Selling the family jewels
What is shocking is that while the effort globally is to preserve the plant genetic resources, India is ready to sell them.
It was single gene from India that saved the muskmelon crop in the United States.
Cultivated in over 35,000 acres, the crop would have been wiped out had the gene for resistance against downy mildew disease not been incorporated in that particular muskmelon variety. Another Indian gene that provided American sorghum resistance to greenbug insect had resulted in $12 million (at 1980 prices) annual benefit to American farmers.
In yet another case, the entire rice crop of Indonesia was threatened some decades ago by a growth-stunting virus. A gene transferred from an Odisha rice variety to the Indonesian variety enabled the development of immunity against the virus. An Ethiopian barley plant happened to have one gene that now protects California’s $ 400 million annual barley crop. This gene alone brings the American farmers annually a financial gain of $ 250 million.
Why I am listing some of the benefits that have come from the 3.77 lakh plant collections which are safely stored at the National Gene Bank in New Delhi (and also from gene banks across globe) is because the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is now contemplating its outright sale. Under the garb of helping MNCs/seed companies to make use of these plant collections for developing improved crop varieties that our farmers could benefit from, the underlying objective is to open up the golden chest.
Globally, it has taken the civil society and biodiversity experts’ years of struggle to ensure that the plant genetic resources (PGR), which is essentially the preserve of farmers, are not passed on freely into the hands of multinational corporations/seed companies. After the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in 1992, and plant varieties were for the first time accepted to be a national sovereign resource, the battle to seek control over plants had of course intensified. These plant varieties were considered several times worth the gold that lies in the major economies.
Such is the importance of these plant collections that there has been virtually a scramble for collecting traditional plant accessions from the gene-rich developing countries. Several agreements have been signed at subsequent international treaties, including material transfer agreements that ensured no patents were taken on plants that the private seed companies collected from the public sector gene banks. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed at the Rio Summit 20 years back, and subsequently the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources ensured that plant resources will be explored, preserved, evaluated and made available for plant breeding and scientific purposes.
While the focus remained steadfast at the global level, I was startled to read a news report in the Wall Street Journal quoting the deputy director general (crops) of Indian Council of Agricultural Research who thinks collaborating with MNCs would be hugely profitable. “We really wouldn’t mind taking a small share of profits. What would be more important is if we could use such collaborations to bring high-yielding seeds to our farmers at 50 per cent of the cost.”
What is shocking is that while the effort globally is to preserve and protect the plant genetic resources under public sector, despite several attempts to seek private control, India somehow seems oblivious of the threat. So much so that some years back, the NGO community had opposed the induction of Syngenta Foundation as a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which governs the 16 international agricultural research centres.
I was a member of the CGIAR NGO Committee Plus that had resigned in protest. Before the resignation of the CGIAR NGO Committee, there had been uproars over attempts by private companies to take control over these resources. The entire global collections (estimated to be around 700,000 plant accessions) in public sector were earlier brought under the custody of FAO.
Prior to this, when Margaret Thatcher sold off the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge (UK) to multinational Unilever, the collections that belonged to the institute were not allowed to be given to Unilever, but shifted to the public-funded John Inn’s Centre in Norwich. As a member of the CGIAR’s Central Advisory Service on IPRs, I had witnessed several attempts by the seed industry to seek easy access over these collections.
In fact, all these years I have seen how ICAR fought strenuously to bring back its own collections from the international gene banks, including some 40,000 plant accessions of coarse cereals from ICRISAT in Hyderabad. Isn’t it therefore shocking to see the ease with which ICAR now seems determined to sell-off 3,77,000 plant accession that lie in the National Gene Bank? India is one of the mega-diversity regions in the world, and it is believed that India’s collections are very diverse and unique.
This brings me to another related question of how to price these plant resources. The United States Department of Agriculture had kept a ‘hopelessly useless’ wild wheat plant from Turkey since 1948 in its seed bank at Fort Collins. This ‘hopelessly useless’ variety turned into a saviour when the American bread basket was faced with a major outbreak of stripe rust disease. How will the ICAR therefore value these resources at the time of selling these?