Fortune favours the prepared farmer
Challenges before integrated agriculture have sprung up recently due to adverse techno-legal compulsions. For eg. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over new crop and livestock breeds, which threaten to facilitate foreign monopolies over the agricultural landscape. More frightening are the emerging concerns over food security due to reduction of import controls of foreign agro-products, including Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs. The erosion of indigenous agricultural diversity and related practices magnifies these threats. Some fresh legislation does seem to provide breathing spaces, but greater hopes stem from the pre-emptive grassroots efforts for sustainability described later in this article..
The World Trade Organisation (WTO)'s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement compels member nations to provide strong IPR protection to new plant varieties, domestic and foreign alike. The infamous Basmati case provides a glimpse of the future biological wars and the legal tangles they could knot us in. Rice Tec, a multinational agro-corporation patented a new rice variety grown in the USA by name Basmati, infuriating traditional Basmati farmers and exporters from the Indian subcontinent. For, this unfair non-tariff barrier would first oust them from the US markets and eventually even from the prime European markets, since the European Union (EU) countries are committed to TRIPS. Consumer pressure has since compelled the European traders to prefer marketing the traditionally grown Basmati from the subcontinent. However, EU may eventually buckle under the pressure of Rice Tec and start purchasing their Basmati, dooming the Indian and Pakistani farmers and exporters, just as it bowed down to permit imports of US traded banana and beef under the WTO mandate, to the loss of its commonwealth producers.
A much greater threat to farmer comes not from loss of foreign markets but even the likely loss of Indian markets in future, which will surely be forced to emulate the EU. This is evident from the Plant Variety Protection and Farmer's Rights (PVPFR) bill due for enactment by Parliament soon, facilitating industries to obtain seed monopolies. PVPFR emulates laws in the industrial countries that favour breeders over farmers. However, unlike those laws, PVPFR does not avail compensation to farmers from the seed companies over unmet promises. Two provisions of PVPFR, however cosmetic, resemble farmer's rights. Firstly PVPFR facilitates farmers to challenge seed monopolies for appropriating and manipulating farmer's breeds, as had been successfully done earlier with frivolous patents on Neem and Turmeric. Secondly, the PVP applicants must disclose original breeds employed to evolve new varieties, depending on which, they must contribute to a Community Gene Fund (CGF) to provide incentives to farmers for on farm conservation of agro-diversity.
Transgenic crop imports?
The impending Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) under the WTO might lift restrictions on agricultural imports including GMOs, as hinted by the liberal Exim policies of late. This is sure to open up the floodgates to foreign goods like never before. Urban consumers are busy buying Australian apples or American Soya sausages, turning a blind eye to ethnic food and eco-labelling prevalent in the industrial markets. This could only further fuel controversies like the ones which surrounded the Bt-cotton in southern India. Several dryland cashcrop farmers from southern India went on a suicide spree couple of years ago after their cotton crops succumbed to pest attack for two consecutive years, snaring them in a debt trap.
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Fortune favours prepared farmers
The crops of truth Current Investigations have fixed the blame on poor quality pesticides, without proper government controls. Incidentally, Monsanto, a multinational pesticide corporation took advantage of this situation to advertise a way to move away from the pesticide use by using the Monsanto initiated field trials of Bt Cotton, which derives its name from the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis whose pest resistent gene is planted in the cotton crop. The fear of environmental and health hazards of this transgenic cultivar triggered much controversy, as well as the inappropriateness of the central government's permission to Monsanto's Indian subsidiary to conduct field trials without any checks from or proper participation of local researchers and farmers. Another fear which raged simultaneously was about Monsanto's alleged efforts at importing its terminator technology to build in germination failure of seeds produced by the corporation if it is saved and used a second time by farmers. Farmers refused to be enslaved by this diabolical seed trade and launched huge protests in India and abroad.
This episode exposes the agony of farmers who lose their legitimate rights for compensation for the failure of industrial promises. Farmers from irrigated plains have already lost their traditional breeds and can only be enslaved to seed companies. Farmers elsewhere are also fast getting lured into this death trap, with government incentives for industrialisation of agriculture. The concerned government departments are simply vying with each other for control of the farmers' fate rather than stem the rot. PVPFR merely prohibits the entry of technologies like terminator without its permission, without any measures for compensation or control over GMOs.
Is the Biodiversity Bill any use?
It is interesting to note that the environment ministry has edged out agriculture and biotechnology departments by providing the only challenge to the threat of GMOs. The Ministry has drafted the Biological Diversity Bill (BDB) drawing strength from the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Pending before Parliament for enactment, the BDB prohibits GMOs with likely environmental and health hazards including erosion of agro-diversity. Further, the BDB empowers Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) to be established by each village council to take measures for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, including registration of local cultivars and related knowledge. The bill intends to protect such knowledge through sui generis i.e. an independent IPR system, for instance by government sponsored opposition to domestic or even foreign IPRs on Indian biodiversity or knowledge.
Unfortunately, the strongly community oriented bill leaves most agro-diversity related questions to a less pro-people PVPFR bill! Even the utility of biodiversity bill is questioned by the multinational agro-corporations nearly sabotaging the Biosafety negotiations under the CBD. This compelled even the reluctant EU to permit imports of transgenic foods! Furthermore, multinational corporations are busy trying to further corner the market by ousting small industries form the developing nations through environmental and human rights related barriers. Fortunately, such attempts failed at the millennium conference of WTO at Seattle and the AoA was dropped by the unprecedented unity of developing nations. However, the only lasting resolve to such haunting controversies could come from local producers and consumers as illustrated below.
The major bottleneck in halting the seed industry's unchecked march to wrest control from farmers lies in ensuring farmer's control over seeds. This is possible only when farmers sow and reap the traditional cultivars. Industry would wrest the control of new breeds they produce. This challenge is being addressed by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO working with dryland farmers in Andhra Pradesh state in southern India. DDS has motivated numerous farmer's groups and NGOs to prepare registers of their diversity of cultivars and knowledge, including cultivation practises and uses. To be authorised by respective village councils, these Community Biodiversity Registers (CBR) could ideally fit the BDB and PVPFR mandate in challenging the unfair IPRs besides facilitating equitable sharing of benefits.
As farmers tend to be constantly lured by the industrial forces into death traps like cash-cropping, including monocultures, sparing some land for traditional cultivars could ensure farmer's rights to seeds and sustainability. However, marginal farmers can hardly afford such mixed cultivation. They can neither compete with large farmers in heavy unit investments like irrigation and chemical inputs nor can they overcome the consequent economic and other losses. In this situation, DDS has motivated numerous farmer groups towards community farming with a traditional flavour.
Banking on the seed grants from the Ministry of Rural Development besides NGOs, DDS has promoted community farming over marginal lands, including degraded and uncultivated ones. Besides, it has organised annual biodiversity festivals for social revitalisation of the traditional cultivars, including awards for the most diverse farmers, through the CGF. Further, it has started an innovative insurance scheme for traditional cultivators, as formal insurance schemes only favour the elite cash-crop farmers. To ensure food security especially of the weaker sections, DDS has successfully run an alternative public public distribution system (PDS) through community grain fund. This has equitably distributed excess production from cultivating the uncultivated lands with traditional cultivars. Socially, this inspired assertion of weaker sections like scheduled communities and womenfolk. Moreover, it has ridden the farmers from the adversities of cash-cropping. Further, the net production and economic gains have multiplied and have ensured social equity both from ensuring food security and gainful employment to weaker sections. The diversity of crops has nearly doubled, with many local varieties being nearly pulled back from extinction. Traditional varieties ignored by the market are more nutritious, besides providing fodder and manure unlike the cash-crops. Several local cultivars also provide domestic medicine. Additionaly, many farmers separately cultivate medicinal plants of late.
Most importantly, farmers have themselves compared costs and benefits of traditional cultivars with the cash-crop. Despite their high total market return, high yielding, market driven varieties need expensive external inputs. Manifold subsistence uses help local cultivars in outsmarting the market-savy crops in terms of net returns. The evolution of this local understanding rather than the external preaching ensures long term sustainability of participatory planning and documentation. This has triggered the gradual extension of such efforts to many other parts of the country, as an informal consortium of NGOs working for People's Ecological Planning (PEP).
Ghate Utkarsh is with Research and Action in Natural Wealth Administration (RANWA). P.V.Satheesh is a member of the Deccan Development Socity. This article is part of a series of pulications reproduced with the permission of the Deccan Development Society
The article is actually shaped by numerous farmers, especially women and scheduled communities. Some of their leaders like Jayappa and DDS staff like Suresh have also played crucial role in coordination. Various government departments and NGOs have also variously supported it. We hope continued activities from all of them in this direction.
Gadgil, M. and Utkarsh, G. 1999 Intellectual Property Rights and Agricultural Technology: Linking the Micro and Macro-scale. Ind. Jr. Agri. Econ. 54(3):41-64.