GRAIN | 12 July 2005 | Seedling - July 2005
By GRAIN and with contributions from Dr.Devinder Sharma
A new Indian Seeds Bill in 2004 has been circulated by the government of India to overhaul the seed regulatory system. The stated objective of the proposed law is to regulate the seed market and ensure seeds of "quality". With the proposed changes the seed law would be harmonised with other seed laws around the world and ensure the Indian seed market is open to big business. This article clearly demonstrates that the losers are the millions of Indian small-scale farmers, whilst the winners are once again the transnational corporations. Whilst there is enormous pressure on the Indian government to embrace this new law, it is now time to ensure that voices in protest are heard.
India's new Seed Bill
Constituted in 1998, a Seed Policy Review Group in India recommended a long-awaited shake-up and reform of the Indian seed laws; a new seed law would need to be passed that would replace the current 1966 Seeds Act (see Box: A History of India Seed Laws).
In 2004, a new Seed Bill was announced. So why the need for change? Proponents of the new Seeds Bill list a number of supposed deficiencies in the 1996 Seeds Act to be fixed, including:
- To make the registration of varieties obligatory (previously voluntary)
- Creation of a comprehensive National Register of Seeds
- To regulate (make easier) the imports and exports of seeds
- New regulations on GM crops
- To improve market conditions for private seed companies
Mandatory registration and the National Register of Seeds
The proposed new seed law introduces the concept of mandatory registration of all seeds for sale. In other words, all marketed seed and planting material, whether domestic or foreign, will have to be registered. This is a significant change from the existing law, which sought to regulate the quality of only a limited number of varieties notified under the law. Now, however, any seed for sowing or planting cannot be sold unless it is registered.
All registered varieties will be recorded in a National Register of Seeds database. Registration will be granted for new varieties for a period of 15 years in the case of annual & biennial crops and 18 years for long duration perennials. As with registered varieties in other parts of the world, varieties need to be field-tested to determine their VCU (Value for Cultivation and Use). In addition, seeds need to be correctly labelled on their containers, including genetically modified seeds. Furthermore, seed producers, seed processing units, seed dealers and horticulture nurseries all have to be registered with the government of the State in which they operate.
The regulatory system governing GM crops is in the process of being revamped with the National Biotechnology Development Strategy. It is clear from the draft strategy that the government will be supporting the further introduction of GM crops. The new Seeds Bill follows this same line and does not prohibit the registration of GM seeds. Registration of transgenic seeds is however subject to environmental clearance under the Environment Protection law. However, in a gesture to keep critics quiet, the Seeds Bill does ban the use of Terminator seeds.
Exporting and Importing Seeds
Under the new Seed Bill all imported seeds will also need to be registered, though the government may allow the import of an unregistered seed for research purposes. Apart from the registration of imported seeds, the new Bill does not make any other provisions, such as for phytosanitary standards, which still rely on other existing legislation (See Box: Pressure for seed-Potato imports). However, the main basis for the registration of imported seeds is to support larger companies importing seed, which has been increasing substantially recently. For example in 2001 to 2002, imports were around 860 tonnes, but within one year, this had increased to 1,766 tonnes, with a value of US$ 18 million, 20% of which comes from the US. Exports of seed are even more valuable at around US$ 21 million for the same year (2002-2003).
Does the Seed Bill benefit the farmer?
The official government line, when arguing in favour of this bill, is that "if we don't know who is selling the seeds, we cannot control their quality". This, of course, is the same argument used by the seed industry around the world. So this new law is being presented as a Â“consumer protectionÂ” act for farmers. In the light of several reports of farmersÂ’ suicides and crop failure this has found favour with many unsuspecting civil society groups. So will this law be good news for farmers? What protection do farmers get if their legally-bought registered-varieties fail? Interestingly, farmers at this point can only turn to the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, an option which is available today without any new legislation. Meanwhile, the Indian Seed Industry is lobbying for the removal of seeds from the Consumer Protection Act.
QUOTE: "So far climate has been considered as the most unpredictable variable affecting the agricultural sector. But, the influence of global market forces, whose behaviour is always not amenable to prediction and control, has become another factor affecting the progress and well-being of farmers" says Justice P.A.Chowdary.
T. Ramanaiah, a cotton farmer from Andhra Pradesh, is currently fighting a case to get compensation for very poor yields in the District Consumer Court, an option which is by its very nature a tedious one without any guarantee of success. His struggle has inspired activists to put together a legal manual for farmers seeking compensation for failed yields. Often, even if a government recognises that farmers' need to be compensated, the company might not be ready to pay up. In the State of Andhra Pradesh when farmers suffered losses from cultivating Monsanto's Bt cotton, Monsanto was only willing to pay for failure to germinate and for absence of the genetic purity promised by the company, and not for yield losses. The Plant Variety Protection (PVP) law of India does make provision for farmers to claim, via a PVP Authority, compensation from the breeder of a variety if it does not perform as expected, though such a body has not yet been set up. Such a body, when formed, would only rule on varieties which are PVP registered and such decisions would be on a discretionary basis.
The bill is essentially about seed registration and certification, but in mandating that only registered seed will be sold, it is not only about what it regulates but about what it does not. By mandating what the market will offer, it determines what it excludes. So what is in the Bill for the small farmer? Once again the proponents of the Seed Bill come rushing with their answer: "Exemption for farmers to save, use, exchange, share or sell their seed without registration". Indeed the law does state that:
"[nothing] shall restrict the right of the farmer to save, use, exchange, share or sell his farm seeds and planting material"
However, it continues with:
"except that he shall not sell such seed or planting material under a brand name or which does not conform to the minimum limit of germination, physical purity, genetic purity prescribed..."
So there is the catch - farmers cannot sell their seeds if they do not meet the standards of registration. Nor can farmers use a brand name and enter the seed trade. For the seed industry this is music to their ears; with this small piece of legislation all competition from non-registered seeds is done away with. Although farmer-to-farmer seed exchange can continue despite the proposed law, the ambiguity in the exception clause, coupled with wide powers given to Seed Inspectors, makes farmers anxious about how their small local sales, for instance in the village fairs, would be regulated. Even though today farmers produce around 80% of India's seed, selling their own seed is now being restricted. In reality, only formal breeders and big businesses can get their seeds registered.
So why don't farmers simply get their seeds registered? In this way, they could legally sell their home-grown varieties of seeds. However, under the proposed system it makes it impossible for farmers to register varieties. The process takes a long time, is extremely expensive for a farmer, and anyway farmers' seeds would probably fail to pass the required standards. A farmers' breeding criteria are very broad, incorporating ecological and social factors, rather than only yield; what is exchanged between farmers is determined by local needs and therefore farmersÂ’ varieties are best regulated by farmers themselves. As a result, there are some in India advocating for a community certification process by, and for, small-scale farmers.
Farmers can, therefore, sell harvested seed which is a registered variety. But the problem here is that if the registered seed is also PVP-protected then the farmer is again prohibited by the PVP legislation from selling branded seed in the market.
As for farmers' varieties of crops, the very crops that they have been growing, exchanging and selling for many generations, evidence from around the world shows that these will die out. By following the letter of the law, there will be little incentive to grow and use farmer varieties and farmers will have no choice but to buy and use registered seed from a private company. On the other hand, many farmers are likely to ignore the law on the sale of seeds and indeed stopping the sale of farmers' seeds will be very difficult to enforce. Indeed, the very survival of farmers' varieties may be very dependent on farmers simply ignoring this aspect of the law and continuing to sell and buy their own farmer varieties.
The Bill has come under severe criticism countrywide from all sectors of society, including farmersÂ’ groups and numerous non-governmental organisations. The demands range from a complete withdrawal of the proposed Seed Bill 2004 to the recognition of farmersÂ’ absolute rights to indigenous seeds. Widespread campaigns and mass actions continue to be planned at the village and district levels. Farmers are directing their ire at what they regard as restrictions on their time-honoured freedom to grow and sow as they please. They also see the Bill as an erosion of their rights to sell seeds and are dissatisfied with the lack of provision for corporate liability, be it for Indian or foreign seed companies.
Other problems cited with the Bill include:
1. Consolidation of the private sector: Many fear that the Bill will hand over the seed business to seed transnational corporations.
2. Introduction of GMOs: There is growing concern that the Bill will ease entry of GM crops with the possible contamination of traditional varieties with GM agriculture.
3. Prices: Many believe that seed prices will go up. Private companies would need to recover the costs of registration which would be passed onto farmers.
4. Centralising power: Many are concerned that the Seed Bill will move decision-making away from the state level. Under the Indian constitution, agriculture is under the jurisdiction of the state, with the exception of cotton and oil seeds, and tradable commodities. The central government treats seedsÂ as a Â“tradable commodityÂ” to constitutionally justify its lawmaking on the subject.
A Seed Bill for the private sector
The main beneficiaries of this new law are clearly the private seed sector. With the opening up of the seed market only to those who are able to certify and register seeds, coupled with the suppression of the sale of farmer's varieties, it is in particular the transnational corporations that will benefit. Such corporations make up an estimated 30% share of the market (see Box: Transnational companies in India).
However, large Indian companies will also benefit through sales of exported seed. With an extensive and rich agricultural genetic resource base, coupled with the associated knowledge and cheap labour provides a fertile ground for seed production. Asia is becoming the largest seed market in the world and is the biggest agricultural trading partner for the US. The US Department of Commerce has identified India as one of the world's top ten "Big Emerging Markets". With China the largest seed producer, India is in second place. The US government is taking special interest in the economic and legislative Â“reformsÂ” in this part of the world, as in India it is keen to encourage conformity to US standards and to simplify seed trade.
Seed legislations were originally meant to be about government being able to ensure good quality seed and safeguard farmers from bad seed distributed by industry. The trend however seems to show, among other things, how industry standards are being adopted by the seed laws, which themselves are becoming a means to facilitate the entry of transnational corporations into the seed sector rather than "protecting" the informal seed supply system. While the private sector supports minimal government intervention in their business, they also lobby hard to receive the necessary government protection to maximise and protect their profits: protection of their intellectual property rights over a variety or gene (PVP or patents) and, now with the Seed Bill, protection of their market to trade in seeds on their own terms.
As companies trade across the globe, they seek harmonisation of seed laws at the international level. And this is what the Seed Bill is - yet one more country harmonising its law with that of the EU and the US.
Turning a Bill into an Act
India is seen as one the biggest markets in the world and as a result there is huge pressure on the government to adopt the Seed Bill and turn it into an Act. The Seed Bill is just one of the legislative changes in India to open up its markets and harmonise its laws with rich countries. These include amendments to the country's patent law and the model Agricultural Produce Marketing law. With the ongoing Parliament Session having concluded, the passage of the Bill has now been postponed to the next session (in July 2005). Meanwhile, the report of the Parliamentary Committee reviewing the Bill is awaited. Whenever the Bill is re-tabled, its rejection is unlikely without many voices of protest Â– the question is whether enough noise can be made about the Seed Bill, and whether these protests will go unheard.
 Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst
 The Seed Policy Review Group was an initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Seed Association of India (SAI) is one of the major seed industry associations, and represents medium to large foreign and domestic firms. SAI actively engaged in debates with the Ministry on the newÂ seed law.
Section 13(1) of the Seeds Bill, 2004
 Terminator Seeds - Plants genetically engineered to produce sterile seeds, forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year from a company.
 Section 36(1)(c) of Seeds Bill, 2004
 Section 36(2) of above
 The public notice issued by the Parliamentary Committee inviting suggestions on the Seeds Bill states that Â“(t)he proposed legislation aims to liberalise import of seeds and planting materials compatible with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) commitmentsÂ”. http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=8963
 Throughout this issues of Seedling, we have used both PVP and PBR (Plant Breeder's Rights) to mean the same thing.
Section 39 (2) of the PVP Act, 2001
 Section 43(1) of the Seeds Bill, 2004
 A brand name in commercial terms is a name or symbol or design used to identify a manufacturerÂ’s or sellerÂ’s goods. For example MonsantoÂ’s Bt cotton is marketed under the brand name Bollgard.
 By definition, the Seeds Bill differentiates a farmer from those engaged in commercial seed activities. As in Section 2(9) Â“FarmerÂ” means any person who cultivates crops either by cultivating the land himself or through any other person but does not include any individual, company, trader or dealer who engages in the procurement of seeds on a commercial basis.
 http://www.ddsindia.com/anotherorganics.htm. In other parts of Asia, like in the Philippines, MASIPAG is working to develop an alternative guarantee system for MASIPAG farmers including an internal quality control system validated by farmers themselves, as against formal certification. http://www.masipag.org/news_india.htm
 Section 39(1) Proviso of the PVP law
 On the Concurrent List of the Constitution of India on which both State & Centre can make laws.
 On the Union List on which only the Centre has the power to make laws.
China's Food Import Standards Often Unclear, U.S. Officials Say,Â Could create barriers to foreign exporters, USTR reports http://cayupply.notlong.com
 The US pressure for amendments in IndiaÂ’s patent law to among other things allow for patenting of GE seed, is a case in point.
 Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh
 Sharma, D. 1997: In the Famine Trap UK Food Group and the Ecological Foundation, London/New Delhi, pp123-124Â
 In 1969, the Tarai Seed development Corporation was started by a US $ 13 million World Bank loan. This was followed with two NSPs, for which the WB gave US $ 41 million between 1974-78. http://www.whirledbank.org/environment/agriculture.html
 World Resources Institute 1994: Â‘SecondÂ’ India Revisited
 Sharma, D 1994: GATT and India: The Politics of Agriculture, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, pp 60-62