Seeds, Pesticides and Mechanization – HYV, Indian Seed Congress, etc.

[oped of the day] A potential seedbed for private profits

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : TRIPS; UOPV; PPVFR

Mains level : Seed Bill

Context

The Seeds Bill 2019 is under Parliament’s consideration. 

Seeds – Governance in India

  • In 1994, India signed the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). 
  • In 2002, India also joined the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention. 
  • Both TRIPS and UPOV led to the introduction of some form of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over plant varieties. 
  • Member countries introduced restrictions on the free use and exchange of seeds by farmers unless the “breeders” were remunerated.

Balancing conflicting aims

  • TRIPS and UPOV ran counter to other international conventions. 
  • In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provided for “prior informed consent” of farmers before the use of genetic resources and “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” arising out of their use. 
  • In 2001, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recognized farmers’ rights as the rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.
  • National governments had the responsibility to protect such farmers’ rights.

India’s position

  • India was a signatory to TRIPS and UPOV as well as CBD and ITPGRFA. Any Indian legislation had to be in line with all. 
  • The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act of 2001 sought to achieve this delicate balance. 
  • The PPVFR Act retained the main spirit of TRIPS viz., IPRs as an incentive for technological innovation. 
  • It also had strong provisions to protect farmers’ rights. 
  • It recognized three roles for the farmer: cultivator, breeder, and conserver. 
    • As cultivators, farmers were entitled to plant-back rights. 
    • As breeders, farmers were held equivalent to plant breeders. 
    • As conservers, farmers were entitled to rewards from a National Gene Fund.

Seeds Bill

  • A new Seeds Bill is necessary to enhance seed replacement rates in Indian agriculture, specify standards for the registration of seed varieties and enforce registration from seed producers to seed retailers. 
  • Any such legislation is expected to be in alignment with the spirit of the PPVFR Act.
  • A shift from farm-saved seeds to certified seeds would raise seed replacement rates.  
  • Certified seeds have higher and more stable yields than farm-saved seeds. Such a shift should be achieved not through policing, but through an enabling atmosphere. 
  • Private seed companies prefer policing because their low-volume, high-value business model is dependent on forcing farmers to buy their seeds every season. 
  • An enabling atmosphere is generated by the strong presence of public institutions in seed research and production. 

Seed policy in India

  • From the late-1980s, Indian policy has consciously encouraged the growth of private seed companies, including companies with majority foreign equity. 
  • Today, more than 50% of India’s seed production is undertaken in the private sector. 
  • These firms have been demanding favorable changes in seed laws and deregulation of seed prices, free import, and export of germplasm, freedom to self-certify seeds and restrictions on the use by farmers of saved seeds from previous seasons. 
  • Through various versions between 2004 and 2019, private sector interests have guided the formulation of the Seeds Bill. 
  • Even desirable objectives such as raising the seed replacement rates have been mixed up to encourage and protect the business interests of private companies. 

Problematic provisions

  • Many of Bill’s provisions deviate from the spirit of the PPVFR Act and are against farmers’ interests and in favor of private seed companies.
  • The Seeds Bill insists on compulsory registration of seeds. However, the PPVFR Act was based on voluntary registration. As a result, many seeds may be registered under the Seeds Bill but may not under the PPVFR Act. 
  • Assume a seed variety developed by a breeder, but derived from a traditional variety. The breeder will get exclusive marketing rights. No gain will accrue to farmers as benefit-sharing is dealt with in the PPVFR Act.
  • As per the PPVFR Act, all applications for registrations should contain the complete passport data of the parental lines from which the seed variety was derived, including contributions made by farmers. This allows for easier identification of beneficiaries and simpler benefit-sharing processes. 
  • Seeds Bil demands no such information while registering a new variety. Thus, an important method of recording the contributions of farmers is overlooked and private companies are left free to claim a derived variety as their own.
  • The PPVFR Act is based on an IPR like breeders’ rights. It does not allow the re-registration of seeds after the validity period.
  • The Seeds Bill is not based on an IPR like breeder’s rights. Private seed companies can re-register their seeds an infinite number of times after the validity period. Due to this “ever-greening” provision, many seed varieties may never enter the open domain for free use.
  • A vague provision for the regulation of seed prices appears in the latest draft of the Seeds Bill. It appears neither sufficient nor credible. Strict control on seed prices has been an important demand raised by farmers’ organizations. 
  • They have also demanded an official body to regulate seed prices and royalties. In its absence, seed companies may be able to fix seed prices as they deem fit.
  • According to the PPVFR Act, if a registered variety fails in its promise of performance, farmers can claim compensation before a PPVFR Authority. In the Seeds Bill, disputes on compensation have to be decided as per the Consumer Protection Act 1986. Consumer courts are not the ideal and friendly institutions that farmers can approach.
  • According to the Seeds Bill, farmers become eligible for compensation if a plant variety fails to give expected results under “given conditions”. Seed companies would always claim that “given conditions” were not ensured, which will be difficult to be disputed with evidence in a consumer court.

The way ahead

  • Farmer-friendly pieces of seed legislation are difficult to frame and execute. 
  • Moreso as the clout of the private sector grows and technological advances shift seed research towards hybrids rather than varieties. In hybrids, the reuse of seeds is technically constrained.
  • The private sector has a natural incentive to focus on hybrids.
  •  In such a world of hybrids, even progressive seed laws become a weak defense.
  • Strong public agricultural research systems ensure that the choices between hybrids, varieties and farm-saved seeds remain open, and are not based on private profit concerns. 
  • Even if hybrids are the appropriate technological choice, seed prices can be kept affordable. 
  • For the seed sector and its laws to be truly farmer-friendly, the public sector has to recapture its lost space.

Back2Basics

TRIPS  – It sets down minimum standards for the regulation by national governments of many forms of intellectual property.

UOPV – The objective of the Convention is the protection of new varieties of plants by an intellectual property right.

PPVFR – enacted to provide for the establishment of an effective system for the protection of plant varieties, the rights of farmers and plant breeders, and to encourage the development and cultivation of new varieties of plants.

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