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Seeds Bill: A rich harvest for MNCs?

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Bt Cotton... Seeds of trouble.
Bt Cotton... Seeds of trouble.

K. P. Prabhakaran Nair

ON March 5, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) officially approved the cultivation of six new strains of Bt cotton, paving the way for multinational corporations to tighten their grip on cotton cultivation in India.

Ironically, a Joint Parliamentary Committee, constituted to investigate the reasons for the failure of Bt cotton, had been unequivocal in holding an MNC responsible. The company is still obligated to pay huge compensation to cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh for the failed Bt crop.

Following complaints from farmers in the Mahabubabad division of Andhra Pradesh, the district administration was directed to go into the reasons for the failure of Bt cotton. There is now consensus that 50 per cent of the loss was due to defective seeds.

It is evident that Bt cotton has failed in India. In fact, this was observed by Dr Suman Sahai, a plant geneticist of international repute who has conducted an independent survey on Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. In the survey, Bt 162 and Bt 184 varieties that were released for commercial cultivation by the GEAC were compared with non-Bt local hybrids Brahma and Banny. The average yield per acre was found to be lower in the case of the former in all categories of land holdings. Non-Bt cotton varieties yielded 15-17 per cent more. And while Bt cotton was of shorter duration (90-100 days), the non-Bt varieties were longer (100-120 days).

A major problem commonly reported was the premature dropping off of the bolls in Bt cotton; the average size of the bolls was smaller in the case of Bt varieties. A comparison showed fewer bolls and shorter staple length the most important parameter determining quality. Non-Bt varieties were graded A and B for quality, while the Bt varieties were graded B and C, and fetched on average Rs 300 less per quintal in the market. The Bt varieties, in spite of all claims, showed no resistance to the pink boll worm.

The lack of resistance to the pink boll worm, according to Dr Sahai, was because the period of expression of the Bt endotoxin did not coincide with the time of the boll worm attack. And also because the pink boll worm is not susceptible to the Bt endotoxin.

This author has observed a sudden wilting of the cotton plants with no apparent scientific explanation, either agronomic or physiological, as the team visiting these fields subsequently vouchsafed.

The Bt cotton appears to offer no economic advantage either. A 450-gram packet of Monsanto Bt cottonseeds which can sow one acre sells for Rs 1,600 compared to the local hybrid which costs Rs 350. Last year 13 lakh acres were covered under the Bt variety, costing a colossal Rs 208 crore for seeds alone. In India, about 220 lakh acres are under cotton, 50 per cent of which, or 100 lakh acres, can come under cotton hybrids. Should this area be captured by Bt technology, it would require 40 lakh packets. The expenditure on seeds alone will amount to Rs 640 crore!

It is against this background that the Seeds Bill 2004, pending in the Rajya Sabha, needs to be examined. What does the Bill, to replace the Seeds Act of 1966,seek to accomplish?

Indian agriculture is known for its low productivity coupled with low replacement with quality seeds. The National Seeds Corporation (NSC) caters to much of the internal demand for seeds. In the early 1970s some agricultural universities, notably Gobind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, in Nainital, Uttar Pradesh, earned the reputation for producing quality seeds principally of rice, wheat and maize, in large quantities, grown in the fertile soils of the Terai region, under the administrative control of the Terai Seeds Corporation, an autonomous arm of the university.

The seeds supplied had a money back guarantee on failure in the field and the corporation also attempted to foray abroad.

Those were the days when a plant breeder attached to an agricultural university or research institute took pride in breeding a seed of quality and superior performance, be it in yield capability, resistance to pest or diseases.

There was free and fair exchange of seed material, between plant breeders and farmers, and no one thought of pecuniary benefit through these efforts.

All that changed when the WTO-inspired intellectual property (IPR) regime came into force. A review of the Seeds Bill must also consider the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act (PPVFR), the Biological Diversity Act, the Plants, Fruits, and Seeds (Regulation of Import into India) Order, and the Environment Protection Act.

While the PPVFR is wide enough to guarantee both the plant breeder's and farmer's rights, the Seeds Bill transgresses and usurps an important objective of the PPVFR. Of this, the most crucial is the liability to truthfully declare the origin of the variety and its pedigree, which are crucial to benefit sharing.

The PPVFR was passed by Parliament in August 2001. The Biological Diversity Act followed in 2002. Many legislative measures have been passed by Parliament since the PPVFR passage.

For some strange reasons, the Ministry of Agriculture has now come up with this new Seeds Bill and efforts are on to take India into the fold of the Union for Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which clearly denies many of the rights provided to farmers by the PPVFR.

It is baffling that the same Ministry of Agriculture, which piloted the PPVFR incorporating vital issues concerning farmers' welfare, should author the Seeds Bill and nudge India to join UPOV.

The Seeds Bill allows a foolproof patent-like monopoly on hybrid seeds, which also include transgenics, and promotes farmer-unfriendly trade practices in seeds.

In other words, does the Seeds Bill seek to hand over the seed business to the MNCs? All the talk about "benefit sharing", which our agricultural messiahs shout from rooftops, appears only a camouflage for more sinister things to follow.

The farmer will be gradually obliged to buy seeds only from the MNCs, Indian (these are in the making) included, and when the seeds fail, there will be no compensation for the farmer's loss.

The very ethos of Indian agriculture, where the seed is a sacrosanct commodity that is freely exchanged among the farming community, beyond the pale of commercialisation, will be history.

(The author is a former National Science Foundation Professor, Royal Society, Belgium. He can be reached at Nair_KPP@yahoo.com)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 30, 2005)
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