Getting Seeds Bill good, but what of GM controls?
Since the target of doubling farmers’ incomes in five years is a challenging one, it is not surprising the government is thinking of reintroducing—according to a report in The Economic Times—the Seeds Bill; the Bill, first introduced in 2004 was last introduced in 2014, but has not been able to clear the floor. The proposed legislation’s primary focus is to guarantee the quality of seeds for farmers, and it plans to do this through the establishment of central- and state-level seed committees and testing laboratories that will analyse the efficacy of various seeds—to the extent new seeds do not deliver the promised results, the Bill provides for compensation for farmers from seed firms. The Bill also has a provision for registration of transgenic varieties of seeds which is controversial given the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s opposition to this and the fact that neither the Seeds Act of 1996 nor the Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act (PVFRA) of 2001 have such a provision.
With the NITI Aayog espousing the cause of GM technology, it is believed the government plans to use the Seeds Bill to signal its commitment to better technology and R&D in seeds. But it will require more than just the Seeds Bill to indicate an unequivocal change in stance. For one, though GM mustard has passed the the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee’s bio-safety test, it remains held up, and Bt brinjal has still not been cleared for use despite the fact that neighbouring Bangladesh has already started using it. Even in the case of Bt cotton that is being used, the current government brought in a cotton-seed price-control order that lowered the royalty given to Monsanto, even though this was a commercial agreement between the tech firm and the buyers; a subsequent order sought to put a cap on royalties as well as put out a plan to reduce them over a period of time—while a public outcry forced the government to say the order was just a discussion proposal, until the cotton-seed price-control order is withdrawn, the net impact on seed-tech firms is the same; which is why, Monsanto has withdrawn its application for introducing the next generation of Bt cotton technology in the country. How the government plans to approach GM technology is not clear, but it is worth keeping in mind that while the Seeds Bill allows registration of transgenic varieties, it also says “a kind or variety of seed containing any technology, which is harmful, or potentially harmful, shall not be registered” and the explanation to this clearly says “the expression ‘technology’ includes genetic use restriction technology and terminator technology”.