Politics of Seeds: Common Resource or a Private Property
A nation’s agriculture is as strong as its seed system. Seeds store the keys to bio-diversity and resilience to climate change, are repositories of cultural knowledge, reflect historical breeding practices, and symbolise food security. This report, published by Focus on the Global South, India, discusses the World Bank’s role in the Indian seed sector; the transformation of seeds (from traditional to genetically modified); patents on seeds; seed-related legislation in India; and seed conservation and exchange.
In the introduction, author Afsar Jafri says that seeds were traditionally the collective property of farmers. In the last few decades, however, with industrial agriculture and the green revolution, they are becoming the private property of transnational corporations. Moreover, international agreements, such as the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties and others overseen by the World Trade Organization, are pushing states to grant intellectual property rights over seeds and related technologies to corporations.
Besides this, global and national mergers and acquisitions have led to the consolidation of transnational corporations. These entities can influence how most of the world’s crops are grown, affecting their prices. This concentration, the author says, will speed up the pace of the development of new technologies such as genetic engineering, synthetic biology and bio-fortification, for instance. This will further consolidate the control of corporations over seeds and tighten their legal and biological grip over global farming.
The author says that In India, farmers are
losing their rights over seeds through legislation and the policies of the
World Bank and the Indian government. To counter this,
thousands of farmers have revived efforts to save indigenous seed varieties,
protect seed diversity, and preserve seed sharing, exchange and conservation.
Before Independence, Indian farmers had developed as many as 100,000 paddy varieties; today, only around 5,000 paddy varieties are still cultivated across India.
The Indian subcontinent is rich in biological diversity and home to 7.5 per cent of all identified biological species, including around 49,000 plant species.
Around 166 species of crops, including 25 major and minor crops, as well as 320 species of the wild relatives of crop plants (species that are genetically related to cultivated crops), have originated in India.
As per the ETC Group Communiqué 115 (December 2015), six mega seed corporations – BASF, Bayer AG, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Snygenta – together control 75 per cent of the global agro-chemical market, 63 per cent of the commercial seed market, and over 75 per cent of all private sector research and development related to seeds.
In 2018, Bayer AG merged with Monsanto – the latest in a series of mega mergers between seed corporations and agricultural technology companies. Bayer-Monsanto will effectively control nearly 60 per cent of the world's supply of proprietary seeds, 70 per cent of the chemicals and pesticides used to grow food, and most of the world's GM crop genetic traits, as well as much of the data about what farmers grow, where, and the yields they get.
The use of hybrid crops leads to a high cost of seeds, higher doses of inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and water, and eventually, higher costs of cultivation. In the long run, the increased use of chemicals leads to a severe deterioration of soil health.
The Indian hybrid seed market, with over 300 companies, has grown at 15-20 per cent annually over the past several years and was projected to reach around Rs. 18,000 crores by 2018. Around 10 domestic and multinational companies control over 80 per cent of the market.
The overall cost of production of cotton increased by 2.7 times between 2006 (when the genetically modified Bt-cotton’s real expansion began) and 2013, while yields were stagnant.
As of October 2018, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Authority, set up under the PPVFR Act, 2001, issued 1,587 Plant Variety Protection certificates to farmers, 1,143 to public research organisations/state agricultural universities, and 775 to private seed companies.
The author says that the most controversial provision of the Seeds Bill, 2004 (still pending in the Rajya Sabha) is that it requires the mandatory registration of all seeds and varieties (including farmers' seeds), and prohibits the use of unregistered seeds.
Till October 30, 2018, the PPVFR received a total of 10,916 variety applications from farmers' communities across India. In the author’s view, this shows that Indian farmers still preserve crop and variety diversity.
The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi – India’s national gene bank for seeds – holds a total of 4.34 lakh (434,946) accessions (plant samples) of different agri-horticultural crops, and ranks fourth in the world.
The Basudha seed bank in Kalibonga village of Rayagada district, Odisha, is one of the largest farm-based collections of one-crop diversity and has around 1,320 rice varieties.
On December 17, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Article 19 of this declaration, about the right to seeds, extends human rights protections to farmers whose ‘seed sovereignty’ is threatened by government and corporate practices and intellectual property rights laws.
Focus and Factoids by Anupam Krishnamurthy.
Focus on the Global South, India