7 PM I A potential seedbed for private profits I December 6th, 2019

Context: Seed regulation in India and the draft Seed Bill 2019.

More in news:

  • The Seeds Bill 2019, likely to be tabled in the ongoing winter session of Parliament.

Regulation of Seeds in India:

  • Currently, the sale and distribution of seeds in India is regulated by the Seeds Act 1966 ensuring better quality of seeds is used by cultivators.
  • In the last one decade there have been two attempts, when the UPA government was in power, once in 2004 and second time in 2010, to introduce amendments to the 1966 law.
  • In October 2019, the NDA government put out the draft of the new Seeds Bill 2019 seeking suggestions from experts.
  • Draft Seed Bill 2019 aims to regulate the quality of seeds sold and facilitate the production and supply of these seeds to farmers. It aims to foster competition by amending the Seed Act, 1966 and Seed Rules, 1968.

International Conventions/agreements related to seeds:

  • Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS): In 1994, India signed this agreement. It is arguably the most important and comprehensive international agreement on intellectual property rights. Member countries of the WTO are automatically bound by the agreement. The Agreement covers most forms of intellectual property including patents, copyright, trademarks, geographical indications, industrial designs, trade secrets, and exclusionary rights over new plant varieties.
  • International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention: In 2002, India joined UPOV. The UPOV Convention provides the basis for members to encourage plant breeding by granting breeders of new plant varieties an intellectual property right i.e. the breeder’s right.
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): In 1992, the CBD provided for “prior informed consent” of farmers before the use of genetic resources and “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” arising out of their use. 
  • International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA): The treaty signed in 2001 recognised farmers’ rights as the rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. National governments had the responsibility to protect such farmers’ rights.

Since India is signatory to all four international arrangements, it was required for any Indian legislation to be a fine balance of all. To provide a balance to the “TRIPS and UPOV that gave priority to breeders’ rights” as well as to “CBD and ITPGRFA that emphasized on farmers’ rights”, India enacted Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act of 2001.

Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act, 2001:

  • Objectives of the PPVFR Act:
    • To establish an effective system for the protection of plant varieties, the rights of farmers and plant breeders and to encourage the development of new varieties of plants.
    • To recognize and protect the rights of farmers in respect of their contributions made at any time in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources for the development of new plant varieties.
    • To accelerate agricultural development in the country, protect plant breeders’ rights; stimulate investment for research and development both in public & private sector for the development new of plant varieties.
    • Facilitate the growth of seed industry in the country which will ensure the availability of high quality seeds and planting material to the farmers.
  • Rights under the Act:
    • Breeders’ Rights: Breeders will have exclusive rights to produce, sell, market, distribute, import or export the protected variety. Breeder can appoint agent/ licensee and may exercise for civil remedy in case of infringement of rights.
    • Researchers’ Rights: Researcher can use any of the registered variety under the Act for conducting experiment or research. This includes the use of a variety as an initial source of variety for the purpose of developing another variety but repeated use needs prior permission of the registered breeder.
    • Farmers’ Rights: The Act recognised three roles for the farmer: cultivator, breeder and conserver.
    • A farmer who has evolved or developed a new variety is entitled for registration and protection in like manner as a breeder of a variety;
    • Farmers variety can also be registered as an extant variety;
    • A farmer can save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seed of a variety protected under the PPV&FR Act, 2001 in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into force of this Act provided farmer shall not be entitled to sell branded seed of a variety protected under the PPV&FR Act, 2001;
    • Farmers are eligible for recognition and rewards for the conservation of Plant Genetic Resources of land races and wild relatives of economic plants;
    • There is also a provision for compensation to the farmers for non-performance of variety under Section 39 (2) of the Act, 2001 and
    • Farmer shall not be liable to pay any fee in any proceeding before the Authority or Registrar or the Tribunal or the High Court under the Act.
  • National Gene Fund:
    • Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority was established in New Delhi in November, 2005.
    • The Authority is operating the National Gene Fund constituted by Government of India under section 45 of the PPVFR Act.
    • The fund is also utilised for supporting the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources including in-situ and ex-situ collections.

Need of a new seed bill:

  • According to the government, a new Seeds Bill is necessary to enhance seed replacement rates in Indian agriculture, specify standards for registration of seed varieties and enforce registration from seed producers to seed retailers.
  • A shift from farm-saved seeds to certified seeds, which would raise seed replacement rates, is desirable since certified seeds have higher and more stable yields than farm-saved seeds.
  • However, such a shift should be achieved not through policing, but through an enabling atmosphere. 

Problematic provisions of the new Seed Bill:

  • Compulsory registration of seeds:
    • The Seeds Bill insists on compulsory registration of seeds while the PPVFR Act was based on voluntary registration. 
    • As a result, many seeds may be registered under the Seeds Bill but may not under the PPVFR Act.
    • Let us take an example, assume that a seed variety is developed by a breeder, but derived from a traditional variety. Now, the breeder will get exclusive marketing rights but there will be no gain to farmers. Since benefit-sharing is dealt with in the PPVFR Act, under which the seed is not registered.
  • Contribution of farmers is overlooked: Under PPVFR Act, all applications for registrations should contain the complete passport data of the parental lines from which the seed variety was derived, including contributions made by farmers. The new seed bill doesn’t require any such information while registration.
  • Breeder’s right: PPVFR Act is based on an IPR like breeders’ rights which does not allow re-registration of seeds after the validity period. The Bill is not based on such a provision thereby private seed companies can re-register their seeds an infinite number of times.
  • No provision of Price Control: While the new Bill has provisions for state-level committees monitoring the quality of seeds, farmer leaders feel that government intervention is needed to offset the high price claimed by private players in the seed industry.
  • Clause of compensation: Under PPVFR Act, if a registered variety fails in its promise of performance, farmers can claim compensation before a PPVFR Authority. However, Clause 21 of the Seeds Bill 2019 states that, “If, such registered seed fails to provide the expected performance under such given conditions, the farmer may claim compensation from the producer, dealer, distributor or vendor under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.”
  • Unclear definitions: According to the Seeds Bill, farmers become eligible for compensation if a plant variety fails to give expected results under “given conditions”. The “given conditions” are not clearly defined and thereby give an upper hand to the seed companies to misuse the clause.

Way Forward:

  • Agriculture production is purely based on the basic input, i.e., seed. Until and unless the purity, quality and seed standards are maintained, production programme cannot be successful. Hence, to maintain these quality standards, legislations in this regard are equally important.
  • It is also necessary to disseminate the information regarding seed legislations to the farmers in order to make them aware of their rights.
  • There is almost no mention of crop diversification in the Bill which might help farmers in choosing alternatives other than the traditional crops. The government should focus towards diversification of crops which will have manifold benefits ranging from environmental impacts to nutritional values to growth in income of farmers.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-potential-seedbed-for-private-profits/article30195634.ece

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