Iran Takes Rice Biotech Lead
By Philip Brasher
Des Moines Register
January 22, 2006
Iran's nuclear scientists get all the ink. But the country's biologists are making some strides that could shake up agriculture.
The Iranians commercialized the first variety of genetically engineered rice last year.
No one expects this rice to leave the country. Iran doesn't produce enough rice as it is, and the type modified is a locally important variety.
But the crop is a landmark development in biotechnology nonetheless.
It was the first time that a biotech version of rice, one of the world's most important food crops, legally had gone into production.
Just as significantly, the Iranian crop, plus similar advancements in China, show that biotechnology is spreading beyond the industry giants such as Monsanto or Des Moines-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International that have led the way.
For advocates of agricultural biotech, who have been arguing for years that farmers in poor countries could be major beneficiaries of genetic engineering, here at last is some evidence.
Even if it is Iran.
"This is a very important contribution from the public sector in terms of genetically modified food crops," says Joel Cohen, who follows biotechnology developments for the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The Iranians as well as the Chinese, who also are close to commercializing their version of biotech rice, are doing their research in the public, rather than private, sector.
Iran's new rice plants are toxic to insect larvae known as stem borers. The Iranian scientists crafted the crop in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute, a sister organization of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The rice contains a bacterium gene identical to one found in popular types of Bt corn that is now commonly grown in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. If the Iranians ever tried to export the rice, they could run into patent problems, says Cohen.
The rice was put through extensive safety testing before it was released to farmers, he says.
And so far the results appear promising: Iranians report that their Bt rice raised yields by 10 percent to 2.2 metric tons per acre. The average U.S. yield is about 3.2 metric tons.
"This is an excellent demonstration of the fact that you can use new technologies but in very basic material requested by farmers in the developing world," Cohen says.
Between 500 and 1,000 Iranian farmers are believed to have grown the crop in 2005. Full commercialization is expected to start this year, but on less than 50,000 acres.
U.S. rice farmers won't have anything to do with biotechnology until it's accepted in markets such as Japan and Europe. Because much of their crop must be exported, U.S. farmers can ill afford to lose any markets.
But the developments in Iran, and especially in China, will turn up the pressure on the Bush administration to figure out how the government would handle imports of foods that have been bioengineered in other countries.
Believe it or not, the country that pioneered agricultural biotechnology isn't sure yet how it will treat the products of other countries' scientists.
To date, the only imports have been of material intended for research purposes.
The U.S. Agriculture Department is still trying to figure how it should regulate imports, and there are significant questions to be answered: Would every crop or transformation need separate approval? Would USDA treat the products of some countries more leniently than others, depending on how similar their regulatory structures are to the U.S. system?
USDA hopes to have a proposal ready later this year.
The government needs to be looking ahead before "something shows up at the door," says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Washington-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
"It's not just going to be the U.S.-dominated commercialization that it once was," he says.