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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Homestead gardens for food security

Suman Sahai

On my recent visit to Kochi, I looked out of my hotel window and saw that adjoining the hotel boundary was a modest house with a yard, the way traditional houses in villages have and small towns used to have till the real estate mania began to destroy the ecology and beauty of such spaces.

My neighbours in the middle of Kochi city were obviously a traditional family with sound values. Their yard had one jackfruit tree in the corner, near the boundary wall, two breadfruit trees (breadfruits are similar to jackfruits although the trees look very different), three areca nut palms with pepper vines climbing up their trunks, two coconut palms, one guava tree, one drumstick tree, two hibiscus bushes, the flowers of which are used to make chutney, a couple of yam bushes and about 10 dwarf banana plants. There was chilli and tomato planted in the space between the trees and one or two other plants I could not identify. The total area of the yard would have been about 300 square yards.

I was thrilled to see this working model of what was a sophisticated homestead garden which obviously gave the family food (including condiments and spices) and incomes (areca nut, surplus banana) throughout the year. Breadfruit is a prolific bearer and yields fruits over several months. It is eaten as a vegetable in much the same way as jackfruit but also as a staple like yam. Tubers continue to be a staple in Kerala cuisine and one can spot tempos (no hand carts here, this is Kerala!) parked in the city selling a variety of tubers.

Such gardens, they may be of differing complexities, are one of the key strategies for household food security as well as nutritional enhancement. Some or the other food comes to the household all year round to supplement the standard rice-based diets that come either from the farmer’s field or from the market. Kochi is the constituency of minister of state for agriculture K.V. Thomas, who is aggressively promoting the Food Security Bill, which is a high profile priority legislation since it is backed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The bill has been widely criticised for its superficial approach to food security, merely rehashing the existing public distribution system and Integrated Child Development Services programmes. Not surprisingly, it has been termed a political gimmick by some. Mr Thomas could have brought in excellent initiatives, like the homestead garden from his home state to enrich the Food Security Bill, introducing elements of dietary diversity and self-reliance in a bill that has received adverse comments for its “dole” approach. The homestead garden described here is something Mr Thomas must know about.

The composition of a homestead garden will obviously vary from location to location, depending on what grows in the area and what the food preferences of the local people are. In many parts of north India, for instance, such a homestead garden could contain drumstick, the pods and leaves of which are highly nutritious and available all year round, bananas, papaya, lemon, sweet potato and other tubers, pumpkins, which are rich in Vitamin A, some legumes like cowpea, beans and mung, perhaps a mulberry tree and one of jackfruit. Availability of space and food preferences will determine what is planted in the garden but whatever is in it will enrich the family’s food basket and improve its nutritional intake. The great advantage of homestead gardens is that the food comes directly to the woman of the house since it is she who would normally tend such gardens. This food is likely to be used optimally in her kitchen to the benefit of the entire family.

Another excellent initiative promoted by the horticulture department of the state government in Kerala is the Terrace Garden programme, locally known as the Harita Nagari (Green City) programme. In this programme, largely undertaken by housewives, the government encourages cultivation of vegetables in pots using terraces, verandahs and other spaces available in flats and housing in densely populated urban centres where there are no yards or spaces around the dwelling area. The horticulture department provides (and does this without making you run around 20 times) seed, fertiliser, pots and even implements to start the terrace or verandah garden. This is backed up by information and know-how on how to get the best results from such potted gardens.

The result of this initiative, which is wildly popular, is a steady supply of some or the other vegetable for the cooking pot year round. The vegetables are clean, often organic and easily available on demand. The lady of the house cooks whatever happens to be available in her pots that day. The nutrition of the family is ensured as is its dietary diversity. When there is a surplus, the housewife can sell this to outlets established by the horticulture department. During festivals, like Onam when there is a big demand for vegetables, a not insignificant supply of vegetables is contributed from within the city by such terrace gardens. Everyone is a winner, the supply of fresh vegetables in the city is augmented and the housewife makes a little profit.

This interesting enterprise can be replicated across the country in dense urban and semi-urban centres. Not every state is blessed with Kerala’s balmy weather which is supportive of easy cultivation year round but state specific packages can be worked to accommodate local weather conditions. Here is another idea Mr Thomas should carry from his constituency into the Food Security Bill.

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