Ups and downs: private-sector investment in rice research

 Gerard Barry   |  

Rice is, arguably, the world’s most important food crop. In spite of this prominence, the private sector for many years concentrated only on developing rice crop protection products such as herbicides and insecticides. There was little investment in improving rice varieties, and low participation in the crop seed  business. In the mid-1990s, however, several agricultural multinationals and some large national firms began to look seriously at investing in businesses based on rice seed.

Well before this, hybrid rice technology had moved out of China into several new regions, including the United States, India and Latin America. Its gradual validation in a number of areas — including yield and adaptability, and a sense that the business would be viable —demonstrated that returns from an investment in rice seed research were possible. Indeed, many of the companies that looked at new opportunities in rice had already had success with maize and other hybrid crops.

Several companies had also developed crop biotechnology traits, including herbicide tolerance and insect resistance in cotton, soybean and oilseed rape (canola). These traits were then developed for maize and potato, giving the developers confidence that the technology could be adapted to still more crops, including rice.

What followed was a period of aggressive expansion in investment and research in many crops, from the major row crops and commodities to vegetables and even flowers. It was also a time of large takeovers and mergers, which resulted in several traditional non-seed companies finding themselves the owners of rice seed businesses.

The sale of Cargill’s seed businesses to Aventis (formerly AgrEvo, now part of Bayer CropScience) and to Monsanto resulted in one such example. Many of the companies commenced significant in-house rice research with an emphasis on biotechnology. New alliances were formed with the public sector — Rhone-Poulenc (now part of Bayer CropScience), for example, became a major partner with the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology in Singapore.

Companies established new, or expanded existing, research programs for the major rice diseases (blast research at DuPont, for example). Some of the companies’ targets also fit well with national research priorities. The development of herbicide-tolerant rice, for instance, would help to accelerate the adoption of direct seeding in Japan — a priority driven by the aging Japanese farm population and the eventual need for Japan to open up its market to competition from foreign rice grain.

The liberalization of the seed laws in Japan was a major driver for Japan Tobacco to seriously consider establishing rice businesses, initially in Japan, but eventually in other countries. Japan Tobacco, with a strong technological advantage in rice genetic transformation, formed a research partnership with Monsanto and ultimately established the Orynova joint venture with Zeneca.

Orynova subsequently ceased operations some time after Zeneca merged with Novartis (to form Syngenta). However, several factors then converged to stem the flow of private sector investment and research interest. The high prices paid for the various seed and technology acquisitions and the slower than expected return on investments forced companies to trim expectations and budgets, and in many cases to severely scale back investment in rice research and development. Despite the buoyant mood at the launch of the first crop biotech products, there was a growing recognition that the complexity of the new products— especially in the public and regulatory arenas — had been underestimated. Companies began to return their focus to the crops and regions in which they already had secure businesses and products.

Today, the major corporate players in the international seed business — including Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, Advanta, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience — remain active in rice but tend to limit investment to hybrid and some varietal seed businesses or to a specific product, such as the herbicide-tolerant Clearfield™ rice of BASF. The fi rst genetically modified rice, Bayer CropScience’s herbicide-tolerant LibertyLink™, was approved for commercial release in the U.S. in 1999-2000. Last year, the UK cleared it for import for processing and animal feed, and the company is awaiting the same clearances from the European Union before launching the product.

Although it failed to meet its early promise, private-sector biotechnology research in rice is continuing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s database of Field Test Releases indicates ongoing, and sometimes expanding, testing of a number of biotech traits.

Furthermore, investment in areas such as hybrid rice development, and farming and postharvest technologies, continues to support and complement public rice research.

The use of product and company names does not represent an endorsement of these by IRRI.


Gerard Barry is the Golden Rice Network Coordinator and Head of IRRI Intellectual Property Management Unit.

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