Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Climate of threat to food security

Suman Sahai

Despite the fact that independent India has not had large-scale famines, widespread hunger prevails and is growing. According to official data, almost 87 per cent of rural India gets less than the minimum calorie requirement.

The decline in agricultural productivity, the diversion of foodgrains to feed poultry and livestock, policies that focus on export products and cash crops, as also inflationary food prices are contributing to a growing food crisis in the country. In addition, there is the proposed diversion of land and water to the production of Jatropha-based biofuels, the rapidly changing land use policy and the government’s support for special economic zones even when they encroach on prime agricultural land.

Economic reforms in India have led to disinvestment in the agriculture sector. This has adversely affected more than two-thirds of the population that is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. Farmers themselves face hunger due to rising input costs and non-remunerative prices of farm products. There is no effective crop and livestock insurance to cover damage and credit is not available at reasonable rates.

Food availability has declined. Immediately after Independence, from the 1950s to 1964, it ranged between 140 and 170 kg per capita per annum. Between 1979 and 1994, it went up to 180 kg per capita per annum. After the reform period, foodgrain availability declined sharply to 150 kg per annum. There is a considerable shortfall in the actual requirement and availability of foodgrains. In the context of the current agrarian crisis, this trend poses a grave danger to communities already afflicted with hunger.

Adding to this already grim scenario is the new challenge of climate change. This year’s see-saw with the monsoon is a pre-runner of what awaits us ahead. According to climate estimates, agriculture in the productive areas of South Asia will be among the most adversely affected. As temperatures rise, the growing season is expected to shorten with decreases in agricultural productivity of up to 40 per cent. The worst brunt of climate change on food production will be borne by farmers in rain-fed areas.

Coping with the impact of climate change on agriculture will require careful management of resources like land, water and biodiversity. A large-scale public education and training programme is necessary to help farmers cope with the changes coming from global warming. Nothing in their experience has prepared them for the rapidly evolving, anthropogenic climate turbulence.

The disbanded extension service in the agriculture sector must be resumed urgently. Training and capacity building programmes must help to increase sensitivity to the problems that agriculture will face and understand its causes. At present, there is little understanding among rural communities about global warming and they are facing difficulties adjusting to the unpredictable changes that are throwing their long-held cropping patterns out of gear. The new extension service must be geared to teaching farmers how to adapt their agriculture to the new weather conditions that will negatively impact their food and livelihood security.

Not just farmers, it will be necessary to provide education and training to a range of actors. This would include policymakers, Panchayati Raj institutions, the banking sector, civil society groups, corporate executives and others, in the theory and practice of adapting agriculture to climate turbulence. Such capacity building will enable the successful adoption of adaptation strategies at policy and implementation levels.

There will have to be a fundamental strategy change in food production. Practices in agriculture will need to shift from intensive, mechanised, water-demanding agriculture to a more sustainable, conservative agriculture that grows crops using less water. “More crop per drop of water” is a strategy recommended to tackle drought. The same approach is applicable in a wider sense when addressing the challenges posed by global warming.

The first step in adapting agriculture to cope with climate change will be to diversify the farm production model to minimise risk and obtain the most benefits from available resources. Such sustainable models will have to include crops, livestock, poultry and where possible, fisheries and agro forestry.

As the monsoon rainfall gets reduced and more uncertain and receding glaciers reduce water flows in rivers, farmers must learn to make maximum use of available water. Rainwater harvesting and traditional water storage structures such as farm ponds, wells and tanks will have to be revived. Watershed development and catchment area recharge treatments to allow for aquifer replenishment will have to be undertaken on priority basis in all ecosystems. As rainfall becomes less reliable, water conserved in tanks, ponds and wells will provide life-saving irrigation to crops.

Soil management will need to focus on increasing organic matter to improve soil nutrition and water retention capacity, thus increasing crop productivity. The eco-system approach to agricultural production using crop rotation, maintaining an appropriate balance of soil nutrients and using an integrative and bio-organic approach to pest management will be effective in coping with rapidly changing farm conditions.

Contour bunding will be useful, especially in the hill areas, to increase water retention in terraced fields and improve crop productivity. It was a central component in regenerating degraded soils in Burkina Faso in West Africa and is credited with as much as a 40 per cent increase in agricultural production the first year after its implementation. Planting hedgerows of leguminous plants, especially in poor soils, which constitute the bulk of the soil in India, is important to fix nitrogen, prevent soil erosion and conserve soil moisture.

Mulching and other types of soil cover is helpful in arresting soil erosion and extending the availability of soil moisture. Mulching has the added benefit of reducing weed populations by up to 60 per cent, saving on weeding costs. None of these are rocket science but they are neglected in our policy and implementation plans. India’s strategy to deal with climate change, encapsulated in the National Action Plan on Climate Change lacks vision and offers no realistic solutions. We need urgently to come up with a policy and framework to protect our agriculture and food production from the onslaught of global warming.

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org

Source : Deccan Chronicle, October 15, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012



Will agricultural intensification save our natural ecosystems from farmer invasion?

He is the most revered figure in agricultural research – the father of the green revolution.  But the late Norman Borlaug’s influence extends further even than delivering the seeds that have fed the world.  He also established in agricultural and environmental orthodoxy what is known today as the Borlaug hypothesis — the idea that intensifying agriculture is also the key to saving forests and other natural ecosystems from invasion by farmers.

The idea underpins research priorities in agriculture, for which increased yield is to holy grail.  More surprisingly perhaps, it sustains conservationists who want to abandon green notions of low-intensity organic agriculture in favour of giving agriculture its head.

Now the argument is being deployed in the debate over a future global climate change deal.  Some advocates of REDD, which would provide finance for protecting forests as carbon stores, say carbon offsetters should be encouraged to fund intensified farming too.  It is one facet of the push for “climate-smart” agriculture that we will heard again at the next climate talks in Doha later this year.
Lord Nicholas Stern, the British economist behind the highly influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, puts the Borlaug hypothesis this way: “Cattle pasture in Brazil has only one animal per hectare.  Raise that to two animals and you can save the Amazon rainforest.”
But is it true?  If farming were a zero-sum game, with a simple aim of growing enough food to feed the world, then clearly intensification should spare land for nature.  But market forces may have perverse effects.

The Contrarian View
The counter-argument is that farmers don’t clear forests to feed the world; they clear forests to make money.  So helping farmers become more efficient and productive won’t reduce the threat.  It will increase it, by encouraging them to expand, and increasing their resources to do it.
As Tony Simons, deputy director of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, put it to me a year or so back: “Borlaug thought that if you addressed poverty in the forest border, they’d stop taking their machetes into the forest.  Actually, they get enough money to buy a chainsaw and do much more damage.”

Recent studies give weight to this contrarian view.  Thomas Rudel of Rutgers University, New Jersey, compared national trends in agricultural yields and how much land is under crops.  If Borlaug was right, then countries with fast-rising yields should see less increase in croplands, perhaps even a decrease.  Sadly, he found no such link.

Robert Ewers of the Zoological Society of London reported that increased yields of staple food crops do not spare the land, but stimulated increased planting of other crops, including non-food crops like cotton, rubber and biofuels.  As a result, he concluded, “land sparing is a weak process that only occurs under a limited set of circumstances.”

Economists are not surprised
That’s how markets work, they say.  Arild Angelsen, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and senior associate at CIFOR, modelled the competing influences and concluded that, contrary to the Borlaug hypothesis, “local yield increases tend to stimulate agricultural encroachment”.
Globalization increases the stimulus.  After all, Brazil’s assault on the Amazon in the late 20th century was driven not by an imperative to feed its own population, but by its successful drive to become the world’s biggest agricultural exporter.  Similarly only a fraction of the palm oil grown on Indonesia’s former forests is for domestic use.

Rudel has suggested that the Borlaug hypothesis is confounded by a modern version of the Jevons paradox.  The 19th century British economist William Jevons pointed out that during the industrial revolution, increased efficiency in coal burning led to more coal being burned, rather than less. Similarly today, more intensive agriculture may stimulate rather than defuse the clearance of land for new farms.

Can the Borlaug hypothesis help tackle climate change?
There are other reasons to question Stern’s suggestion that the Borlaug hypothesis could help tackle climate change.  Even if agriculture did spare forests, it also massively increases farming’s carbon footprint.  Might those emissions swamp any gains from protecting forests?
A study by Jennifer Burney and others at Stanford in 2010 suggested not.  After balancing both influences, she estimated a net benefit to the atmosphere from agricultural intensification of 590 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the past 50 years.

But surely that depends on the timescale you use.  A mature forest is can only sequester so much carbon, while agricultural emissions continue for as long as the land is cultivated.  Run the clock forward and the balance may be reversed.

None of this is to say that intensification won’t be needed.  The world has to be fed, after all. But the simple belief that deploying agribusiness to drive up farm yields will deliver forest protection seems economically illiterate.  And the even simpler notion that investment in the intensification of agriculture can have a direct carbon payback seems dangerous folly.

About the Author:
Fred Pearce is a journalist and author based in London, UK.  He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, the Guardian newspaper and Yale e360 web site.  His books include Peoplequake, When the Rivers Run Dry and, mostly recently, The Land Grabbers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Let’s be civil, please

Suman Sahai

On July 18, the Russian Parliament passed a law by overwhelming majority according to which those NGOs that receive funds from abroad would be branded “foreign agents”. This will sound disconcertingly familiar to many civil society groups in India since they too were branded “foreign agents” by no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself during the agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. Thankfully, India manages to demonstrate democratic norms in some important issues, so this dangerous slander against the people by its own government has not yet passed into law. The people in Russia are not so lucky. But truth be told, there has been talk that such a law is being seriously considered in India, too.

The fact is that the Indian government, particularly its bureaucrats, are almost unanimous in their implacable opposition to NGOs. And why wouldn’t they be? It is the NGOs that show up their inefficiencies, their malpractices and their nepotism, when not directly their corruption. It is the babus who most vehemently opposed the Right to Information Act because it gave civil society the power by law to uncover their misdeeds. This is not to say that all babus are cussed and all NGOs are as pure as the driven snow. There are outliers on both sides but these are exceptions rather than the rule. There are bureaucrats who are immensely appreciative of civil society and seek their partnership in implementing important projects and there are NGOs who, if not foreign agents, are less than above board. One will have to concede nevertheless that a corrupt babu does far more damage than a corrupt NGO.

Individual political parties on the other hand have been far more willing to work with NGOs, recognising their value as providers of intellectual inputs and their ability to identify and bring to the fore people’s grievances, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. Dr Singh’s shocker of branding the protesters at the Koodankulam nuclear power plant site as foreign agents was, therefore, extremely surprising. Not only because Dr Singh is not inclined to extreme statements, but because as head of a democratic government, his statement sounded ominous, a threat to free speech and democratic rights.

The government has been taking steps to choke off civil society for some time now, though in more subtle ways than in Russia. There was the substantial revision in the Income Tax Act some years ago which made it illegal for NGOs to generate funds for their work through the sale of their publications or by providing training. This avenue of reducing dependence on external funding and enabling NGOs to become more self-reliant was a deliberate move to curtail the activities of the NGO sector. The revisions in the FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act), under which NGOs get permission to receive funding support for developmental work from foreign donors, are designed to restrict the flow of such funds and bring them under the government’s control. The proposed modifications would require the district magistrate to decide whether an NGO could take a foreign grant.

This is not only high-handed but fraught with danger, given the appalling levels of corruption in the bureaucracy. Let me give you two examples from Jharkhand. The Gene Campaign had to seek clearance from the district magistrate in one instance to receive a grant from a government fund. The concerned official wanted a “cut” and when we refused, he buried the file so deep that it could not be found even months after he had been sent to jail, along with the then chief minister, Madhu Koda. In another instance, when we competed successfully for an international grant and required the state government’s permission to receive the money, the concerned official again wanted to know what his share would be. On being told “nothing”, he refused permission for us to receive the grant that we had competed globally for and we lost the money.
No one sector is the repository of all wisdom, not the bureaucrats and not the NGOs either. It is in the interest of enlightened public action that the two sectors work together. It is distressing to see at international negotiations that in foreign delegations government officials work closely with their NGOs and put forward their best case. In the case of India, this is never seen and we have often found some level of government functionary marking India’s presence but not being able to make any coherent contribution. I was witness to this at meetings of the Biosafety Protocol where the Indian team had not one single thing to say on the crucial issue of the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is self-defeating on the part of government agencies not to take on board civil society groups. They are often much better informed about current happenings than government officials are. Many civil society actors have advanced domain knowledge (which most bureaucrats don’t) and because of their linkages with international civil society groups, they are usually very current in their information about international developments. Instead of working as a team, bringing different kinds of expertise together, the Indian government chooses to put all its eggs into a solitary babu basket. We have seen time and again but especially during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations how this has worked to the detriment of the final outcome for India, where the country repeatedly conceded positions it should not have.

Instead of seeing the jholawalas as adversaries and finding novel ways of clipping their wings, the government and its administrators must recognise that the two sectors have complementing skills and knowledge. An advantage that the jholawalas bring is their direct connection with communities and their first-hand knowledge of what is happening to real people on the ground. For a government that is concerned about the welfare of its people, this would be crucial input. Look at what Brazil did to conquer hunger through its now iconic Zero Hunger programme. It was the decision of President Lula that all actors, government and non-
government, would pull together to make the programme a success. Each group had its own responsibilities and together they made it happen. Brazil has managed to make a serious dent in hunger. Let us learn some lessons from others.

The writer is convenor of the Gene Campaign

Source : Asian Age, August 20, 2012

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Suman Sahai

In this tumble down world of  fast foods and junk foods, childhood obesity and the rising spectre of childhood diabetes and heart disease, should we not be stepping back as a society to question what on earth our children (and we  ) are eating, or for that matter when we are eating it. For one thing, there is almost no discipline anymore in what children are fed or at what time. Many of us at late-night dinners have seen five-year-olds and seven-year-olds eating dinner with their parents at 12 o'clock at night. And like their parents, usually their food is rich in trans fats and other unhealthy avoidables.

There was a time not so long ago when children would be in bed by nine clock after a healthy dinner of fresh foods fed to them by eight in the evening. In most families great attention was paid to what babies and children were given to eat. They were not for instance given everything that the adults ate. Chocolates and fizzy drinks, especially colas were forbidden for young children, as were most heavy, deep-fried foods.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of foods that children used to be fed, is the category of weaning foods. This was the in-between food fed to babies as they were being weaned off mother's milk. Usually after 6 to 8 months of being fed solely on breast milk,  and before they graduated to solid foods, babies were started on foods that had the consistency of gruel or thin paste. They graduated from liquid paste to semi-solids and finally to solid foods like rice, roti, vegetables  and dal.

Traditionally weaning food, especially in rural areas, used to be a milky gruel made of finger millet, called Madua  in the North and Ragi in the south. Upmarket urban women, often chose the empty calories of processed cereals, usually rice, that came out of boxes. Rural women clearly had better sense when it came to feeding their babies. Finger millet or Madua is high in protein and micronutrients especially calcium, vital for strengthening growing bones. Rural mothers knew this long before nutritional analysis uncovered the content of these wonder foods.

Tragically the practice of madua based weaning foods  is lost even in areas whereas Ragi and Madua are cultivated and still eaten. In a survey done in Uttaranchal by Gene Campaign in the summer of 2012, not one single mother was feeding her children millet gruel as a weaning food. Older women in the household spoke of giving their children millet gruel but said nobody does that any more and the young people don't listen anyway ! When asked what children were given as they grew out of breast milk, the answer most mothers gave was rice and dal. Now here is a tragedy. The easily digested high-protein millet, rich in calcium and micronutrients has been abandoned in favour of rice which is nutritionally the poorest of all cereals.

Why have we allowed this to happen? Part of the reason is in the public perception of millets which are thought to be the food of  rural hicks and associated with being the food of the poor and backward. Rural India aspires to eat the polished white rice because that is what the city slickers eat. The public distribution system (PDS) , the government's largest food support scheme, has fulfilled this aspiration because it supplies only polished white rice and wheat to poor households. So rural (and urban) babies are weaned on the impoverished calories of rice, when they could so easily build sturdy bones and healthy bodies on a diet of  ragi.

There was a feeble revival of interest in fingermillet when Japanese agencies sent people to Uttaranchal to enquire about the potential for organic millets being supplied to Japan. This was about six to seven years ago. The Japanese had interest in millets precisely to use them as weaning foods, a tradition that had existed in old Japan, and which they were trying to  revive so they could reintroduce this healthy practice and make available millets as weaning food for Japanese babies. The initial enquiries were not followed up nor was the matter pursued actively by Indian agencies and the whole episode passed into oblivion. Which is such a pity.

India is home not only to the largest number of hungry people in the world but also to the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition and under nutrition. What a difference this wonder cereal could make to the nutritional status of both children and adults. Common sense would dictate that people switch or at least include millets in their diet. But in a nation where the rural poor have chosen to raise their children on Maggi noodles and dangerously unhealthy snacks packed in foil packets, who is looking for common sense?

Monday, June 25, 2012


Suman Sahai

According to Gargi Parsai’s report in The Hindu of 31 May, the Center  is making the already  ridiculous Food Security Bill, even more nonsensical by curtailing the food entitlement  further. Going back on its promise of  a smaller allotment of food grains to families above the miserable cut off  line defining poverty, the poor who qualify as above the poverty line (APL category) will not get any food support at all. Far from universalizing the entitlement , the UPA government has squeezed the poor by reducing the amount of food it is prepared to give to the hungry. 

One must question why one should  go through with this farcical Food Security Bill at all. Its primary driving force is the fact that the Congress party made  a poll promise and it sees electoral benefit  in pushing such a legislation through. The government appears to be enacting a pantomime, going through the motions of caring for the hungry by enacting a legislation, hoping that most people would not really look into what the legislation actually contains for the poor, namely very little. 

In a major shift in policy, the Centre now plans to confine food entitlement only to below poverty Line (BPL) households and completely exclude the existing category of the above poverty line families. This is in the face of all demands to make food entitlements universal. Tamil Nadu already has a universal PDS and the Chief Minister, Ms Jayalalitha has therefore rejected the UPA Food Security Bill, saying it undermines the support to the poor that Tamil Nadu is already giving.

The task of identifying the BPL families will be left to the State governments and several States have raised objections to putting a ceiling on the number of poor households. In any case holders of BPL cards in villages are more or less identified by their proximity to powerful persons, not necessarily the extent of their poverty. 

The current Food Security Bill i( FSB) s a parody of legislation. It muddles around with the existing PDS system without in any way suggesting how  the inefficiencies and leakages of the current  structures  can be plugged. 

I have argued elsewhere that the FSB must be redrafted completely and made to rest on three pillars: the production of food, its distribution and ensuring the absorption of food by providing clean drinking water and sanitation.

A Bill to provide food security must be an enabling legislation, not based on dole.  Appropriate conditions must be ensured to the farming community to enable them to produce adequate and nutritious food so that our food security is based on self-reliance. 

The key concepts  for  remodel ling the distribution system are decentralization and diversification . A decentralized system can procure local foods from the region, thus reducing transportation costs and spoilage . A diversified system need not procure only wheat and rice but can expand the basket to include nutricereals  like millets as well as  yams, tubers , sweet potatoes and pumpkins and anything else that the region produces. Dietary diversity will improve nutrition, locally sourced food will be fresher and give farmers an incentive to produce a range of diverse foods since the PDS will be the market to buy up the food.  If the intentions are pure, the way to achieve food and nutrition security  is obvious.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Policy space opens through MNREGA

 Suman Sahai

Jairam Ramesh seems to have (in)advertently opened up a policy space with his comment on MNREGA “ Aap kitna gaddha khodo ge?” Here is an opportunity for people working  on NRM, agriculture and related fields, to intervene in changing policy and make suggestions for what MNREGA funded manpower can be used for , particularly in rainfed areas . Will be a good idea to come up with a list of suggested interventions and send it off to J Ramesh .

We should offer suggestions that definitely include the skill building of rural (young) people and the creation of substantial assets in rural areas. The No- Brainer here is natural resource conservation , especially water. Another is soil conservation….again in its most comprehensive sense. This could involve technology and a ‘barefoot’ type ITI training to create rural engineers who can go from identifying the problems of a terrain, conserving its moisture…etc,   to building up the soil health in its diverse pockets.

One thing I encounter in the fields is the limitation of  programs like the IWMP with its snarls of red tape and pre-set conditions. People tend to set silly do-able targets because of these limitations and the end product becomes unsatisfactory. Could we for instance, propose an allocation for a watershed to develop it comprehensively?  Starting from the water conservation to an agriculture  mix with high value crops that can be cultivated there , value chain building of the produce and its marketing. This should make the watershed an attractive package at several levels and people can be trained along its axis, acquiring different types of skills that will have applications beyond the watershed. One way of retaining young people in agriculture and rural livelihoods is to make them more contemporary and skilled and linked more firmly to the market.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Knowledge Is Survival

Knowledge passed from generation to generation provides a guarantee for the next harvest.

Indian farmers are fighting for their intellectual property.


Large conglomerates take advantage of Indian farmers. The farmers forfeit their claim to their intellectual property and ultimately, to the knowledge that might allow them to resist climate change. The "Gene Campaign" has become their advocate.

Diversity is Nature's "Plan B": it provides a variety of possibilities. Let us suppose that a plant crop no longer grow once its native habitat has become flooded. However, some of its relatives are not afraid to get their feet wet and will take root even in mud. Or say the higher temperatures caused by climate change make it difficult for traditional crops. This is where Mother Nature plays her joker card called biodiversity. If one plant won't grow under these conditions, another will.

A pretty cool thing, this Nature. If only we could put it to use. Well, that's exactly what man has been doing since the beginning of agriculture. We not only know that a certain plant has medicinal properties; we also know that it can withstand drought or rain, or that the wind will easily knock it over. All of this knowledge; acquired by trial and error and passed on from generation to generation, helps to guarantee the next harvest and thus, the survival itself in a constantly changing environment.

"I want to help my country!"
People all over the world are struggling to preserve and protect this knowledge. Dr. Suman Sahai and the "Gene Campaign" NGO*, which she founded, are fighting for the rights of Indian farmers to their intellectual property. Trained in genetics, the scientist can look back on a long and successful career. She performed research and taught at universities in India, Canada, the USA and Germany. "It wasn't a professional mid-life crisis that brought me from research to the 'Gene Campaign'. I was a successful scientist and I really enjoyed my work," says Sahai. "It was my Indian identity. I want to help my country." And just what kind of service to the Indian people does Dr. Sahai find so rewarding?
"Gene Campaign" fights internationally for the fair treatment of indigenous intellectual property. Based on the premise that no one should have to be made to account for his property, Suman Sahai pillories scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and agricultural concerns as "biopirates" and accuses profit- hungry governments.
The "exploiters" not only disregard the moral principles that Sahai stands for but also violate the objectives and duties prescribed by the CBD (Convention on Biodiversity), all under the mantle of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Benefit-sharing remains merely an ideal because there is money in knowing how to use plants. Lots of money. Suman Sahai has estimated what fair benefit-sharing would look like in her view. Pharmaceutical companies might invest a billion dollars from the time a plant is discovered until a product is launched on the market. Deducting the outlays needed for advertising and standardization in Western markets of around 400 million dollars, that would place a value of 600 million dollars on the plant itself. This would provide an equitable basis for negotiations. The only question is: What is fair? Five percent for the people who discovered the knowledge? Or fifty? "Plus a share of the profits, naturally," says Dr. Suman Sahai.

It's no surprise that the "biopirates" are anything but thrilled by this calculation. This is where Sahai's reputation as a scientist is helpful. "Governments listen to me, even though they don't like what I have to say. My career as a scientist confers authority on me." This authority, plus the conviction of doing the right thing are apparent in her entire manner, in the rapid, almost brusque way she counters arguments, or in the way she calls for people to rethink. They are towering demands, made by a towering personality.

Bringing science to the village
The "Gene Campaign", however, doesn't just perform international publicity and stand up for the
rights of farmers. The organization also provides on- site assistance. The marketing of diversity by the industrial nations not only puts farmers at a disadvantage; their valuable know-how is slowly being lost. Optimized seeds dominate the market. Native low- performance varieties and alternative sources of food are slowly being forgotten. To put it drastically, farmers' survival is being pinned to one crop alone. In an effort to preserve indigenous knowledge, the NGO delivers "science where it's needed" — to the villages. Local communities assist in erecting simple seed banks. Villagers receive training in managing their seed supply and ultimately assume responsibility for them. The banks thus provide a guarantee of crop diversity and preserve the knowledge of their uses.

Educating for equity
Villagers are grateful for the attempts to secure their future by preserving diversity but many a battle against powerful adversaries needs to be fought before equitable benefit-sharing can proceed. Sahai hopes that future generations will learn to respect and deal fairly with resources — both intellectual and material — through education and publicity.

Verena Orth

Source : Correcting Images. Protecting and Using Biological Diversity - Preserving Cultural Diversity



Thursday, June 14, 2012


Suman Sahai

All technologies but especially those related to food and agriculture must be adopted in developing countries only if small farmers and rural communities can benefit from them.
It is important to recognize that there are many indigenous technologies and knowledge systems that work well for rural communities because they are affordable, accessible and communities are skilled in their use. New technologies must neither displace nor diminish such indigenous technologies.

A new agricultural technology must have a strong local context to be meaningful and the agenda must be determined by local stakeholders. The research goals must be determined by the needs of local agriculture, not imported as a package as is the case currently with Bt and Herbicide Tolerant  (HT) crops. A technology developed for industrial agriculture is unlikely to work for resource poor farmers in developing countries because it is usually more expensive, it can be irrelevant or even harmful  and it is alien in its application.

Growing Bt cotton which is expensive and has complex requirements of maintaining non Bt refuges and counting insects to determine when an insecticide spray is required, places great financial burdens and provides opportunities for things going wrong.  HT crops constitute a labor saving technology, which is absolutely wrong for labor surplus developing countries where agricultural operations like weeding, threshing and winnowing provide much needed wages to agriculture labor. In addition, weeds that would be destroyed by herbicide application serve as leafy green vegetables for the family, fodder for livestock and medicinal plants for health and veterinary care in rural areas.

The adoption of regulated technologies like Ag biotechnology may not be difficult where regulatory systems can be established and enforced easily. This is not necessarily the case in developing countries where there is a deficit of skilled manpower and finances to run a stringent regulatory system. In the absence of a technically competent, transparent and accountable regulatory system, adoption of Ag biotechnology which has environmental, health and socio-economic implications is not advisable in poor countries.

To develop new technologies relevant to the poor, the public sector must step up spending to create accessible and affordable public goods. International research and development agencies must support such efforts and intervene in the creation of novel approaches to deal with innovation and intellectual property (IP) so that new technologies do not remain shackled in patents, available only to the rich. Countries should develop sensible domestic IP policies incorporating equity and justice.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Need for a different food security law

S U M A N  S A H A I 

THE Union cabinet has recently approved a flawed and inadequate food security bill (FSB) that is, at least in part, driven by the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council. It was widely reported that Gandhi’s determination to push the bill at all costs was to make good a Congress Party poll promise. To achieve food security, the FSB proposes to revise the Public Distribution System (PDS) and provide 7 kilograms of rice and wheat at Rs 3 and Rs 2 per kg respectively, per person, to people below the poverty line. For a family of five, this will amount to 35 kg of grain per month.[2] To people above the poverty line, the bill proposes to provide three kilograms of cereal per person at half the minimum support price that the government pays at the time of procurement.

This allotment is as yet only proposed and the 15 kg cereal per above poverty line (APL) family is not planned in the first phase.[3] For those who so desire, there is a provision to include millets in lieu of wheat and rice at one rupee per kilogram.

Given the prevalence and persistence of hunger, the country certainly requires a legislation on food security, but a comprehensive one; not one that deals with just a part of the picture.

In order to achieve genuine food security, a legislation must cover all aspects related to it, first and foremost ensuring that sufficient food is produced so that enough is available for everyone. Second, an effective distribution system must be in place so that people can access the food easily, and finally, ensure that food that is eaten is absorbed by the body to provide nutrition. The last can only be achieved by providing clean drinking water and sanitation to slash the incidence of diarrheal disease that prevents nutrition from being absorbed. These then are the three pillars of food security: the production, distribution and absorption of food.

The National Food Security Bill presented by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government addresses only the distribution of food and should correctly be called the Revised PDS Bill rather than the overly ambitious food security bill. It neither addressesthe production of food nor does it include any features to improve the appalling state of sanitation and clean drinking water that robs the body of nutrition.

Ignoring the aspect of food production in a food security legislation underlines the inadequacy of the bill, especially given that India is in the throes of a severe agrarian crisis. In part, at least, agriculture productivity is declining and fields lie fallow as farmers in distress may prefer to abandon the profession because of its failure to provide either food or a livelihood.

Growth in food grain production has fallen to 1.7 per cent, below the population growth rate of 1.9 per cent. This translated to a decline in per capita availability of food grains by3.5 kg in the period from 1995 to 2001. Concurrently, there has been an unprecedented decline in the availability of cereals and pulses in the 15 years from 1991 to 2004 – from 510 grams per capita per day to 463 gms per capita per day because of a decline in production.[4]

There is a high level of indebtedness in the farming community which is eroding their ability to continue cultivation. According to the finance ministry’s 2007 report, about half of India’s farmers are indebted and the inability to repay loans has in part led to some farmers preferring to end their lives.[5] The debt burden is crushing farm productivity, most of all in the surplus food producing states of Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which feed the country’s buffer stocks and the government’s food support schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mid Day Meal Scheme, Annapoorna for the elderly and Antyodaya for the extremely poor.

The production of food is declining for a number of reasons like stagnation in agriculture, increasing production risks exacerbated by the uncertainties of climate change, unfavourable  prices and a callous neglect by formal institutions, specially those relating to credit and insurance. Agriculture credit has been squeezed and since banks do not lend to farmers, they are forced to seek loans at usurious rates from private lenders. The finance ministry report referred to earlier says that only four per cent of farm households had ever insured their crops and 57 per cent did not even know that crops could be insured.[6] All these factors are making agriculture and food production uncertain and risky and farmers are getting increasingly disenchanted. A food security bill that does not address such central problems cannot be taken seriously.

Farmers are abandoning agriculture because it is unprofitable and risky. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in its 2005 report says that 40 per cent of Indian farmers want to forsake farming if they can find another means of livelihood.[7]  Not only is farming the riskiest business in the world, in India it is also a loss making enterprise. Input costs have gone through the roof, even as the government ‘controls’ the price of farm produce. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) in most states does not coverthe cost of production for the crops which are procured by the government. This applies to all the major food crops – paddy, wheat, jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, arhar, moong, urad, chana (gram) and barley.

Neither policy responses nor the food security bill reflect the enormous disaster in the making as the agrarian crisis worsens. In the kharif season of 2011, farmers in Andhra Pradesh declared a crop holiday and refused to plant their fields since, under the present conditions, they end up losing money.[8] In rain fed regions like Jharkhand, farmers have been leaving their upland fields fallow for the last several years.[9] Now the extent of fallow fields has increased; it extends even to the more productive lowland fields which are not cultivated primarily because the economics simply does not add up. The crisis on the farm can be gauged from the fact that in rain fed regions, where only one crop is cultivated in the year, farmers are electing to not even plant this crop. They prefer to abandon their fields and migrate to the cities in search of manual labour which at least brings in some income.

If we do not watch out the production of food will continue to decline at a dangerous rate, making the country food deficient and our people food insecure. For those who assume that any shortfall in food production can be made up by imports and our granaries filled with foreign grain, should study the situation of food availability in the international market. To state it sharply, there is insufficient food on the international market that can be bought to overcome a crisis.

Unlike the old days when India could go out and buy (expensive) food from the international market to plug a shortfall, it may find it difficult do so today since there is almost no food to buy. There are two principal reasons for this. One is the speculation in food grains that has led to high prices and hoarding. The other, more pervasive one, is the American policy on biofuels (now copied by other countries, including India ) because of which American corn is being diverted to produce ethanol to run cars. With corn, the staple of animal and poultry feed, going to biofuel production, there is a shortage of feed in the livestock sector which in turn is buying wheat and rice for animal feed, causing their prices to shoot up and stocks to vanish.

American farmers now find it more profitable to plant corn than wheat and rice because of the demand from the biofuel sector as a result of which cultivation of wheat and rice has declined. Natural calamities like the fires in Ukraine and floods in Australia, both food exporting nations, have also created a huge dent in assured grain supplies on the international market. Climate change will continue to take its toll on food production and supply as uncertainties rise. Availability of grain in the international market in the years to come is likely to take a further beating when countries hold back supplies to fulfil domestic needs due to climate turbulence caused upheavals in production. This happened in 2008 when countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India banned rice exports fearing shortages. This led to a shrinking of global rice supply and rice became unavailable for food imports and crisis relief.[10] Such developments have led to severely diminished food stocks on the global market, further adding to expense and unreliability. In addition to all these reasons, there is the most basic one – food security is only possible with food sovereignty. It is only when we are self-reliant in food production that we can be truly food secure.

Despite all these developments and food production getting pushed into an increasingly difficult place, the advocates of the food security bill wander around in wonderland  hoping that someone will hand them a large pot of grain from somewhere, which they can
then disburse in their preferred way.

Whatever little debate there is only skirts around the nitty gritty of distribution – whether it should be universal or targeted, and around the dangerous and highly undesirable concept of cash transfers. The proposed legislation largely bypasses both the larger picture and the crucial features that need to be addressed to achieve food security for all citizens. The one aspect that all agree on is that a component of food aid is essential for our legislation and that certain categories of people must be specially looked after.  Possibly, a universal system with self-exclusion, as in Tamil Nadu, should be our approach to food access.

The framers of this truncated draft law should realize that by shifting focus on increasing food production in a sustainable manner, many farmers who produce food would become either fully or partially food secure themselves. They would, thus, become either partially or completely independent of the government’s food support schemes, thus diminishing the burden on food stocks and reducing the numbers in need of food aid. Currently impoverished because agriculture is devastated, they swell the ranks of the BPL lists and have been reduced to seeking dole when they should actually be sovereign producers of food, able to feed their families and the rest of the nation.

Tackling food security will certainly mean treading on influential toes. Conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers be given preference for cultivation? Will small farmers in the drylands get the required investments to create water bodies to enable them to take a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over such issues like fertilizer subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue as the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies or will nutrient based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rain fed areas that most need  intervention? The smallest, most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A food security bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour for them to become more productive.

The food security bill must tackle the fundamental question of common property resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against jatropha plantations on common lands that are  conveniently designated as ‘wasteland’. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy takes away key grazing lands of herders and pastoralists, the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will also take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on only to grow fuel for the cars of the rich. Just as it will have to tackle the Coca Colas, the food security bill must also take a position against the conglomerates who are grabbing agricultural land in the name of special economic zones (SEZs) to set up industrial estates (or just corner real estate).

India’s most productive lands, the two crop and three crop zones, must be reserved for food production but these are being snapped up to build urban estates. If this is not stopped, where will we grow our food?

The food production part of the food security bill will have to focus on rain fed farming because that is where the big crisis has unfolded. It will have to define our adaptation priorities to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the impact of climate change on food production will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially their rain fed areas.[11] We cannot continue to behave as though this is someone else’s problem even as we debate the finer points of universal versus targeted distribution of food grains, and believe that someone will step in and make the climate problem go away. security legislation and incentives provided to improve the lagging coverage. The emphasis on motivating the communities is well intended but not enough. It must be accompanied by financial support to achieve targets.

According to UNICEF, the combined effect of inadequate sanitation and unsafe drinking water is responsible for 88 per cent of childhood deaths from diarrhoea; out of every thousand children born, about seventy die before they reach five years of age.[12] Poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water also cause intestinal worm infections, which lead to malnutrition, anaemia and retarded growth among children, condemning them to  inadequacy for the rest of their lives.

The fact is that to draft a truly comprehensive food security bill, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what they have cornered. The bill under consideration clearly fights shy of that. Instead of fiddling with the easiest of the three broad sectors that constitute food security, the government must demonstrate commitment and take on the challenge of drafting a sound, inclusive legislation, focusing on the tough areas of food production and clean water and sanitation, along with distribution.

If the government is serious about achieving zero hunger, it must commit 20 per cent of the national GDP to the agriculture sector until hunger has been banished and bring in a law that lays out a road map to comprehensively tackle the food and nutrition question. Short of that, the food security bill will likely be seen as a political gimmick rather than an effort at governance that is just and equitable.

Source: SEMINAR 6 3 4 – J u n e 2 0 1 2

* Suman Sahai has several years of research and teaching experience in genetics. She works with Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organization working on food and livelihood security and can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org and  www.genecampaign.org

[2] Sunil Prabhu, ‘Cabinet Clears Food Security Bill; to be Introduced in Parliament in this Session’, NDTV. Com, 18 December 2011. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/cabinetclears-food-security-bill-to-be-introduced-inparliament-in-this-session-158968. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[3] ‘Government to Take States on Board Over Food Security Bill’, The Economic Times, 10 January 2012. http://articles.economic times.indiatimes.com/2012-01-10/news/30611961_1_food-security-bill-kg-forcoarse-grains-subsidised-grains. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[4] Nationl Commission on Farmers (NCF), ‘Saving Farmers and Saving Farming’, in Towards Faster and  More Inclusive Growth of Farmers’ Welfare. Fifth and Final Report (2006), Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture, p. 42. http://agricoop.nic.in/NCF/NCF%20Report%20-%205%20Vol.-1.pdf. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[5] Report of the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness. Ministry of Finance (MOF), Government of India, July 2007. www.igidr.ac.in/pdf/publication/PP-059.pdf. Accessed on 10 May 2011.
[6] NSS 59th Round (January-December 2003), Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers: Some Aspects of Farming, p. 11. Report No 496(59/33/3). http://mospi.nic. in/mospi_ new/upload/496_final.pdf. Accessed
on 10 May 2012.
[7] Ibid., p. i.
[8]  M. Suchitra, ‘Farmers on Holiday’, Down to Earth, 15 July 2011. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/farmers-holiday. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[9] Suman Sahai, M. Gautam, U. Sajjad, A. Kumar and J. Hill, ‘Impact on Farm Economics of Changing Seed Use. A Study in Jharkhand. Genecampaign. http://www.genecampaign. org/Sub%20pages/Seed%
20Study.pdf. Accesssed on 10 May 2012.
[10] M. Raja, ‘Asia Faces Growing Rice Crisis’, Asia Times Online, 14 February 2008. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JB14Df02.html. Accessed on 10 February
[11] Findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007), ‘Climate Change Impacts’. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/ucs-ipcc-wg2-72pi-2007.pdf. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

[12] UNICEF, A Report Card on Water and Sanitation (2006), ‘Progress for Children’. http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Progress_for_Children_No._5_-_English.pdf. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Monsanto back to its old games

Suman Sahai

You have to admire the gumption of Monsanto Company, called not without reason the world’s most hated corporation. According to a report some weeks ago, Monsanto threatened to sue the state of Vermont in the US in yet another display of its unbridled power. Why? Due to overwhelming public demand, the elected representatives of Vermont, its legislators are contemplating passing a legislation that will require mandatory labelling of all genetically modified (GM) foods! But the legislators have been frozen in their tracks and are beginning to back off because representatives from the Monsanto Company threatened public officials that the biotechnology behemoth would sue the state of Vermont if they dared to pass a law that would require GM foods to be labelled. Legislators admitted privately that they were apprehensive of attracting the ire of this huge and influential corporation since they know that Monsanto would launch a vicious and prolonged attack on the state of Vermont, if the government went against their diktat.

Monsanto and other biotech corporations oppose labelling of GM foods because they fear, and rightly so, that the public would reject GM foods if they could tell it apart from normal foods that had not been tampered with. Monsanto has so far successfully blocked every effort to allow the labelling of GM foods in the US, despite overwhelming public demand for it. Such is its influence in the corridors of power (and not just in the US), that the US food and drug administration, America’s ombudsman body on all matters related to food, including its safety, has consistently upheld the Monsanto line of “substantial equivalence”. This line is Monsanto’s ploy to deny the very basis of labelling. Briefly explained, the theory of substantial equivalence says that there is no great difference between GM and non-GM foods, that they are substantially the same, or substantially equivalent to one another. Since normal, non-GM foods are not required to be labelled, their substantially equivalent counterpart, the GM foods, need not be labelled either! So what happened to consumer choice? If this perverse and manipulative logic does not make any sense to you… well… go figure!

Substantial equivalence is the biggest public lie being shamelessly told across the world. Unfortunately, Washington puts its weight behind this lie to intimidate other governments to toe the Monsanto line. Despite consistent evidence from laboratory studies with experimental animals that serious, often fatal conditions can result from consuming GM foods, Monsanto is able to get its way, thanks to Washington’s support.

Vermont legislators know to take Monsanto’s threats seriously since the company has a record of threatening people with lawsuits in their sustained and successful campaign to ensure that the consumer is not allowed to choose between GM and non-GM foods. This is simply done by not allowing GM foods to be labelled. Vermont’s history of past run-ins with Monsanto makes it cautious. In 1994, the state gave in to public demand for clean milk from cows that had not been injected with genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The legislators passed for the first time in the US, a law requiring mandatory labelling of milk and dairy produce that had been derived from cows treated with the highly controversial rBGH.

rBGH is banned in countries like Canada and Europe because it is found to cause severe health damage in the milch animals and poses a higher cancer risk for humans. Monsanto sued the state promptly as the law came. Shockingly, the US federal court ruled in the company’s favour, saying that milk producers have the right under the American statute called the First Amendment to remain silent on what their milk contains and whether their cows are injected with rBGH or not. The First Amendment gives a person or agency the right to withhold information in a court of law that it thinks will damage its case. This strange law enabled Monsanto to defeat the Vermont legislators and squash the public’s desire to have milk that was not treated with growth hormones.

Monsanto and its junior partner and ally in India, the Mahyco Seed Company, are flexing their muscles in India too to see how far they can go. Their blatant violation of field testing RR Flex cotton without permission was noted by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) but they managed to get out of that without any punishment. Similarly, their violations in field trials of GM rice in Jharkhand — in defiance of regulatory guidelines — was overlooked by the regulators. Much is whispered along the grapevine about the strategies that Monsanto-Mahyco use to get their way. Whatever these may be, the company must be warned that they and their cohorts in government and outside it will not be allowed to get away with the kind of practices that they are used to getting away with in other places.

India has a vibrant and vigilant civil society, which has demonstrated that it is committed to protecting the interests of the common citizen and upholding their right to clean and safe food. Whereas the Indian civil society is strongly supportive of good science, it equally condemns the manipulation and distortion of science to line the pockets of corporations.

The writer, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

Source : Asian Age, New Delhi, June 06, 2012

Monday, April 30, 2012


Suman Sahai[1] & Carly Nichols[2]

In 1986, in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), the developed countries, led by the U.S., first demanded that an international standard for plant variety protection be imposed on all member countries. When GATT gave way to the WTO in 1995, member countries were obliged to comply with the agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). TRIPS covered many aspects of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Article 27.3 (b) dealt with the protection of plant varieties. This offered three options for the protection of plant varieties. Protection would have to be granted by either (a) a patent; (b) an effective sui generis system or; (c) by a combination of the two. India chose to protect its plant varieties with a sui generis legislation.


India’s sui generis law for the protection of plant varieties recognizes the farmer not just as a cultivator but also as a conserver of the agricultural gene pool and a breeder who has bred several successful varieties. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights (PPV-FR) Act, 2001, makes provisions for such farmers’ varieties to be registered, with the help of others, so that they are protected against being scavenged by formal sector breeders. The most significant feature of the Indian legislation is the right granted to farmers to save and sell seed of varieties covered by breeder’s rights but only as generic seed for local use by other farmers.

India is the only country in the world that grants legal rights to farmers. The Indian legislation has both, a Farmers Right and a parallel Breeders Right. All other countries have sui generis legislation based on the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1978 model which grants only one legal right, the Breeders Right. The Farmers have no legal rights, only exemptions for certain functions, from the Breeders Right. The Indian law deviates from the UPOV model although it takes the Breeders Rights from it. It incorporates in addition, principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources (ITPGR).


The first challenge to India’s unique system of Farmers’ Rights came from officials in the Agriculture Ministry of the Indian Government itself. Senior scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research system and top bureaucrats of the Agriculture Ministry were the principal opponents of full fledged rights for farmers, especially the farmers' right to sell seed. Less than a year after the PPV-FR legislation was enacted, the Agriculture Ministry moved an application seeking accession to UPOV under the terms of the UPOV Convention of 1978.  

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) is an inter-governmental organization which seeks to support and strengthen Breeders’ Rights. The UPOV system grants one right, the breeders’ right. There is no farmers’ right in UPOV. By applying for UPOV membership, the Agriculture Ministry struck the first blow against Farmers’ Rights. It sought to undermine the comprehensive rights granted to farmers of the country after a long struggle by civil society and the intervention of two Parliamentary Committees, a process that took place over the tenures of three national governments.


It is no secret that the seed industry has been deeply unhappy with the PPV-FR Act and the rights granted to farmers. Not only has it pushed for UPOV membership, a move that would seriously undermine Farmers Rights, it also countered with the Seeds Bill, a draft legislation which bears its imprint. Given below are the key features where the Seeds Bill has tried to undermine the rights of farmers.

Key Differences between the Seeds Bill and the PPV-FR Act

Seeds Bill
Parentage of Variety
Requires details of pedigree
Does not require declaration of parentage
Pre-Grant Opposition
Allows legitimate opposition to grant of registration of new variety by allowing people to raise objections to the grant.
No provision for pre-grant opposition
Price Control
Regulation of seed supply and seed price to be managed through compulsory licensing
No mechanism to regulate seed supply or seed price
Compensation for Poor Quality Seed
Provisions ensure farmers are compensated for poor quality seeds
Ambiguous “Compensation Committee” is proposed to deal with compensation
Period of Protection
15 years for crop varieties and 18 years for trees
30 years for crop varieties and 36 years for trees

The global seed industry has orchestrated its attacks on Farmers’ Rights in assorted forums, taking recourse to a strategy of “forum shifting” where it strikes at several levels of governance with objections to Farmers’ Rights at different venues. This strategy is an attempt to try and exhaust the resources of developing countries, forcing them to acquiesce and accept a UPOV style PVP regime. Bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and the UN have become platforms where the seed industry and developed countries organize their attack on Farmers Rights.         


The use of FTAs has proliferated in recent years after the breakdown of the Doha Round of trade negotiations at the WTO.  The prevalent trend is developed countries asking for ‘TRIPS-plus’ protection, thus undermining Farmers’ Rights. India is currently negotiating several FTAs, most notably with the European Union (EU) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

EU-India FTA
The EU-India FTA negotiations began in 2007 with the EU seeking UPOV 1991 standards for the protection of plant varieties. The 1991 UPOV treaty does not allow the grant of Farmers Rights. There is a reference to an exception for plant back rights (self saved seed) but this falls significantly short of the Farmers’ Rights in Indian law. 

Starting in January 2008, the EFTA countries are also demanding TRIPS plus conditions in their Free Trade Agreement with India. In March 2009, Norway, a country with a liberal position in TRIPs, stated its opposition to TRIPS plus provisions and “withdrew” from negotiations on IPRs. However, the EFTA negotiations continue despite this and Norway has kept the option of signing the text negotiated between the three other EFTA countries (Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) and India

The FTAs under negotiation present a direct challenge to the PPV-FR Act and its Farmers’ Rights provisions but these are not the only forums from where such challenges are being mounted. There has been increasing pressure coming from the International Seed Federation (ISF) to force a move towards accession to UPOV 1991.  This pressure is intended for the developing world as a whole, but India is a special target since with its unique PPV-FR legislation it is the only to nation to have enacted a PVP platform which deviates from UPOV.


In recent years the seed industry, represented by the International Seed Federation (ISF), has begun a concerted attack on Farmers’ Rights.  The ISF was founded in 2002 by merging the International Seed Trade Federation (FIS) and the International Association of Plant Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties (ASSINSEL). The ISF has a reputation for its aggressive tactics and wide influence on policy. In 2009 Neils Louwaars of the Centre for Genetic Research, Wageningen University noted this, stating, “ISF has significant impact on policymakers both at the international level and on national agricultural and trade policies, including IPR and seed regulations”.  Recently, the ISF has taken the unusual step of approaching the UN Secretary-General, attacking Farmers’ Rights and advocating for internationally strengthened IPR regimes for seed.

The ISF has spent the past ten years lobbying to obtain strong IPRs on seed and defending the need to have Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), a technology which renders the seed sterile after the first sowing. ISF lobbies strongly to promote a 1991 UPOV-style Plant Breeders’ Right as the only acceptable sui generis system under TRIPs 27.3(b).  In a 2009 position paper the ISF states,

If a country envisages the adoption of a sui generis system to protect plant varieties, the ISF recommends that this has at least to conform to the requirements of the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention” and “ISF members consider that any national legislation authorizing farm saved seed …without safeguarding the legitimate interest of the breeders…would not be an effective sui generis system in the meaning of the article 27.3.b of the TRIP’s agreement.

These statements counter the provisions of the WTO-TRIPS on sui generis protection. In fact, in the Uruguay GATT Round negotiations, despite strenuous efforts by UPOV, member countries declined to accept UPOV as the sui generis model in 27.3(b) of TRIPs,

The Indian sui generis legislation is an obvious target of the ISF attack. The Indian law goes further than any other in the world in granting rights to farmers in diverse ways. India’s sui generis legislation was submitted to the TRIPs Council following the enactment of the PPV-FR Act in 2001, where it has been accepted as the country’s TRIPs compliant law.

The ISF has also been active in promoting the use of GURTS, popularly known as ‘terminator technology’. In a 2003 position paper they stated, “where effective intellectual property protection systems don't exist  or  are  not  enforced,  GURTs  could  be  an  interesting  technical  alternative  to  stimulate plant-breeding  activities.”

Since 2009 the ISF has stepped up its attack on Farmers’ Rights, putting out two communiqu├ęs.  The first was a standard press release, the second was a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon. This move is noteworthy since ISF has essentially asked the UN to step in to undo the decisions taken at the WTO.

In its October 2009 press release titled, “Farmers’ Rights”, ISF reiterated the global seed industry’s position that the minimum standard for an “effective sui generis system” as required by TRIPS 27.3(b) should be the 1991 UPOV Convention. In other words, the flexibility provided by WTO/TRIPs to member countries to craft their own kind of sui generis protection system should be rescinded.  According to ISF, national governments can decide to provide some exceptions to farmers to use farm-saved seed provided that it is, “within reasonable limits and safeguarding the legitimate interests of the rights holder”.

Under no circumstance would farmers be allowed to exchange or sell such propagating material under this system, or reuse it themselves without paying a fee to the breeder.  ISF makes its position clear in its statement:

“Farmers are the primary market for new varieties developed and protected by commercial plant breeders. Free and unlimited use of farm saved seed that is harvested from protected varieties developed by plant breeders destroys the economic incentive to those breeders….If farm saved seed of protected varieties is permitted and used, breeders should receive a fair remuneration for that use”.

Following up on this, in December 2009 the ISF sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General arguing that Farmers’ Rights were unnecessary and an impediment to the objectives of commercial plant breeders.  The letter was a response to a report by Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, titled “Seed Policies and the Right to Food: Enhancing Agrobiodiversity and Encouraging Innovation”. The report, released in July 2009, is clearly supportive of Farmers Rights, stating “One means to restore an adequate balance between the rights of plant breeders and the needs of farmers is by strengthening the protection of farmers’ rights under domestic and international law”.

The UN Special Reporter’s report reiterates the fact that Farmers’ Rights play an indispensable role in ensuring food security and states that national policy must promote Farmer’s Rights, including the right to replant, exchange, and sell seeds amongst informal networks of farmers.

The ISF letter to the UN Secretary General states that commercial breeding is the way of the future in agricultural R&D, dismissing the immeasurable gains which have been achieved by farmers’ conservation and selection efforts.  It also goes on to rebut, point for point, De Schutters’ report and argues against the underlying tenets of Farmers’ Rights:

  • It is not correct that professional plant breeders and biotechnology developers, through the tools of intellectual property, are causing the poorest farmers to become increasingly dependent on expensive inputs. On the contrary, farmers can not only freely continue to multiply and use their own traditional seeds they can also breed new varieties using purchased varieties as an additional source of genetic diversity. And since any purchase of seeds is a choice made by the farmer then they will only do so if those purchases are beneficial to them.

  • It is not correct that seed industry research seeks to satisfy the needs of farmers in industrialized countries while neglecting those of poor farmers in developing countries. There are many examples where private led research from the private sectors in developing countries is being deployed to provide better varieties for the poorest farmers of the world.

  • It is not correct that farmers’ seed systems, which are a source of economic independence and resilience in the face of threats such as pests, diseases, or climate change, may be put in jeopardy.  On the contrary, professional plant breeders and biotechnology developers, both public and private, are the source of the most dramatic advances to challenge pests and diseases. It is a well known fact that modern varieties perform significantly better, also in input poor environments.

  • It is not correct that plant breeders’ rights are blocking or delaying access to much needed research tools and plant material. Much the opposite in fact since commercially available varieties protected by Plant Breeders Rights are the only genetic resources freely available for further breeding during their life of protection.

  • It is not correct that compulsory licensing is an adequate or indeed an effective mechanism to overcome barriers to research on patented material…ISF is not generally in favor of compulsory licensing.

  • ISF does not share the view that progress in agriculture and breeding is slowed by the current IP systems.  ISF holds that the current combination of PVP, patents, and voluntary licenses is contributing to increasing the rate of progress in agricultural productivity through plant breeding.

  • It is not correct to state that contractual clauses should be prohibited. In those countries where enforcement possibilities on IP are limited, contractual clauses may be the only remedy against infringement.

Continuing its tirade against Farmers’ Rights and its demand for imposing UPOV 1991 provisions; ISF once again repeated its position at the Second International Seed Trade Conference held in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2010. A former ISF president Jean-Louis Duval called for 1991 UPOV protection and a strict interpretation of the “farmers’ privilege” in the 1991 Convention: According to Duval's presentation, “ISF is committed to take actions to strengthen the 1991 Act of the UPOV 1991 Convention by striving for: a strict interpretation of the exceptions to the breeders’ rights in the 1991 Convention…and ratification of the UPOV 1991 Act by all UPOV members”.


A new and concerted attack on Farmers’ Rights has been launched by the seed industry. This must be challenged with determination by a united front of all developing countries, invoking the TRIPS agreement and insisting on at least retaining the flexibilities granted in it for the protection of plant varieties if not pushing for more comprehensive rights for farmers. TRIPS Plus provisions must be rejected.

Having produced the most progressive legislation on Farmers Rights so far, India has a special responsibility to counter the aggressive attacks of the seed industry on Farmers’ Rights. As the only country that has granted legal rights to farmers in its sui generis legislation, India must take the lead to ensure that Farmers Rights are strengthened, not weakened, over time and that strong farmer rights are adopted by countries across the globe. India should be proactive in working with other developing countries to secure the rights of farmers over their resources and their innovations and make this an internationally enforced obligation.

The significance of enforcing Farmers’ Rights in order to ensure food security has been recognized by a range of important international players. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report has stated that local seed systems are very important to goals ranging from reduced hunger and better nutrition to economic development. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT-PGRFA) recognizes Farmers’ Rights and urges countries to implement national laws to advance Farmers’ Rights.

Above all, for developing countries it is important to bear in mind that strong Farmers’ Rights keep the farming community viable and self reliant in the matter of seed which translates into not just food security but also food sovereignty.

[1] Chairperson, Gene Campaign
[2] Intern, Gene Campaign