese techniques of growing hybrid rice, the next frontier in rice yield enhancement.

The CRRI has ample talent to match Chinese science. It has still vital access to hundreds of indigenous cultivars (a recent count of rice collection centres indicated that there were about 44,000 varieties, whereas the IRRI has 70,000). What then should be done?

First, the CRRI should be upgraded to international standards, for that is the only sure guarantee of the funds it needs, and which it has been deprived of, ever since Indian politicians decided to back IRRI science. Today, the CRRI germplasm unit does not have even a jeep to operate its collection of rice cultivars.

Second, all further export of rice germplasm to IRRI should be banned, since germplasm is part of our national heritage, and its preservation is enjoined by the Constitution in the chapter on Fundamental Duties. Third, steps should be taken to gradually replace IRRI varieties, and all those having IRRI parents, with productive indigenous varieties in the fields. This is already happening in the Philippines: farmers are exchanging old varieties with each other, disowning IRRI seeds, aptly described as ‘seeds of imperialism’ and ‘seeds of sabotage.’

There seems to have been some awareness at the level of the government that the rice revolution had been grounded, due to environmental and economic factors. The late Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi, had asked Dr Richharia for a rice production increase plan. After he submitted it, he heard no more about it. After an article by Dom Moraes on Richharia, the M.P. Government hastily set about attempting to find some funds to ask the latter to resume his work. Now that proposal has been scotched by the same forces that once got the MPRRI to close down.

More than 25 years have passed in this costly, wasteful, environmentally unsound, flirtation with the exogene. The sorry and sad record only serves to underline the principle – despite our continuing mesmerisation by western science – that for genuine development of any worthwhile kind, the indigene is still the best gene.

(Courtesy Dr Claude Alvares)

[This article was first published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, March 23, 1986; the issues remain relevant – ed.)