The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is one of the 15 international agricultural research centres that come under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It was set up in 1960 in the Philippines with funds from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation. GRAIN staff visited IRRI in March 2009 at a time when it is at the crossroads. It was set up to support 'poor rice farmers' in Asia, build capacity of the national agricultural research centres (NARS) in various 'developing' countries and then fade away. Turning 50 in 2010 it is still very much alive though its beginning to show shades of grey. After a mid-life funding crisis, it has set about doing its 'make-over' with much closer ties to the private sector. Many of its policies in that direction are not all black and white.
What does IRRI do?
Firstly, it runs and maintains an International Rice Genebank that holds 109,161 collections of rice varieties as of date, both wild and domesticated. Approximately 80% of these are traditional varieties that have been collected from farmers' fields from across the globe. It must be remembered that farmers did not ask for the bank to be set up. IRRI takes upon itself a huge responsibility to keep the rice germplasm “safe” as International Public Goods (IPG).
Secondly, IRRI does 'rice research'. Thus a distinction is drawn on the legal status between the material stored in the genebank and the breeding lines that are developed by IRRI scientists that IRRI regards as 'its' property. Now a new generation of partnership agreements is being inked by IRRI with the private sector. Under what terms should IRRI have to abide by in working with the collection of farmers seeds it holds on behalf of humanity? When IRRI was doing purely "public" research, the issue was less urgent. But now, with IRRI partnering with the private sector and setting up its own private programmes (involving the licensing of rights to its lines), the situation has changed.
IRRI has to determine on what terms and conditions it will rent out its breeding lines to corporations. IRRI's IPR policy dates back to 1993 and is yet to be revised to fully deal with current day challenges