Insights into Editorial: A wake-up call on proprietary seeds

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Insights into Editorial: A wake-up call on proprietary seeds


Context:

Multi-billion-dollar conglomerate PepsiCo sued four Gujarati farmers, asking them to pay ₹1.05 crore each as damages for ‘infringing its rights’ by growing the potato variety used in its Lays chips.

Farmers groups have launched a campaign calling for government intervention.

According to the farmer groups, the law allows them to grow and sell any variety of crop or even seed as long as they don’t sell branded seed of registered varieties, and warned that the case could set a precedent for other crops.

National and international pressure swiftly mounted, and in short order a humbled PepsiCo backtracked, announcing its withdrawal of the lawsuit.

 

Problems with proprietary seeds:

Gujarat and Rajasthan farmers have been cultivating FC-5 variety of potato which has been registered by PepsiCo under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act 2001 (PPVFRA) for their own use.

The FC-5 variety, used to make Lay’s chips, is grown under a contract farming deal, by 12,000 farmers in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district.

Concentration of Corporate power. This concentration has made a huge dent in farmer’s pockets.

Farmers who buy GMO seeds must pay licensing fees and sign contracts that dictate how they can grow the crop and even allow seed companies to inspect their farms.

GMO seeds are expensive and farmers must buy them each year or else be liable for patent infringement.

Farmers are not using genetically distinctive seeds adapted to local conditions and farming traditions, they are instead adapting local conditions and traditions in order to use genetically standardised seeds, to ruinous effect.

 

Solution: Minimise harm, maximise gain: from a high-yield ideal to a high-value one:

How can a biodiversity-rich nation like India shift its agriculture from a high-yield ideal to a high-value one, where the ‘values’ include striving to minimise environmental harm while maximising nutritional gains and farmer welfare.

  1. First, small farmers must be educated and encouraged with proper incentive structures, to engage with agriculture that conserves and improves traditional/desi (heterogenous) seeds in situ, rather than with “improved”, proprietary varieties.

Currently, in the garb of protecting this diversity against biopiracy, India is preventing its effective use, management and monetisation for the benefit of its farmers.

  1. Second, an immutable record-keeping system, perhaps blockchain or DLT, is needed to break the link between the profitable and the proprietary.

Such a system would allow India and its rural communities to keep proper track of where and how their seeds/propagation materials and the genetic resources contained therein are being transferred and traded.

It would also ensure, through smart-contract facilitated micropayments, that monetary returns come in from users and buyers of these seeds, from around the globe.

These monetary returns would effectively incentivise continuous cultivation and improvement of indigenous seeds on the one hand, and ensure sustainable growth of agriculture and of rural communities on the other.

  1. Third, and as a key pre-requisite to the execution of the first two plans, India’s invaluable traditional ecological knowledge systems need to be revived and made a part of mainstream agricultural research, education and extension services.

Know-how contained in ancient Indian treatises like the Vrikshayurveda and the Krishi Parashar falls within the scope of what international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity refer to as indigenous and traditional technologies.

 

To protect Farmers Seed Sovereignty:

The Government of India had maintained an ominous silence on the legal situation in the country on farmer’s seed freedoms, taking cover of the matter being sub-judice.

Now it must make it amply clear that such litigation is not acceptable,” said a statement from a newly formed association that seeks to protect farmers’ seed sovereignty.

It said a public campaign would continue to urge the government to stand with farmers and instruct all registrants in the Plant Varieties Registry of India that their registration is conditional to the rights guaranteed to farmers in the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority Act, 2001.

Hailing this as a victory, farmers groups demanded that the State and Centre take a clear stand that plant variety registrations are subject to farmers rights to grow and sell such registered varieties, as long as they do not sell branded seed.

 

Conclusion:

The revival of these technologies is central to promoting sustainable ‘high value’ agriculture, not least because of the growing global demand for organic and Ayurvedic products.

It is time for a paradigm shift. To get a sense of what can be done, it may be useful to take a peep into recent regulatory efforts in Europe.

The withdrawal of the lawsuit by PepsiCo may be a welcome relief to several farmers who can neither afford to defend themselves in court, nor to abandon the cultivation of proprietary varieties.

It must, however, be a wake-up call to the government and policymakers who need to do much more to secure sustainable rural societies, protect soil health and promote seed sovereignty for the economic development of Indian farmers and of the entire nation.