Agri Business

Experts, seed industry differ over PepsiCo lawsuit against Gujarat potato farmers

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on April 29, 2019

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The filing of infringement suits by PepsiCo India Holdings Private Ltd against a group of farmers in Gujarat has attracted mixed reactions, with a legal expert calling for the Ministry of Agriculture and farmers’ Welfare to intervene in the matter. “There can never be adequate protection for farmers in an inherently unequal system, where the odds are pitted against them,” said Delhi-based legal researcher and policy analyst Shalini Bhutani.

Though the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, unlike plant variety protection laws in other countries, has many provisions for farmers, its biggest pitfall is that it is essentially an intellectual property rights (IPR) law. “The irony is that farmers' rights have been recognised in a law on intellectual property, when farmers were never asking for IPR in the first place,” she said.

Read: PepsiCo offers to amicably settle potato row, but with riders; court stay on farmers remains for now

The Indian arm of the US-headquartered multinational food giant filed suits against the farmers last week alleging that they had infringed its IPR over a potato variety named FL 2027, also called FC5, by allegedly producing it without the company’s approval.

“This is the first case of its kind in India and hence whatever verdict is given by the court would be trendsetting (precedent setting),” said Ram Kaundinya, Director General of the Federation of Seed Industry of India. “The Indian PPV&FR Act is quite liberal in one sense. It allows farmers to share seeds with friends and family members. They can also sell them unbranded; the restrictions are on branded ones,” he said. He was of the opinion that the provisions of the act should be stringent if India wants more research-based varieties to come to the country.

A senior PPV&FR Authority official refused to comment saying the issue is sub-judice.

Also read: Farmers in a fizz as PepsiCo files suit over potato IPR violation

However, Bhutani argued that per the provisions of the PPV&FR act, farmers’ rights would hold in spite of the breeder rights of the PVP holder. According to her, PepsiCo is believed to have taken this step in order to “test the law, send a strong signal to the grey market, intimidate farmers and bring them to the fold of its contract farming.”

“It is important to locate this case in the long history of US’s demand for not only higher IPR standards, but also stricter enforcement for its businesses in India... Previously, the US Government has sued the Government of India at the WTO Dispute Settlement Mechanism for TRIPS compliance, which pushed us to amend our patent laws. And other US MNCs, like Monsanto, are also in ongoing litigation with the seed industry in India over IPR issues.

In a statement, PepsiCo said, “In case, they (farmers) do not wish to join this program, they can simply sign an agreement and grow other available varieties...” The company it was compelled to take judicial recourse as a last resort “to safeguard the larger interest of thousands of farmers” engaged with its collaborative potato farming program”.

With inputs from Meenakshi Verma Ambwani

Published on April 29, 2019

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