The coming together of two seed-company associations with polar interests doesn’t augur well for the Indian farmers and the smaller seed-industry players
By Indra Shekhar Singh
With Monsanto/Bayer vs Nuziveedu Seed Limited (NSL) secretly settled out-of-court, the two factions of the 20,000 crore seed industry—National Seed Association of India (NSAI) comprising small & medium Indian seed companies (seedcos), and the Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII) comprising foreign seed MNCs including Monsanto/Bayer, Syngenta, among others, have reportedly buried the hatchet. Even as the decade-long war over seed-patents and trait value on Bt cotton seems to reach an armistice, many SME seedcos feel profits have prevailed over national interest.
To recap, citing the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act (PPVFRA), NSL stopped paying trait value to Monsanto/Bayer around 2015. The Indian Patent Act excludes plants and seeds from patentability, making NSL’s action appropriate. Monsanto/Bayer challenged this stance, saying that Bt was indeed a novel chemical transformation and not a biological seed/plant process, hence their licence agreements and international patent over Bt cotton seeds are valid. Most Indian seedcos supported NSL, while foreign ones rallied behind Monsanto/Bayer.
Legal and lobbying battles ensued, but even the Supreme Court couldn’t say settle the issue. Meanwhile, the international patent on Bt cotton-2 expired too and India experienced a surge of black marketing and acreage sown with third-generation herbicide tolerant (HT) Bt cotton.
Legal cotton business started reporting HT BT contaminations in their cottonseed lots, FIRs were filed, seed licences were suspended, and the war waged on. What was our government doing? Alarmed by the rising cottonseed costs, central and state governments issued price-orders to bring down the price of Bt cotton seeds. The CCI also started a probe for unfair business practices against Monsanto/Bayer. The Modi government, in 2016, decreased cotton-seed prices around Rs 30. Bt-2 efficacy also started to fall much before 2016.
So, by 2016, Monsanto/Bayer withdrew its application for introduction of HT Bt cotton. Today, HT Bt has spreaded illegally, covering 25% of the area under cotton. NSAI had vehemently opposed the spread. There have been reports in media concerning likely use of the Pegasus spyware against seed-MNC officials, possibly with regard to the illegal spread.
Post the NSL-Monsanto/Bayer settlement, the Indian seed world is unipolar, with all the big companies aligned. Concurrently, there have been some changes in the policies governing seedcos. The government has increased the price of Bt cotton by Rs 37, reversing its 2016 position. The windfall gains for the industry are substantial.
NSAI and FSII have announced that they will be working for the industry together. But, there are doubts about the marriage working, as the interests of the two associations are fundamentally polar and, often, at odds with the interests of Indian farmers. FSII has advocated for patents on seeds, favouring Seed Bill 2019, Biodiversity Act, access-benefit sharing and corporate-driven positions on international treaties such UPOV, ITPGRFA. While NSAI members companies are aligned with Indian seed legislation, seeking to safeguard the Indian markets and farmers from foreign seed oligopolies. Today, over 50% of the global seed market is controlled by 4 corporations.
With big Indian seedcos working with foreign seedcos, there is, naturally, fear among the smaller players, about the unipolarity suppressing diversity to make the Indian seed industry toe the foreig line. Currently, about 65% of India’s seed is produced by the private sector, and within it, FSII-linked companies claim control over “70% of the total market”.
The settlement also endangers the integrity of the Patent Act and PPVFR Act. Despite Indian laws against trait fees and patents on seeds in India, will Indian farmers and seedcos continue to pay royalties and periodic trait fees for Bt cotton and other seeds in the future? Experts believe this armistice will be pernicious for national interest, because now two regimes will exist. The first would be constitutional, that doesn’t allow seed patents and trait-fee collection, and the second would be corporate, that is a private agreement that aims to undermine not only our seed legislations but our civilisational values as well, by owning life and exploiting farmers and seedcos unfairly.
Independent policy analyst. Views are personal