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Drawbacks in Seeds Bill 2019

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December 06, 2019

What is the issue?

  • The Seeds Bill 2019 is under Parliament’s consideration. [Click here to know more on the Bill]
  • In this context, here is an analysis if the provisions are truly farmer-friendly.

What is the Bill on?

  • The draft Seeds Bill aims to replace the Seeds Act, 1966.
  • The Bill, essentially, regulate the quality of seeds sold.
  • The earlier versions of the Bill, in 2004 and 2010, had generated heated debates.
  • According to the government, a new Seeds Bill is necessary to -
    1. enhance seed replacement rates in Indian agriculture
    2. specify standards for registration of seed varieties
    3. enforce registration from seed producers to seed retailers

What necessitates seed protection?

  • 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.
  • In this line, member countries had to introduce restrictions on the free use and exchange of seeds by farmers unless the “breeders” were remunerated.

What are the conflicting commitments?

  • TRIPS and UPOV run counter to other international conventions in this reagrd.
  • In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provided for “prior informed consent” of farmers before the use of genetic resources.
  • It also called for “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) recognised farmers’ rights.
  • It covered the rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.
  • National governments had the responsibility to protect such farmers’ rights.
  • So, while TRIPS and UPOV gave priority to breeders’ rights, the CBD and ITPGRFA emphasised on farmers’ rights.
  • Notably, India is a signatory to TRIPS and UPOV as well as CBD and ITPGRFA.
  • So, any Indian legislation had to be in line with both these sets of laws.

How did the PPVFR Act address this?

  • The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act of 2001 sought to achieve the delicate balance between farmers’ and breeders’ rights.
  • It retained the main spirit of TRIPS i.e. IPRs as an incentive for technological innovation.
  • Nevrtheless, the Act also had strong provisions to protect farmers’ rights.
  • In this regard, it recognised three roles for the farmer: cultivator, breeder and conserver -
    1. as cultivators, farmers were entitled to plant-back rights
    2. as breeders, farmers were held equivalent to plant breeders
    3. as conservers, farmers were entitled to rewards from a National Gene Fund

How important are public institutions in having certified seeds?

  • While the above goals are indeed worthy, any such legislation is expected to be in alignment with the spirit of the PPVFR Act.
  • E.g. a shift from farm-saved seeds to certified seeds, which would raise seed replacement rates, is desirable
  • As, certified seeds have higher and more stable yields than farm-saved seeds.
  • However, such a shift should be achieved not through policing, but through an enabling atmosphere.
  • Private seed companies prefer policing.
  • This is because their low-volume, high-value business model is crucially dependent on forcing farmers to buy their seeds every season.
  • On the other hand, an enabling atmosphere is generated by the strong presence of public institutions in seed research and production.
  • Public institutions, not motivated by profits, supply quality seeds at affordable prices, which make policing redundant.
  • But, from the late-1980s, Indian policy has consciously encouraged the growth of private seed companies, including companies with majority foreign equity.
  • Resultantly, today, more than 50% of India’s seed production is undertaken in the private sector.

Is the Seeds Bill 2019 against farmers’ interests?

  • Given their large share, the private sector interests have guided the formulation of the various versions of Seeds Bill between 2004 and 2019.
  • The private seed firms have been demanding -
    1. favourable changes in seed laws and deregulation of seed prices
    2. free import and export of germplasm
    3. freedom to self-certify seeds
    4. restrictions on the use, by farmers, of saved seeds from previous seasons
  • Unsurprisingly, many of the Bill’s provisions deviate from the spirit of the PPVFR Act.
  • It is hence against farmers’ interests in many ways and in favour of private seed companies.

What are the problematic provisions in the Bill?

  • Seed registration - 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 be under the PPVFR Act.
  • For instance, a seed variety could have been developed by a breeder, but derived from a traditional variety.
  • In this case, the breeder will get exclusive marketing rights.
  • But no gain will accrue to farmers as benefit-sharing is dealt with in the PPVFR Act, under which the seed is not registered.
  • Data - As per the PPVFR Act, all applications for registrations should contain the complete data of the parental lines from which the seed variety was derived.
  • These include contributions made by farmers.
  • This allows for an easier identification of beneficiaries and simpler benefit-sharing processes.
  • But, Seeds Bill, demands no such information while registering a new variety, thus overlooking the recording of the contributions of farmers.
  • Private companies are thus left free to claim a derived variety as their own.
  • Re-registration - The PPVFR Act, which is based on an IPR like breeders’ rights, does not allow re-registration of seeds after the validity period.
  • However, as the Seeds Bill is not based on such principle, private seed companies can re-register their seeds.
  • They can do this for an infinite number of times after the validity period.
  • Given this “ever-greening” provision, many seed varieties may never enter the open domain for free-use.
  • Seed prices - A vague provision for regulation of seed prices appears in the Seeds Bill.
  • However, it appears neither sufficient nor credible.
  • In fact, strict control on seed prices has been an important demand raised by farmers’ organisations.
  • They have also demanded an official body to regulate seed prices and royalties.
  • In its absence, they feel, seed companies may be able to fix seed prices as they deem fit, leading to sharp rises in costs of cultivation.
  • Compensation - Under the PPVFR Act, if a registered variety fails in its promise of performance, farmers can claim compensation before a PPVFR Authority.
  • This provision is diluted in the Seeds Bill, where disputes on compensation have to be decided as per the Consumer Protection Act 1986.
  • Consumer courts are hardly ideal and friendly institutions that farmers can approach.
  • Also, according to the Seeds Bill, farmers become eligible for compensation if a plant variety fails to give expected results under “given conditions”.
  • Sadly, “given conditions” is almost impossible to define in agriculture.
  • Seed companies would always claim that “given conditions” were not ensured.
  • Again, this will be difficult to be disputed with evidence in a consumer court.

What is the way forward?

  • Given the inherent nature of seeds, farmer-friendly pieces of seed legislation are difficult to frame and execute.
  • This is particularly so as the influence of the private sector grows and technological advances shift seed research towards hybrids.
  • In hybrids, reuse of seeds is technically constrained.
  • The private sector, thus, has a natural incentive to focus on hybrids.
  • In such a world of hybrids, even progressive seed laws become a weak defence.
  • On the other hand, 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 with public institutions in place.
  • Thus, for the seed sector and its laws to be truly farmer-friendly, the public sector has to recapture its lost space.

 

Source: Indian Express

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