Sovereign rights raises its ugly head

by Jeremy Cherfas on August 29, 2012

Where’s my guide to the netherworld of genebank databases when I need him?

I need him to make a somewhat snarky point. A recent commenter objects to the characterisation of Kasalath, the “wild” rice that’s been in the news lately, as Indian.

Kasalat is actually a Bangladeshi variety not Indian. In Bangla it means Kacha Lota or green shoot. From time immemorial it has been grown in the eastern district of Sylhet of Bangladesh from where it might have gone to India…. [I]t is just plain wrong to describe it as an Indian variety.

But as Wikipedia tells us,

The history of Bangladesh as a nation state began in 1971, when it seceded from Pakistan. Prior to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, modern-day Bangladesh was part of ancient, classical, medieval and colonial India.

So when was Kasalath collected? Or, to put it another way, what was the name of the nation state in which the place that Kasalath has grown from time immemorial found itself at the time someone collected it?

That’s what databases are for, right? IRIS, The International Rice Information System, has 12 entries for entities called Kasalath, three of them at IRRI and one in India. I couldn’t find anything as dull as an accession date for any of them. IRIS is a bit unfriendly,1 although thanks to it I did also discover that Kasalath is one of about 400 varieties selected to form a Rice Diversity Panel. Until Beatrice returns from his travels, or logs on, that’s the best I can do.

And the point, of course, is to suggest that the very idea of a variety grown since time immemorial belonging to any Johnny-come-lately nation state is, alas, a cruel joke.

Footnotes:
  1. I can’t, for example, give you a link to the 12 varieties on a page; you’ll have to search for them yourself. []

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Jackson August 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

One of the reasons why I believe that the actual accession number should be stated. There was a furore some years ago over some basmati lines in the genebank at IRRI. Donated by Pakistan, from a genebank that had been established before partition in 1947. Origin? I think they were actually collected in what is present-day India. Legal entity donating the germplasm: Pakistan. Ah, the politics of germplasm conservation, exchange and utilization.

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Abed Chaudhury August 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

It does not matter when India was partitioned, etc. The Nature paper is being written now. In the paper the putative areas of origin of Kasalath type rice is shown as though it is a political map of India, carefully avoiding Bangladesh when the bulk of AUS type rice has been sent to IRRI well after 1971. Such depiction is an insult to the nattion state/areas/villages who are true custodians of the germ plasm. Remember also that a lot of knowledge, often informal knowledge has gone into selection and preservation of these lines. There is no reason to think that they were just there in the wild for Japanese scientists to discover. Kasalat was in fact sort of a mega variety in the true area of its origin

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Abed Chaudhury August 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm

“And the point, of course, is to suggest that the very idea of a variety grown since time immemorial belonging to any Johhny-come-lately nation state is, alas, a cruel joke.” this bizarre statement from a scientist? It is pathetic

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Dave Wood August 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Abed, If the rice sample is an `existing ex-situ’ collection in a CGIAR genebank the country of origin is not recognised. The sample is in a `multilateral system’ – the FAO Seed Treaty – that very notably and specifically does not recognize the country of origin – it does not matter at all where it came from. Now this is fine if we think we have most of the genetic variation out there – as most is available from the CGIAR genebanks. But it is not fine if we still lack important characters for future breeding (very possible) or if there is ongoing evolution on-farm for characters needed for climate change (very probable) or for the wide range of crops of nutritional importance not covered by the FAO Treaty.
The very predictable result of failing to acknowledge `country of origin’ (known for more than 95% of samples – see the Svalbard database) is a lock-down on sample distribution, even from countries accepting the FAO Seed Treaty (such as India) – and especially from the 70 or so countries that do not accept the FAO Seed Treaty.
So national and international plant breeders are limited to a limited range of `fossil’ samples, thanks to a failure of the FAO Seed Treaty to address `national sovereignty’ – and don’t ever think the Nagoya Protocol will solve this – it is dead in the water.
NGO `biopiracy’ campaigns have a lot to answer for (especially in South America and Africa, where 70% of crop production is from introduced crops that need periodic shots in the arm from germplasm from other continents).

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Abed Chaudhury August 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Dear Dave Wood, If country of origin is not recognised why is this rice, Kasalot described as an Indian variety when I myself saw that it was equivalent to a megavariety land-race in geographical Bangladesh. Such national origin idea is also proclaimed loudly in the Nature paper. How can you strip away the name -association, the actual preservation of the line by a community and suddenly make it a sterile bureaucratic process. As a humane person interested in agriculture and as a practitioner of Plant Science I strongly object to such a system. I think place of collection should be adhered to and even some form of payments should be made to the people from whom the lines are collected. Otherwise it reeks of utter selfishness.

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Abed Chaudhury August 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm

From the foothills of Bhutan to the Yunan province of China is a contiguous space spanning thousands of miles where there is a huge biodiversity of rice in all sorts of traits. The AUS variety is uniquely of Bangladesh and so is Kasalat; but before 1947 eastern India and bangladesh were part of the same country so India is in it also, but why exclude Bangladesh? When I read the Nature paper describing Kasalat and then reading the press reports describing it exclusively as Indian rice I was utterly shocked. I think it was the jobs of the authors to make sure that the place of origin was attributed properly. The negation of the role of traditional farmers just because they are poor and powerless and failing to give credit to them properly is a serious problem of modern plant science that must be addressed. We must see the farmers as the source of our activities, and recognise that without their crucial role over centuries we would have nothing to study.

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Jeremy Cherfas August 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

The negation of the role of traditional farmers just because they are poor and powerless and failing to give credit to them properly is a serious problem of modern plant science that must be addressed. We must see the farmers as the source of our activities, and recognise that without their crucial role over centuries we would have nothing to study.

I can agree with these sentiments entirely. It is the nationalistic overtones that I find so suspect.

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Dave Wood August 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

Abed: I agree entirely – the paper and press release should have given credit to Bangladesh and national farmers. I think that the very important Sub1 character also came from an AUS rice.
Starting nearly 20 years ago I fought long and hard to get legal recognition of farmers (and countries) over their varieties. I failed, even to the extent of the legal rights of farmers to recover duplicates of their samples from international collections. (This probable error in the FAO Seed Treaty has now – happily – been reversed.)
My reasoning was that if we do not accept some concept of national/farmer ownership then there would be no future incentive to allow samples out of the possession of farmers and nations. I take no pleasure in saying I seem to have been right: the movement of samples between developing countries seem seems to have almost stopped under the FAO Seed Treaty. If this impasse begins to affect CGIAR access to samples then the longer term (20-50 years) food security of developing countries will be threatened. For example, South America and sub-Saharan Africa are 70% reliant on crops from other countries for their food and crop exports. Further, the `breadbasket’ of crop exports from North America – almost entirely based on introduced crops – will be more severely undermined by lack of access to `new’ genetic resources. The World may then need to come `cap in hand’ to the traditional rice producers and exporters – Myanmar and Thailand and possibly Bangladesh, with their indigenous rices under their own control.

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Mike Jackson August 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Until we know which actual sources of the variety Kasalath were used, it’s all speculation. Hopefully it would be possible to determine which accessions from where were used. Maybe the accessions were donated by India – and I’m sure if that’s the case, that might well be the basis for saying of Indian ‘origin’. Maybe the accession data also states the germplasm was collected elsewhere but was only acquired from a genebank in another country. So until actual accession data are available, it’s rather academic.

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Ruaraidh August 31, 2012 at 7:05 am

OK – I’ve done some digging, hopefully enough, about aus varieties in general, and Kasalath in particular.

First, many thanks to Abed Chaudhury for pointing out the error in the Nature paper: indeed Bangladesh is known as a focus of the aus type of rice; fig 1a is not correct.

I’m informed by Indian colleagues from the region that Kasalath is also considered a traditional variety in that region of India, widely grown by Indian farmers outside Bangladesh.

The samples of Kasalath used for the published research trace back to a sample collected from Karimganj, Assam in 1925, in what is present-day India. It is not clear if the sample used by the Japanese traces back to exactly the same collected sample, but I’m informed it is also from a very old collection in Assam. So, based on the CBD’s definition of country of origin, India is the country of origin of the material studied.

Which brings us back to Mike Jackson’s complaint. Like so much modern literature, this paper presents the results as if they describe the variety Kasalath, which is wrong and misleading. In fact they only describe this particular sample selected from one particular Indian farmer’s seed of Kasalath. We have no evidence whether Bangladeshi Kasalath, or indeed other Indian Kasalath, or indeed other selections from the same farmer’s sample, would have the same genes or characteristics as this material. On the contrary, extrapolating from knowledge of other landraces, it would be very surprising if they were the same. If the paper had done what Mike asks, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about whether Kasalath is from Bangladesh or India and whether the authors should have given credit to Bangladeshi farmers.

Moreover, as far as I can see, there is no Kasalath of Bangladeshi origin in any of the CGIAR genebanks, or in USA or Japan (the main collaborators in the research). We only know Kasalath from India. It is therefore perhaps understandable that the community has grown to associate Kasalath with India. If you want that perception to change, contribute some Bangladeshi Kasalath to the Treaty’s MLS. Otherwise the scientific community outside Bangladesh will continue to know only Indian Kasalath.

And what of the current distribution of aus varieties? Are they only found in Bangladesh as suggested by Abed Chaudhury? For that matter, what is an aus variety? I do not know of any agreed definition. Many scientists now use the term to describe a major natural (self-defining) genetic grouping of varieties that are distinct from indica, yet closer to indica than to japonica. On this definition, while the majority of aus accessions in the IRRI genebank do indeed come from Bangladesh, many also come from other countries in the region. Zhao et al (2011) shows the most comprehensive analysis available to date. Note particularly the geographic distribution (fig 1a) and what a major group the aus group is (fig 1b).

And what of the origin of aus varieties? Is it Bangladesh as suggested by Abed Chaudhury? Some authorities disagree, claiming present-day India as the origin, e.g. It is not for us to weigh India’s claim against Bangladesh’s.

What is clear is that aus varieties, and Kasalath, have been grown in India as well as Bangladesh for many years – dare I say “from time immemorial”.

And by the way, as Dave Wood has added sub1 to the discussion, it is also of Indian origin, from Orissa.

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Abed Chaudhury August 31, 2012 at 7:39 am

Language plays an important role in determining origin. The Aus rice is actually pronounced Aoosh, which is derived from Ashoo meaning “early”; so earliness is the main character of these lines and lines of diverse provenance were selected on the basis or earliness. This dsparate group were given additional names such as Dhumai (or Du-mahee meaning maturing in 2 months or sixty days) and Kasalot meaning green shoot. An unfortunate fact in modern plant science is to ignore such heritage-based information which is a clue to earlier selections. As early as as in 1925, the then mega varieties of eastern part of Indian subcontinent were sent to USA which included rice such as Kasalat, Dhumai, Baurosh, and intriguingly, Basmati which too carries a Bangla name and used to be a widely grown rice in the Sylhet-Assam area

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Ruaraidh August 31, 2012 at 10:59 am

Basmati from Bangladesh?! Thank you for this helpful information. We have an accession of Basmati from Bangladesh, collected in 1974. I have been wondering about its status, suspecting it might be either a mistake or exotic. You give me confidence it is correct. By the way it has the grain shape and elongation characteristics of Basmati, but not the aroma and not the amylose content.

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Abed Chaudhury August 31, 2012 at 7:57 am

Karimganj was part of greater sylhet that was partitioned in 1947; as i said before kasalth name is sylheti language. Being sent from Karimganj in 1925 does not exclude the fact that Kasalath was and is being grown wdely in Bangladesh part of Sylhet. I think a comprehensive analyses of this ecotype/landrace/cultiver as well sas of Aooosh (Aus) varieties is needed. many thanks to everyone for your instructive imputs

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Ruaraidh August 31, 2012 at 11:06 am

Agreed!

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Mike Jackson August 31, 2012 at 8:41 am

Thanks Ruaraidh for doing the database mining and ‘publishing’ the results.I wonder why we are not able to get rice scientists to ‘behave’ like others working on other crops and publish the actual accession information.

On the other issue, this whole saga just highlights the politics of germplasm origin and use, as man-made political boundaries have sliced through territories that were once politically, socially and culturally homogeneous, with similar antecedents now both sides of an international border.

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Luigi Guarino August 31, 2012 at 9:58 am

I don’t really think rice scientists are any worse than specialists in other crops in (not) citing accession numbers. Nor any better.

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Mike Jackson August 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm

My prejudices show through. It’s just that I found rice scientists to be like creationists – believed in the immutability of rice varieties. And frustrated that whenever we provided germplasm, they’d usually ‘throw away’ the accession number and just continue with the name. We’d get requests for Azucena and Nipponbare (and others) that had been used quite often in genomics work, etc. and we’d have to ask which one would they like. Could never convince IRRI breeder Gurdev Khush that the forms of common varieties like IR36 and IR64 being grown today (and which he recognized as such) were different from the original releases for which seed had been placed in the genebank so we could go back to the original. I suspect that varieties might have been released as F8 or so, and were still segregating.

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Ruaraidh September 3, 2012 at 4:33 am

Yet ironically, when I arrived in IRRI I faced criticism that gene bank managers are like creationists, believing in the immutability of genebank accessions! And I’ve heard the same criticism of the Treaty, that genebank accessions are treated as the Adams and Eves of all PGRFA and everything else is just mixing up. Given the fact that many judge duplication of accessions just by duplication of passport data, and that MCPD and most genebank data management systems do nothing to distinguish different types of selection of progeny from original accessions – well one can understand the criticism.

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Abed Chaudhury September 4, 2012 at 2:01 am

http://www.pnas.org/content/102/33/11940/F1.expansion.html

A paper in PNAS describes high shootiness and regeneration of Kasakat rice, but Sylhet farmers knew it hundreds of years ago calling is Kasa Lota or “young green shoot” rice.

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Jeremy Cherfas September 4, 2012 at 8:45 am

Thank you. The paper is Isolation of a rice regeneration quantitative trait loci gene and its application to transformation systems, and you can download a complete copy by clicking on that link.

The researchers studied Kasalath precisely because its ability to shoot and regenerate would be useful in the creation of genetically engineered rice plants.

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Abed Chaudhury September 7, 2012 at 10:17 am

Finally this from IRRI website but no acknowledgement of who actually figured this all out !!!!

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Ruaraidh September 7, 2012 at 11:49 am

We apologize sincerely for this mistake. As readers of this blog know, all the information about Kasalot in Sylhet, and some of the information about Aus, came from Abed, although I believe Abed in turn got some of it from Tanvir Hossain and others in BRRI. Abed has also contributed to formulating the synthesis accurately. In addition, many other people have also contributed. I’ve got key information from colleagues in USA and Japan and in several different groups in IRRI, both directly and through searching databases they’ve pointed me to. And of course we have to thank the diligent Jeremy for helping to bring this fascinating and instructive story to everyone’s attention.
I’m informed by my colleagues that IRRI’s posting will be corrected imminently, and it will be published overnight.

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IRRI September 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

The information has been unpublished pending correction.

Our sincere apologies – we will discuss with all concerned to resolve.

Please feel free to contact us if anyone has any other concerns: info@irri.org.

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Abed Chaudhury September 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Very happy to report collection of newly grown kasalot (kasalath) Dhan from greater Sylhet area of Bangladesh; shows Sylheti farmers of Bangladesh never stopped growing Kasalot

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Sak Sab November 22, 2012 at 11:55 am

Dr. Abed Chaudhury
Dear Abed Bhai
Assalamualaikum
May Allah bless us all. Hopping you are in fine and doing as good as possible for Bangladesh as well as for the people of the rest of the world.
It’s our great achievement that Dr.Abed Chaudhury is a Bangladeshi and Bangladesh is proud of him.
Abed Bhai, regarding Kasalath (Kasalot) you have presented the History and its actual cultivated area greater Sylhet of Bangladesh
with a full prof of paper .
Wishing you all the best and every success.
Allahhafiz,

Sak Sab

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