nanotech research initiative in Thailand aims to atomically
modify the characteristics of local rice varieties -
including the country's famous jasmine rice- and to
circumvent the controversy over Genetically Modified
Organisms (GMOs). Nanobiotech takes agriculture from
the battleground of GMOs to the brave new world of Atomically
Modified Organisms (AMOs).
January, Bangkok Post reported on a three-year research
project at Chiang Mai University's nuclear physics
laboratory,(1) funded by the National Research Council
of Thailand, to atomically-modify rice. The research
involves drilling a nano-sized hole (a nanometer is
one-billionth of a meter) through the wall and membrane
of a rice cell in order to insert a nitrogen atom.
The hole is drilled using a particle beam (a stream
of fast-moving particles, not unlike a lightening
bolt) and the nitrogen atom is shot through the hole
to stimulate rearrangement of the rice's DNA.
Dreams from Particle Beams? One of the attractions
of this technique, according to the director of the
Fast Neutron Research Facility in Chiang Mai where
the research is being conducted, is that it does not
require the usual (and controversial) technique of
genetic modification, where genes are transferred
between unrelated organisms or are removed or rearranged
within a species. "At least we can avoid it,"
Thiraphat Vilaithong, the Facility director said.(2)
don't consider atomically modified rice any safer
or more socially acceptable than genetically modified
rice," explained Witoon Lianchamroon of Biodiversity
Action Thailand (BIOTHAI), a civil society organization
based in Bangkok. "It sounds like the same high-tech
approach that does not address our needs and could
cause severe hardships for Thai rice farmers."
to BIOTHAI, scientists at Chaing Mai University have
already used nanotechnology to modify the colour of
a local rice variety, "Khao Kam."(3) The
word "Kam" means deep purple, and the rice
variety is known for its purple stem, leaves and grains.
Using nanotechnology, the scientists changed the colour
of the leaves and stems of Khao Kam from purple to
green. In a telephone interview, Dr. Thirapat Vilaithong
told BIOTHAI that their next target is Jasmine rice.
The goal of their research is to develop Jasmine varieties
that can be grown all year long, with shorter stems
and improved grain colour.
research at Chiang Mai is related to other types of
"mutation breeding" in that the cell's DNA
is manipulated to cause a change in gene function.
The difficulty lies in finding safe passage through
a plant cell's wall and membrane without compromising
the cell's ability to survive or allowing essential
cellular contents to leak out. Mutation breeding and
nuclear physics have a long history, with most work
coming out of a joint United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation/International Atomic Energy Agency programme
in Vienna beginning in the mid-1960s. Over the last
40 years, researchers there have bombarded plant cells
with x-rays, beta and gamma rays, among other particles,
to induce alterations in the genomes of crop plants.(4)
Bigger Picture: The project being undertaken at Chiang
Mai's nuclear physics lab is a testament to Thailand's
commitment to nanotechnology. In January, the Prime
Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, ordered the establishment
of a nanotechnology center to be headed by the government's
National Science and Technology Development Agency
(NSTDA).(5) In addition to the rice project, researchers
in Chiang Mai are working to alter the surface of
silk at the nanometer level to make it water- and
dirt-resistant, hoping to give Thailand a competitive
advantage over the world's other major silk exporters,
which include India and China. Industry analysts predict
that the nanotech revolution will someday allow researchers
to engineer new materials and modify existing ones
so that they exhibit whatever property is most desirable
for a given application - strength, weight, electrical
conductivity, colour could all be manipulated at the
molecular level. In theory, production, including
agricultural production, would no longer be dependent
on geography, labour or raw materials, rendering some
natural resources obsolete - with especially serious
disruptions for Third World economies.
There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant:" For example,
consider the potential of nano-scale innovations to
affect the market for rubber: researchers in the US
are designing nanoparticles to strengthen and extend
the life of automobile tyres as well as new nanomaterials
that could be used as a substitute for natural rubber,
especially in medical gloves. "If nano-designed
tyres and other products require little or no rubber
in the future, it will mean less demand for natural
rubber with potentially devastating impacts for the
livelihoods of rubber tappers and plantation workers
worldwide," explains Jim Thomas, ETC Group researcher
from Oxford UK. Malaysia and Thailand are currently
the world's top producers of natural rubber.
Minister Thaksin is placing special emphasis on research
in nanobiotechnology, such as the atomically modified
rice project, in an effort to distinguish Thailand
from other regional nanotech research. Because living
and non-living material are indistinguishable at the
nano-scale - at this fundamental level, they are both
simply atoms and molecules of chemical elements -
physicists, genetic engineers and material scientists
are exploiting this "material unity at the nano-scale"
to combine biological and non-biological material
in unprecedented ways. While global investment in
nanotechnology - both private and public - is estimated
between five and six billion dollars (US) per annum,
the focus on nanobiotechnology is significant. Since
1999, venture capitalists alone have devoted over
$450 million to nanobiotechnology.
rice research in Thailand is just one small piece
of the nanobio picture related to food and agriculture.
According to Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, some 200 transnational
food companies are currently investing in nanotech
and are on their way to commercializing products.
The list includes many of the world's largest companies:
Ajinomoto, Campbell Soup, ConAgra, General Mills,
H. J. Heinz, Kraft Foods, McCain Foods, Nestli, PepsiCo,
Sara Lee, Unilever, and more.
Rice Re-visited? The United Nations has designated
2004 the Second International Year of Rice. Neth Daqo,
executive director of SEARICE in the Philippines,
recalls that the first International Year of Rice
was thirty-eight years ago in 1966, the year that
the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) launched
the Green Revolution in Asia with the release of IR8,
the first semi-dwarf rice variety. "The so-called
'miracle rice' required irrigation and a costly package
of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that drove
poor farmers deeper into debt," said Daqo. "IR8
was not only highly susceptible to pests and diseases,
it also introduced massive genetic uniformity, displaced
poor farmers and their traditional rice varieties."
2004 bring us full circle?" asks Kathy Jo Wetter,
ETC researcher. "At what cost to farmers, food
security and the environment are researchers now tinkering
with atomically-modified rice? Will 2004 be remembered
as the year that launched atomically-modified rice
and the Nano-Rice Revolution?"
ETC Group and SEARICE are members of the CBDC Programme
(see box, below).
this year ETC Group plans to release an in-depth report
on impacts of nanobiotechnology for food and agriculture,
especially in the developing world. The report will
also consider food industry applications, such as
nanosensors embedded in food packaging and in food
itself, "interactive" food and beverages
- products that would change colour, flavour or nutrients
to accommodate the individual consumer's tastes or
health condition, and ultrasound-activated animal
vaccines using nanoparticles, among many others.
Thomas, ETC Group, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: +44-1865 201719
Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group, email: email@example.com
Lianchamroon, BIOTHAI, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: +662 952 7953
Ranjana Wangvipula, "Thailand embarks on the
nano path to better rice and silk," Bangkok Post,
Jan. 21, 2004. Available on the Internet: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=7266
(3) Personal communication from Witoon Lianchamroon
of BIOTHAI, 25 March 2004. Witoon spoke to Dr. Thirapat
Vilaithong and other scientists at the Fast Neutron
Research Facility in Chaing Mai by telephone.
According to the FAO/IAEA Mutant Varieties database
over, well over 2000 varieties have been released
in 52 countries. See http://www-infocris.iaea.org/MVD/
(5) Anonymous, "Prime Minister orders establishment
of nanotechnology center," Pattaya Mail, Vol.
XII No. 2, Friday January 9 - January 15, 2004. Available
on the Internet: http://www.pattayamail.com/545/business.shtml.
See also, Jen Lin-Liu, "Thailand's leader plants
the seeds for a future in nanobiotech, Small Times,
Feb. 28, 2003. Available on the Internet: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5588
The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration,
formerly RAFI, is an international civil society organization
headquartered in Canada. The ETC group is dedicated
to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity
and human rights. www.etcgroup.org. The ETC group
is also a member of the Community Biodiversity Development
and Conservation Programme (CBDC). The CBDC is a collaborative
experimental initiative involving civil society organizations
and public research institutions in 14 countries.
The CBDC is dedicated to the exploration of community-directed
programmes to strengthen the conservation and enhancement
of agricultural biodiversity. The CBDC website is