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Seeds of a costly collaboration?

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India-US Knowledge Initiative in agriculture

WILL MNCS harvest benefits of Indian agricultural research?
WILL MNCS harvest benefits of Indian agricultural research?

K. P. Prabhakaran Nair

Through the India-US Knowledge Initiative on agricultural research and education, is India falling into the trap of an arrangement between two unequal partners both in capital and skills that would ultimately lead to the benefit of one at the expense of the other? With an intellectual property rights and patent regime so obviously in favour of the developed countries, particularly the US, Indian agricultural research, principally "controlled" by the ICAR, could end up serving the US MNCs.

In the euphoria over the Sensex breaching the magic 10,000 mark, a piece of news largely escaped attention, save perhaps, of the few concerned about the future of India's agriculture.

In November 2005, following the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to the US, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) invited private American capital for the "rapid commercialisation" of Indian agriculture and offered to open its vast network of research institutes for "collaborative" research. One must view with trepidation what might be in store. Let us look at the details of this "collaboration".

Under the India-US "Knowledge Initiative" on agricultural research and education, representatives of both the Wal-Mart food chain and agri-business giant, Monsanto Seed Corporation, sat on the board at the first meeting held in Washington D.C. in December 2005. Both were keen on retailing and trade aspects of agriculture in India. Research in transgenic plants, animals and fisheries would form the bulk of the "collaborative" research efforts.

An idea of the extent of this "collaboration" can be had from the fact that of the Rs 400 crore set apart by India, Rs 300 crore will be for research in transgenic materials and bio-technology.

It is important to note that the Government of India, under the auspices of the ICAR, had set apart a substantial amount for the US-led "Genome Project." New Delhi has also approved in principle the concept of "Knowledge Society" under the Chairmanship of Dr C. N. R. Rao, and about Rs 1,000 crore has been set apart for this project. The India-US Knowledge Initiative comes on top of all these.

Official bio-piracy

What is most worrisome about this initiative is that unlike in India, where most of the bio-wealth is with public sector undertakings and private sector operations are only at the fringe, in the US, it is the other way around. Two vital issues need to be looked at. First, is India falling into the trap of an arrangement between two unequal partners both in capital and skills that would ultimately lead to the benefit of one at the expense of the other? If the arrangement transgresses into uncharted terrain, it might even lead to what, one might call "official bio-piracy". India's bio-wealth, in terms of its huge germplasm bank and genetic resource material, is almost incomparable, perhaps with few exceptions of the South American rainforests and some African countries.

Are we going to allow the exploitation of this invaluable material by the US multinational companies (MNCs), whose record of the recent past in this country has not been exactly exemplary? Witness the litigations taken up by State governments.

For instance, Andhra Pradesh going to the Monopolies and Trade Restrictive Practices Commission on Bt cotton charging the MNC with pricing a 450-gram seed packet at a whopping Rs 1,650 compared to the Rs 350-450 at which the native hybrid sells.

The MNC may hold the patent for the seeds, and Rs Rs 1,650 may be a small sum in dollar terms,but for a cotton farmer already groaning under debt and misery, it is a lot of money.No one is opposed to legitimate profits when an organisation makes available a superior commodity, but the scale of profit must be commensurate with the local realities. Indian farming is still a gamble in the monsoon, where the risk factor is very high and the farmer works against several constraints, primarily financial. And when his investment is high, he cannot afford to take a risk.

Moreover, Bt cotton's performance has not been consistently superior compared to the local hybrids; indeed, in many instances, it is reported to be disappointing. New Delhi has also backed the move by the AP Government.

Scientific incapability?

The second issue is whether the arrangement implies a tacit admission by the Indian agri-science community of its inability to match its American counterpart? If that is so, why does the Centre finance a mammoth Department of Biotechnology, which has a huge operating fund for genetically modified (GM) materials? According to the India-US Knowledge Initiative agreement, Indian scientists deputed to the US for "capacity building" will need to pay the "tuition fees" stipulated by the American universities and/or research institutions. Almost all fundamental and applied research in the US laboratories are funded by private agencies, mainly corporates. The state presence is very limited. However, in India, almost all farm research and development remains in the public domain. These activities are still considered for the public good and profit is not the motive. Unfortunately, it is the lack of honest commitment in public-funded research projects that leads to waste of resources and time.

Process labelling

One gets the uneasy feeling that ultimately with the kind of intellectual property rights and patent regime that are so obviously in favour of the developed countries, particularly the US, being put in place, the Indian agricultural research enterprise, principally "controlled" by the ICAR, will end up serving the US MNCs. The recent statement of the Senior Advisor for Agricultural Biotechnology, US Department of State, Ms Madelyn E. Spirnak, during her first visit to India, was crucial: "We don't believe in process labelling," she said. The US hold on Indian bio-technological research and development, is slowly but surely, on course!

Foothold in Indian market

The principal aim of the India-US Knowledge Initiative is to get a foothold in the Indian agricultural market and convert the country's primarily subsistence farming type of agriculture, which provides a livelihood to millions of poor farmers, into the American kind of agri-business. This will inevitably displace millions of these poor farmers, pushing more to the brink.

India has a very big market for agricultural products. It is important to realise that more than four decades ago it was at the American initiative that the "miracle" wheat seeds were imported from Mexico's International Centre for Maize and Wheat Research and sown in Indian fields. The Mexican wheat required large doses of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides to produce high yields.

After the Second World War, many factories in the US, manufacturing war chemicals until then, were remodelled to produce chemical fertilisers, which needed to be commercially and profitably exploited by the US in a big way. Indian soils offered the best place to dump them. And India had no fertiliser manufacturing technology worth the name at that time.

Thus began the so-called Green Revolution, a combination of imported seeds (later crossed with the native ones) and liberal use of imported chemical fertilisers. Similarly, rice seeds were imported from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, controlled by the Ford Foundation.

More than four decades later, this Green Revolution, which initially produced large quantities of wheat and rice,, has reached a dead end, with falling yields of rice and wheat, and creating soil-related problems.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that the US is vigorously foraying into the Indian market with the genetically engineered products of the MNCs. Europe is offering stiff resistance, especially Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg and Italy. The just-released World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling that European trade restrictions on GM crops and foods are in violation of international trade rules has been welcomed by the US. Surprisingly, the ruling was handed down by a three-member WTO panel, comprising Switzerland, Japan and India.

One knows well on which side of the fence Japan and Switzerland have been. But who, on behalf of India, is pulling the strings for the US? This is a million-dollar question for which no answer will come forth. The India-US "Knowledge Initiative" in agricultural research with the prime focus on GM crops research has to be critically examined in this light.

(The author is a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 22, 2006)
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