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Latha Jishnu: Seeds of trouble

The top-10 agricultural biotech firms in developed nations control 67% of the global proprietary seed market

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Who is afraid of the multinational seed giants? Practically everyone, it seems, barring governments. The more enlightened agricultural scientists, the legion of activists, small farmers and plant breeders across the world have all been worried by the fast dwindling biodiversity and consolidation of the global seed trade through patenting. Now, the UN has joined the chorus of concern but unfortunately its notes, perhaps because it was distant and bass, or probably because it was jarring, have not resounded here.

Last week, the debate on intellectual property rights (IPR) on seeds became more contentious when Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, warned that the increasing dependency on commercial seed varieties, “controlled by a handful of very powerful multinational companies”, could have a severe impact on small farmers in developing countries.

De Schutter was addressing a press conference before presenting his report to a committee of the UN General Assembly. And there he spoke of his unease about the growing monopoly on seeds through patents as well as about declining biodiversity, the speculation in commodity markets and the fallout of the global food crisis. De Schutter is an academic who teaches at the University of Louvain in Belgium and Columbia University in the US, and he serves as an independent expert who reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.

At his interaction with reporters, as in his report (Seed Policies and the Right to Food: Enhancing Agro-biodiversity and Encouraging Innovation), he points out that the top-ten agricultural biotech companies, all based in the North, control 67 per cent of the global proprietary seed market. Moreover, research in breeding rewarded by intellectual property rights was mostly addressing the needs of rich farmers in developed countries. It neglected tropical crops on which many people were dependent. And because the seed companies are from the rich countries, IPRs result in resource transfers from the South to the North and from food producers to the owners of the patents.

The report warns that the increasing stranglehold of IPRs on seeds is contributing to the risk of farmers’ dependency and developing country governments have to take a careful stance on it. It suggests that developing countries should choose intellectual property suited to their needs instead of giving in to incentives. This is something that the Indian government needs to be particularly careful about since it is falling into this very same trap. Without drawing up a blueprint on which crops are most vulnerable and require research, the government has taken the easy way out by accepting the list made out by the biotech seed giants.

Worse, publicly-funded institutions such as state agricultural universities have been co-opted in this strategy by undertaking research on crops identified by companies such as Monsanto — De Schutter’s report notes that Monsanto, the world’s largest company, accounts for 23 per cent of the global market — which have also given ‘free’ seeds for research to these institutions. Vegetables and grains have been randomly taken up by the department of biotechnology which has yet to provide a compelling argument for its research agenda.

A major worry voiced is that the commercial seed system could become a threat to agro-biodiversity which has already been reduced to barely 150 cultivated crops. De Schutter takes the example of Sri Lanka which in 1959 was cultivating some 2,000 varieties of rice; today, it grows fewer than 100, its vast biodiversity eroded under pressure to adopt uniform improved seed varieties. In India, it’s even worse with thousands of varieties having disappeared over the last half century. Does it really matter if food production has increased over the years, as most bureaucrats are fond of pointing out?

Genetic erosion, as farmers are now learning, is a source of vulnerability whereas as biodiversity could be a source of resilience against the impacts of climate change. That is where an organisation like the Deccan Development Society is playing a pivotal role. Bringing together over 5,000 farmers, mostly women, in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, DDS has successfully brought about a revolution in the cultivation of traditional hardy varieties of millets. These coarse grains may be our only hope since global warming and the dropping water table will make the cultivation of rice and wheat unviable if not impossible.

Neither the seeds nor the technology of these farmers is closely held, much less patented; instead the effort is to spread the knowhow as widely as possible to help farmers establish autonomy over the entire gamut of production from seeds to marketing. It is the only way to ensure the food security of the nation, they believe. That’s the earthy wisdom coming from the fields. The Dalit women who make the large body of DDS are ready to share their knowledge for free. Any talk of IPRs makes them laugh.

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First Published: Thu, October 29 2009. 00:55 IST