Monday, September 14, 2009


India set itself apart from all other nations when it passed a unique legislation giving its farmers legal and formal rights over seed. The Farmers Rights law came after a hard won battle against the global and Indian seed industry which was backed by the IPR provisions demanded in the GATT/WTO. The latter required member countries to provide intellectual property protection in the form of either patents or plant breeders’ rights on seeds. Indian civil society refused to accept that the law would permit seeds to be patented, since this would hurt the interests of farmers. It demanded that not only plant breeders should be given rights but that farmers too must have rights in the law that would allow them to continue to have as much control over their seed as they always did. The Farmers Rights provision acknowledges the farmer as a cultivator, conserver and producer of seed. This independence as we will see , will become a crucial coping mechanism in the hands of farmers when confronted with the vagaries of global warming and climate change.
Had the farmers rights not come into being and India had accepted seed patents, we would gradually be flooded with seeds produced by companies. If these were under patents, the farmer would need to buy fresh seed for every season. This is not the case today. Apart from farm saved seed, Farmers Rights allow farmers to save seed even of varieties protected by Breeders Rights under the law. The company’s right over the seed is limited to the first sale ,after that the seed belongs to the farmers and they can plant it , share it with other farmers , even sell it in an informal arrangement as they have always done with other seed .
Climate change will bring unpredictable weather, there can be both droughts and floods, high and low rainfall and uneven distribution of what rain comes . All the agriculture practices that have been developed over time, in consonance with the local weather and the region’s climate, will probably be made to stand on their head. New responses will have to be found , both , on the part of scientists, but more so , from within the farming community, to find strategies to continue agriculture and food production when faced with the crisis of climate change. The greater the flexibility the farmers have with respect to the seeds they plant, the more able they will be to adjust their agriculture to floods or droughts, heavy or scanty rainfall. Farmers Rights ensures that farmers can select their seed at will. Their choices have not been eroded by the limited seeds that company’s could put out. A monoculture, promoted by the limited seed offer of commercial companies, is the most vulnerable type of agriculture and the least able to cope with the turbulence of climate change. Because we have so far deferred that situation, farmers can in fact go back to the mixed farming approach that has been a traditional strategy to minimize the risk from biotic and abiotic stresses that farmers always face. This is the exact opposite of monocultures where large swathes of fields are planted with only one type of seed. The farmer used to prefer to plant a mixture of seeds, say about 3 to 4 kinds of rice in the same field. These could include some that were high yielding, some perhaps not so high yielding but resistant to disease. If the farmer’s field was in an area that could get flooded occasionally, the farmer’s choice would include some seed that could tolerate standing water. In such a situation, regardless of flood or disease, the farmer would always get some harvest and some food for the family. In a good year, the harvest would be good but in a flood year, the harvest may not be that good but all would not be lost. This is exactly the coping strategy that farmers need today, as they prepare to face climate change. Farmers can even today plant such a mixture of seeds because they have the freedom to do so and the Farmers Rights law defends this freedom.
The importance of maintaining and strengthening Farmers Right is more obvious today than it ever was. Yet the efforts of the national and international seed industry, in complicity with elements within the government is to have the scope and strength of the Farmers Rights reduced, if not done away with altogether . The challenge to Farmers Rights comes essentially from the move to make India a member of the UPOV. This effort was made , prompted by the seed industry pressure, already in May 2002, just months after the Farmers Rights legislation was finally passed by Parliament. The attack has been renewed more recently through the bilateral treaties coming in the form of Free Trade Agreements. The bilateral trade agreement with the EU and with EFTA are both asking for India to harmonise its Farmers Rights law with UPOV. This will mean doing away with the comprehensive set of rights granted under the current legislation and the flexibility that the farmer has to chose seed and keep control over it.


  1. Almost all laws pertaining to global trade or having impact on commercial interests of the multinationals (MNCs) are slowly (but surely) being reframed blindly to make them TRIPS compliant. The amendments made in these laws are done solely with an aim to find a place in the good books of global powers and MNCs but not for the benefit of the people of this country or for the one who toils in the farm land. Globalisation and commercialisation have spread their perilous tentacles into every aspect of modern life that we are not regarded as humans but demoted to petty customers. Whither to ??

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