PepsiCo case, and needs of seed research

Ram Kaundinya | Updated on June 13, 2019

Encouraging proprietary seed research is essential for food security. Scare-mongering about seed monopolies is baseless

The recent controversy over PepsiCo India suing some farmers in Gujarat has generated interesting discussion. One European suggested that we should junk proprietary seeds with standardised high genetic potential and go back to our traditional seeds while some activists called for boycotting PepsiCo. It is difficult to see reason in the midst of politics and emotions. Keep emotions aside and look at the details of the subject.

Seed varieties cannot be patented in India. So no one, Indian or foreign, can patent seeds and control our food supply. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act allows protection of plant varieties for some years if they are found to be distinct, uniform and stable. India is the only country which has provided for the farmers to use, multiply, share informally or sell formally any protected variety, as long as they do not brand it and sell it. This is a huge facility given to the Indian farmer who can access new varieties coming from the research programmes of any company and grow them without any restriction. This is the second reason why no one can control our food supply. But if farmers brand and sell seeds that are under PPV&FR protection then it is an offence.

Since this law came into effect 15 years ago, very few research varieties coming out of the private industry got protected by the PPV Authority because it is not easy to produce varieties which meet the stringent criteria. So, they all are not ‘proprietary’. There is a large number of seed varieties available to the farmer from both private and public sectors. He has full choice. It is scare mongering by some people who shout that all the seed is being controlled by private industry through patents!

Food security compulsions

Research seed varieties bring high genetic potential that is standardised and stabilised. Junking proprietary research seeds and going for traditional varieties and organic food is an elitist view. We were growing traditional varieties till 1966, most of it organic because we did not have much chemical use by then, when we could not produce enough food for our 40 crore population. We had to depend on food donated by the US under PL480. Today we are 130 crore and will reach 150 crore by 2030. If India and China do not produce enough food by themselves the world will go hungry because their purchases from the world market will create shortages and push up global prices. It is counter productive to cultivate traditional varieties and organic crops everywhere, because they reduce yields and are priced high. Any technology that reduces yields, to serve the fancies of a few rich people, is actually doing disservice to the nation. Traditional varieties and traditional seed preservation systems should be protected in our gene banks and in some communities, but to say that the whole country should grow them to feed our population is a fanciful thought.

Research is the key to progress. Climate change, new pests and diseases, abiotic stresses, changing food baskets of people, increasing incomes and similar factors require development of new varieties as the older ones do not meet the new demands. Plant breeders and biotechnologists work continuously to develop varieties that can fight the emerging challenges. The farmer would not be able to do this level of research in his field through saved seeds. Governments don’t any longer fund so much of market oriented research. The industry can not invest continuously if such investments don’t pay back. If there is no protection there would be no research and no development.

Contract farming, which is the case with the PepsiCo issue, is a different matter. Honouring contracts is not an easy habit even among some of our corporates. No one, including farmers, should be allowed to break contractual obligations. Value-added agriculture, which brings better quality products to the consumer and better price realization to the farmer depends on contract farming.

PepsiCo case is an opportunity for our courts to interpret the PPV&FR Act and our Contract Act and give a direction which could set the tone for our future of contract farming with proprietary varieties. It is good for all of us if the law goes through the court and gets us an interpretation which helps us in formulating our future strategies in agriculture.

The writer is Director General of the Federation of Seed Industry of India

Published on June 13, 2019

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