IRRI's Symposium Day 1
The IRRI's 6th International Rice Genetics Symposium began today. It is a big scientific gathering with more than 700 scientists from all over the world, but mainly Asian countries. It began with some opening speeches from the HRH Sirindhron Princess and Mr. Zeigler, the director of IRRI (FYI: The International Rice Research Institute, headquater based the Philippines).
What was most noticeable there was the emphasis that HRH put on Marker Assisted Breeding (MAS) technology as a very good tool for improving rice for the new climate change challenges (drought resistance, submergence and flooding resistance, etc.) and in the whole opening session Genetic Engineering (GE) was mentioned very little only at the end of Zeigler's speech, mentioning that eventhough there is a need to use the major rice diversity that is getting discovered, there are traits that do not exist in rice, for which GE would be necessary. He cited C4 rice as an example, but all this was a very tiny portion of the speech. It shows how right we have been to launch our MAS report at this time ;) Click here to read about MAS in Thai | Click here to download the MAS report in English
In fact, we have been able to "ambush" Dr. Zeigler (as Danny puts it) and handed him a copy of the MAS report, and it was interesting that he told us he had read it online (although it was released out just last Friday, as Janet said earlier IRRI is so sensitive).
He went on to say that we are 95% in agreement - even better than the 90% agreement he has made with his wife so far (we guess the 5% disagreement was GE) in the need for more biodiverse, climate resilient, farmers-oriented agriculture. It was obviously not the place to get into a lengthy argument about what we put under these words. Still, it was quite significant that he has read the report. He even dared to say that Yellow Rice (he calls it Golden of course) was also MAS, after the gene had been incorporated through GE into rather bad varieties, it is now introgressed from these bad varieties to good ones through MAS.
So far, it is not that easy to schmooze with scientists, as they are so many, but the poster sessions tomorrow should help.
Apparently, our poster, which is on display (and rather well located) is attracting quite some interest.
IRRI's Symposium Day 2
Today was a lot "geeker" still than yesterday. A lot of highly technical and scientific conferences and workshops, still quite interesting. For those interested in rice genetics in the last research results, we can provide you later with a copy of the CD that was supplied to the participants, with all the abstracts, but do not expect so much fun reading about QTLs, RNAis, gene pyramiding, etc.
We begin to meet scientists, but they were not so much IRRI's scientists, but rice specialists. Interestingly, there wwas a high proportion of the American and French scientists, apart from predominantly Asiatic presence.
We had a 10 minute discussion with IRRI's IT person, whom some of you might know. Marco Van den Bergen, who was an IT perspn for Greenpeace International (GPI) a few years ago, after being at IRRI for 6 years, and now came back to IRRI after about 2 years with GPI. He still follows what is happening in Greenpeace (was very aware that Gerd has left, for example).
He was adamant in trying to get more links between IRRI and Greenpeace. For example, he mentioned that IRRI is organizing internal seminars/debates every thursday, but wanted to explore the possibility that Greenpeace gives a seminar or a talk to discuss our points of view one Thursday. He will also put us in contact with the new Communications Manager at RRI, Sophie Clayton, when we go to IRRI's headquarters at Los Bbanos on Thursday. It seems that IRRI is nervous about the opposition (the PAN AP initiative to ask for closure of IRRI) and would like to have some "allies" in the NGO world, so there's a fine line here.
Today was also the official opening of the IRRI's 50 years celebration (anniversary will be on April 2010) in Los Banos, with the visit there of the Thai princess, and there was a NGO and small farmers protest there, that the police evacuated. He knew that we had met the director yesterday. Marco also mentioned the restructuring of the CGIAR (of which the IRRI is one institute), saying it was not very different from the restructuring at GPI a few years ago (with apparently some common advisors) but did not dwell very much on it, and did not know what the results would be. Apparently, funding of IRRI is doing pretty well.
The afternoon poster session was also the opportunity to meet some scientists, that were interested in discussing with us (many French, that were very critical of our campaign in France, that prevented a lot of public research on GMOs, leaving the door open to private companies to get monopolies on the tools). As I mentioned, that was not a majority of IRRI's scientists, so we do not have a clear picture of the balance of power within IRRI yet. But oddly, even MAS scientists do not feel "threatened" by GE research and funds gooing there instead of MAS, many see these 2 fields as complementary. But many were interested in the report, and also in the food for the future report. At least, they do not consider us as luddites, and many expressed a will for more dialogue (which may mean in their view some kind of endorsement). And tomorrow will also be fun, as we're going to distribute our postcard asking Bayer to get its hands off our rice.