Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Owns Our Genetic Wealth ?

Suman Sahai

There was a recent news report that ICRISAT, an international organisation and part of the CGIAR ( Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, had entered into an agreement with Gubba Cold Storage Ltd. to set up a private seed bank, the first of its kind in India. No details were available of the terms and conditions under which the genetic material from the ICRISAT gene bank would be placed in the physical possession of  a private company. ICRISAT holds thousands of varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, sorghum, pearl millet and small millets collected from farmers’ fields across the world.

What makes the ICRISAT varieties particularly valuable to plant breeders and seed companies is the fact that almost the entire collection has been characterized so that the properties of each variety are known. This information along with the huge choice of genetic material  (over 120,000 varieties) is a veritable gold mine for seed companies.Access to crop varieties characterized for important properties like disease and pest resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, adaptability to soil types and weather conditions, yield traits etc., can be rapidly converted into lucrative crop varieties for the market, earning themcrores of rupees. 

The disconcerting thing about the ICRISAT deal with Gubba Cold Storage is that public material held in trust by ICRISAT has been at least physically transferred to a private company. It is not clear under what terms the material will be stored in Gubba cold storages. Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorized use be prevented? What will be the monitoring process? How will violations be dealt with ?In the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is permafrost gene bank in the frozen mountains of Norway, where countries are depositing genetic material, all collections are stored under “black box” conditions. This means that the germplasm is coded and sealed in boxes before being deposited in the Seed Vault. The so called black box is under the control of the country or agency that deposits the material. Only the said country or agency can open the box and add or remove material from it. Despite this being a bank in the public sector, supported and monitored by the Norwegian government, widespread concerns have been expressed over the integrity of the collections and the possibility of theft and unauthorized use of valuable genetic material. How much more is the cause for concern when public material is handed over to an unknown private company for storage ?

We must remember that all the material in Gene/Seed Banks anywhere, is the property of the farmers from whose fields the seeds were collected. It is not the property of the Bank in which it is kept, nor of the countries where such banks are located. For instance , the thousands of traditional rice  samples in Gene Campaign’s village level Zero Energy Gene-Seed Banks are not Gene Campaign’s property. Ownership over the varieties and the community bank in which they are conserved, rests solely with the local community. Similarly the collection of over 4 lakh varieties in the National Gene Bank in Delhi, is not the property of the National Gene Bank but of the several hundred thousand farmers who have maintained these varieties for generations in their fields and who have developed them with their genius and diligence. These farmers have given their seeds to be held in trust by the National Gene Bank to be used for the benefit of all mankind, not for private seed companies to make huge profits.
The international community acknowledges the ownership of rural and tribal communities over the genetic wealth they have created in different parts of the world. Well defined procedures have been laid down if someone wants to access such publicly owned material.  These include Prior Informed Consent (PIC) , Material Transfer Agreements (MTA) and Benefit Sharing agreements. The last says that if any profit is derived from the use of the community’s genetic wealth, they are entitled to a share of the profits. 

All this does not mean that access to genetic resources , along with PIC, MTA and Benefit Sharing agreements, has to be given. Communities have the right to refuse access if they feel this would better serve their interests. These internationally agreed conditions are binding as much on ICRISAT, the National Gene Bank and local efforts like Community Gene-Seed banks of the kind that Gene Campaign has set up.   

A central point in all questions relating to access to genetic resources is that of Intellectual Property Rights. The Indian law , the Protection of Plant varieties and Farmers Rights Act does not allow the grant of patents on plant varieties. Only a Breeders Right can be granted if a variety is developed using varieties accessed from public collections. If IPRs are to be granted, they have to be subject to conditions mentioned earlier and should include preferential access to farmers to the newly developed varieties. These are all features that have not yet been operationalized.

We have no idea how they will be worked out in dealings with the private sector. We do not know what ICRISAT has negotiated with Gubba.  What kind of IPRs can be claimed in other countries on varieties developed from germplasm from farmer’s fields?  The CGIAR has tried to walk a ( sometimes fudgy ) line between multinational corporations and their demands for patents on materials they develop from public gene banks and the pressure from civil society that this would be unethical and tantamount to piracy. ICRISAT must make public the terms and conditions under which it has placed public genetic material into the hands of a private company.
Not just ICRISAT, the ICAR system too is preparing to throw open the national collections to the private sector. 

The Depty Director General (DDG) of ICAR, Dr Swapan Datta  is on record  saying that  the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)  would offer multinational seed companies its massive national collection of germplasm in exchange for expertise and a share of the profits. The DDG has no locus standito take such decisions, especially when India is moving towards increased participatory decision making. In this climate when law and policy making is sought to being made more open and democratic, it is antediluvian for a small committee of the  National Advisory Board for Management of Genetic Resources, to take a decision on behalf of communities to make available their crop varieties to MNCs. Any decision on giving seed companies access to public genetic material can only be taken after public consultations and then following the due process of Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and Benefit Sharing agreements.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign, working on food and nutrition. She can be reached

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview – Responses of Dr Suman Sahai

High Priority Areas in India
·         Government should focus first on inputs for increasing agricultural productivity. Seeds, soil health and water should be the priority for investment within inputs,.
·         Besides increasing productivity, other goals should be improving the small and marginal farmers’ access to credit, insurance and markets
·         Rain-fed area should be the priority focus rather than the irrigated area since two-thirds of India’s agricultural land is rain-fed.
·         In terms of regional focus, states like Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir should be prioritized. Also, nothing has been done to improve the productivity in mountain regions, especially in Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir.
·         Agriculture should be made sustainable and the foundation should be on a broad genetic base. Narrow genetic base makes crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. Genetic diversity provides resistance to pests and diseases and resilience to climate change.

Agricultural Situation in Targeted States
·         Bihar has a lot of water resources, irrigation access and fertile soil. The state is more a victim of bad governance (e.g., land reforms never happened in Bihar). Jharkhand, which was earlier a part of Bihar, requires much more attention as it has bad soil and dearth of water resources.
·         Uttar Pradesh also has sufficient access to irrigation and fertile soil. Focus should be on Eastern Uttar Pradesh as Western UP is a green revolution area.
·         Odisha is underdeveloped but has resources. The Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) districts in Odisha are together known as the starvation belt despite having enough rice production. This is because majority of the rice produced is traded out.

Small and Marginal Farmers
·         Most of the farmers in rain-fed areas are small and marginal farmers
·         Crops: The basket of small and marginal farmers in rain-fed areas include only one crop – the kharif (summer) crop which is mainly rice. No second crop is usually possible in rain-fed areas due to low availability of water in the winter season. The basket of small and marginal farmers in irrigated areas includes both a summer crop (mainly rice) and a winter crop (mainly wheat, mustard, potato or vegetables)
·         Income: Income varies from state to state and also dependent on the crops grown. But one trend which is uniform is that none of the small and marginal farmers are able to have a surplus in India. Farmers in irrigated areas are better off than farmers in rain-fed areas as they have the buffer of second crop. Small and marginal farmers also work on large lands as laborers ,especially during sowing, harvesting threshing etc., to earn extra income.
·         Yield: Agricultural yield on a small land is higher than a large land provided all inputs – credit, insurance, seeds, water and good soil are available. This is because a small and marginal farmer works on his own on a small land and therefore, dedication level is much higher than working as a laborer on a large land. However, in India, small and marginal farmers do not have required inputs to attain that yield. Normally, small and marginal farmers have the worst soil. They require credit to procure required inputs which is again not available.
·         Decline in cultivator population: It is true that small and marginal farmers leave the land fallow due to lack of inputs and work as agricultural laborers on large farms. This is one of the prime reasons for increase in population of agricultural laborers and decline in population of cultivators. Some small and marginal farmers even shift to non-agricultural jobs.
·         The access of markets for small and marginal farmers is crucial and should be looked into.
·         Livestock: Most small and marginal farmers keep  livestock. Thus, integrated farming is a common way to survive for them. Credit and insurance is the key for integrated farming to succeed.
·         Mechanization: Mechanization is important for small and marginal farmers but not motorized mechanization. The focus should not be on fossil fuels but equipments like solar pumps or treadle pumps. However, mechanization displaces labor and any labor-displacing technologies will put people out of work.
·         Co-operative Equipment Park: Co-operative equipment parks should be promoted where a person should be paid for maintaining and taking care of farm equipments. Small and marginal farmers can then lease the equipments as and when required.
·         Co-operative Farming: Co-operatives have failed in India because farmers prefer cropping as individuals. Co-operative farming can work if it has a flavor of both individual and collective farming – collective farming. Farmers can  continue to cultivate as individuals and sell collectively.

Agricultural Extension
·         Agricultural extension services require immediate attention
·         Replacing earlier agricultural extension services (where extension officers used to visit the fields) with ATMA (where farmers have to go to extension officers) has been disastrous. It should be reversed as soon as possible.
·         There is no accountability under ATMA. Farmers are not aware where ATMA offices are located. Besides, ATMA is a den of corruption.
·         Young high school students can be hired and trained to conduct extension programs
·         Programs should also focus on skill building, so that farmers can themselves do the next level of processing before selling

·         Seed production should be localized in order to increase the access of quality seeds in India.
·         Foundation seed can be given to farmers to multiply
·         There are enough good quality varieties in the major food crops ( with the exception perhaps of pulses). New varieties need not be developed .Existing seeds varieties have enough genetic potential to give high yields, if farmers are enabled to provide adequate inputs to their fields.
·         Role of private sector in seed production and distribution is limited unless they work with farmer interest in mind. Raking in profits for themselves at the cost of the farmers is not acceptable.
·         Private partnership is good if they can scale up the capacity in rural areas. In many cases, private sector indulges in contract farming and later backs off. For example, in Karnataka, farmers dumped tomatoes on roads because the private sector backed off from the contract. Private sector contracts should be carefully looked into and only protected contracts should be allowed.


·         MGNREGA is a  populist program with no vision. The work revolves around digging ditches. No productive work is done under MGNREGA, no sensible infrastructure is created and no skill building takes place so the people remain as unskilled labor.

·         MGNREGA has led to shortage of agricultural labor and increase in negotiating power of agricultural labor.
·         Implementation of MGNREGA is seriously affected by corruption. Workers are paid much lower than notified wages and

Central Government Support
·         Central government has supported the agriculture sector by launching programs and allotting funds to the sector. However, all the funds are transferred directly to state governments for implementation of the programs and not even half of the funds are utilized. As a result, most of the programs that go from central government to state governments fail.
·         Government is averse to working with civil society, which is a silly and self defeating position.   Role of civil society needs to be appreciated  as they are in touch with both the government and the farmers and can be the bridge between them. An international donor organization can also work with the civil society. Civil societies bring in more accountability than government agencies.

Market access
·         APMC has created more cronies and middle men
·         With e-marketing today the farmer’s  access to markets everywhere is easy and possible
·         A key area for government policy and intervention is to train farmers to build value chains and provide linkages to markets

GM Seeds
·         The way GM technology is presently used in India is risky.
·         For the use of GM seeds
1.       Need should be assessed- which problems doe the farmer face ? Can these be resolved by conventional breeding ? If not, which GM approach would be feasible ? Where for instance was the need for .Bt brinjal ?
2.       If the GM approach is chosen as the  alternative solution, proper bio-safety testing is a must before a GM crop could be introduced.
3.       Proper biosafety testing is not being done because it costs money and everyone is trying to cut corners. This is dangerous.
·         So far, it is the private players which are creating the market in India. Monsanto has the two main genes in use- Bt and HT. Their prime motive appears to be  to license their technology to as many agencies as possible. They do not assess farmers  need and do not want to get into seed production , especially in low production crops such as pulses .