Sowing seeds of destruction?

Sowing seeds of destruction?

Food for Thought: Sovereignty over seeds is the first requirement of the nation’s food security

The government is set to introduce the Seed Bill 2019 during the winter session of Parliament. The 2019 Bill is the latest attempt to replace the original Seed Act 1966. Earlier attempts to replace it were made in 2004 and in 2010. The 2004 Bill was sent to a standing committee of Parliament, which suggested some sweeping changes in it. The 2010 version was put in the cold storage when many state governments opposed it strongly. The 2019 Bill incorporates a few of the standing committee’s recommendations, but most have been dropped. As a result, the Seed Bill 2019 is still miles away from being one that can benefit the farmer. Let’s try to understand why it is so.

Seed Bill must serve farmers, not MNCs

The fundamental problem lies in the original Seed Bill 2004, and the justification for replacing the Seed Act 1966. It was to facilitate growth of the seed industry, enhance seed replacement rates for various crops, boost the export of seeds and import of useful germplasm and to create a conducive atmosphere for application of frontier sciences. The 1966 Act was grossly inadequate for these ends, though it served its limited purpose of ensuring standards and quality seeds of those registered ones.

It was quickly realised that the 2004 Bill was designed to help the seed industry penetrate the agriculture landscape of India. By this time, the seed industry already had a 20% share in the total seed demand, the rest being occupied by the traditional method of farmers using renewable seeds. It was also designed to discourage local agrobiodiversity and farmers seeds and ensure that farmers adopt and then become dependent on the High-Yielding Varieties (HYVs), Hybrids and GMOs. It talked about export and import of seeds which literally had got nothing to do with farmers in India who actually need locally evolved or developed, locally adoptable, resilient seeds. It sought to expressly drive the adoption of GMOs, and even awarded provisional clearance, overlooking biosafety and other statutes under the Environmental Protection Act.

In short, this was a Bill that was highly detrimental to farmers, and the political economy of farm landscapes in India. The 2019 version of the Bill has the same skeleton and flesh, but to give that little credit it deserves, it does some clean-up. For instance, the new Bill does not talk about the provisional clearance for GMOs.

Of the major demands put up by the farm groups and the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Kerala on the 2010 version, some have been accepted in toto or partially. For instance, the 2019 Bill has incorporated the state’s powers to register seeds through the State Seed Committees and even obtain certification through the State Seed Certification Agencies. It has also incorporated the state’s power to control prices, albeit only in ‘emergent’ situations. This is inadequate, but these are just a few ‘concessions’ and actually are not cheer-worthy, considering what has not been provided.

Defining the ‘Farmer’

Any law or policy that is to engage with the farmer as an entity should have a clear and inclusive definition of who is a farmer, but at the same time exclude those that could misuse it to become a beneficiary wrongly. The Seed Bill 2019 makes the mistake of defining the farmer as “any person who owns cultivable land or any other category of farmers who are doing the agriculture work as may be notified by the central/state government”. This is dangerously vague.  Anybody ‘doing agriculture work’ is a farmer, it says. A simple government notification could later include even companies engaged in agriculture work. Interestingly, this is a deviation from the earlier, less ambiguous definition, where the Bill had explicitly excluded “any individual, company, trader or dealer who engages in the procurement and sale of seeds on a commercial basis.”

The critique sent to the government by the farm group Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), of which I am an active member, has given an inclusive definition, with the exclusion clauses reinstated. It defines a farmer as “any person engaged in the economic and livelihood activity of agriculture, who cultivates crops or other primary agricultural commodities, either by cultivating the land her/himself or through any other person, with or without land ownership, but does not include any individual, company, trader or dealer who engages in the procurement and sale of seeds on a commercial basis”.

Mere seed consumers?

Consider this: India is known to have had an indigenous diversity of 1.1 lakh paddy varieties, about 15,000 wheat varieties, 1,000 banana varieties, 1,500 mango varieties, and so on for most crops of Indian origin. The Green Revolution (GR) wiped out most of this rich agrobiodiversity through its ‘limited generation’ seeds and enforcing policies. The GR seeds lose vigour over generations and have to be replaced over a period. But seeds developed by farmers through centuries, those that have escaped the extinction drive of GR, still thrive in the farms of this country.

Farmers were the first crop-breeders and continue to do so in the nooks and corners of this nation, silently producing more varieties than all the HYVs and Hybrids ever developed by scientists and corporates put together. Only that we have very little official account of them.

Dr Richharia, a rice scientist, had a collection of 19,000 traditional varieties of paddy, and his trials had shown that 8% of them, more than 1,500 varieties, were high-yielding. This is amazing, but our institutions refused to even consider this wealth, and raced after a technology of genetically altering the seeds to get traits, many of which may have already been there in this gene pool.

Experiences from across the country, whether it be from campaigns such as the Beej Bachao Andolan, Save our Rice Campaign, the Millet India Network or the work under the Vrihi Beej Binimoy Kendra, Navdanya or the national network of seed savers – the Bharath Beej Swaraj Manch -- and others, demonstrate the immense potential of indigenous seeds in climate resilience, productivity, medicinal values, nutritional needs and other local, culturally relevant needs.

It is now realised that agriculture can be sustained only if we have a seed regime that recognises and promotes farmers as the primary human resource for breeding, selecting, saving, using, exchanging/bartering, distributing and selling seeds. The key to a sustaining and thriving farm landscape in India is farmer-level self-reliance on seeds, agro-diversity, sustainable forms of agriculture and evolving natural resilience to climate change. The Seed Bill 2019 seems to have no clue of such grassroots development and is hence archaic in its objects.

On the other hand, the Seed Bill denigrates the farmer to a mere seed consumer. There are any number of cases where farmers who have lost all their local and indigenous seeds are completely dependent on companies to supply seeds. And there are also many cases where such seeds fail to deliver the promised yield or trait performance and the farmers not only lose the crop, but their investment, which is usually loans, ending up in fatal debts. The minimum one expects in such a high-risk endeavour is to incorporate proper insurance systems and effective redressal and compensation mechanisms.

Compensation mechanism

The biggest let down in the draft Seed Bill 2019 is the complete reversal on the redressal/compensation-related section. Here it says, if a “registered seed fails to provide the expected performance”, the “farmer may claim compensation...under the Consumer Protection Act 1986.” In other words, if the seeds sold by the big MNCs cause a devastating crop failure or do not live up to marketing claims, the poor Indian farmer can go, fight the case against the multibillion-dollar giants in a consumer court all by himself!

This is the most casual, impractical and impossible of statutes for primarily two reasons. One, the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) will not be able to address seed failures that usually happen to large numbers of farmers. The second issue is, consumer courts cannot redress fast enough to help farmers get the compensation and start their next crop, which is probably just a few days to a few months away. Moreover, the CPA can only award compensation by way of replacing the seed or the cost of it, but not for the loss of the crop, whose value would be many times the cost of the seed. With such serious limitations, one wonders what attitude drove the government to this provision – naivete or deceit.

Ideally, the compensation mechanism should be one that is immediately accessible to the farmer, kicks off the moment crop failure is reported, and should cover costs incurred, value of the claims made for the performance of that variety, and the complete crop value. The compensation claim should be resolved quickly, so as to enable the farmer to take up farming in the next growing season.

Essential Commodity

The Bt Cotton pricing issue brought to the fore the critical aspect of seed prices and who controls them. Seed is an ‘Essential Commodity’ and should be treated as such. But the Essential Commodities Act itself is facing a threat of being repealed or amended. Hence, this provision needs to be incorporated into the Seed Bill. The Seed Control Order 1983, which was the instrument to protect the interests of farmers from exorbitant pricing, should also be incorporated into the Seed Bill. All the states that had raised objections to the 2010 version of the Seed Bill, including Gujarat under then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, had demanded full control of seed pricing by the states.

GMO vs Open Source

I wish to draw readers’ attention to two paradigms presently vying for the future. On one side is the latest in seed technology – genetically-modified organisms (GMO), and even such newer technologies as synthetic biology and CRISPR gene editing etc., vigorously funded and promoted by multi-national companies, and fanatically evangelised by some of our mainstream government agriculture scientists and institutions. Most of these are new cutting-edge technologies that manipulate life forms to deliver traits and innovations. And most also carry two critically important tags – #BiosafetyHazard and #IPR, both detrimental to farmers, consumers and the environment.

On the other side are open-source seeds – mostly folk varieties, indigenous seeds that have been bred over centuries, time-tested, improved and adapted to changing climate and other stresses and literally are a common good. Even new varieties that are developed are agro-ecologically suitable and are a common good for all.

The draft Seed Bill 2019 goes not just the commercial way, but the dangerously commercial way. Indeed, it should be called the ‘Commercial Seed Bill 2019!’ As for the farmers, I suppose they will have to wait for their Seed Bill, one that will protect them from the exploitation of the seed corporations, recognise and promote their role in the seed sector, uphold their rights, one that will make them self-reliant, one that will make farming sustainable and resilient.

(The writer is Director, Thanal, and is Coordinator (Campaigns and Policy) of the Save Our Rice Campaign) 

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