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Seed Bill II: Big business zindabad!

By Shalini Bhutani

A slightly altered version of the Seed Bill 2004, likely to be introduced in the ongoing winter session of Parliament, is ostensibly about keeping a check on seed quality. In fact, it will protect the interests of big business, keeping farmers’ seeds out of the market and discouraging small seed dealers and producers

India’s existing law to regulate seeds is the Seed Act of 1966 and its implementing rules of 1968. The Government of India, through the last decade, has been working on a re-enactment of this law. A repeal of the existing Seed Act has been on the cards for a while now; a Bill to this effect was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December 2004.

What is under discussion today is a slightly altered version of the Seed Bill of 2004. The Union Cabinet approved additional amendments to the 2004 version on October 20, 2010. This 2010 version -- Seed Bill II -- is likely to be introduced in the ongoing winter session of Parliament. But no revised text of Seed Bill II has been made publicly available.

The Seed Bill proposes to change the law on seeds in line with the changing world. Plant breeding, agricultural technologies and the formal seed market have drastically altered since the 1960s. Today, the private sector plays a much larger role in the seed sector than ever before. Economic liberalisation policies have allowed this to happen. India’s Ministry of Agriculture itself explains that “(i)n response to the changes that have taken place in the seeds sector, the existing Seeds Act, 1966 is proposed to be replaced by a suitable legislation to, inter alia, create an enabling climate for growth of the seed industry, enhance the seed replacement rates for various crops, boost the export of seeds and encourage the import of useful germplasm…”(1).

The 1960s-1980s was the time when countries particularly in South Asia, like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, were aided by the World Bank in propping up their state seed system. Governments were also given technical support by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to make seed laws. The laws and policies went hand-in-hand with the introduction of new technological changes through the so-called Green Revolution.And it was the public sector that initiated and ledthis ‘revolution’ in the 1960s. It systematically introduced so-called high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat, rice and maize. The law was made applicable to government-notified HYVs and did not cover research hybrid varieties or varieties that were not notified.

Seed quality

Under the existing law of 1966, the government regulates the seed quality of only a limited number of crop varieties notified under the law. In the name of quality, it does not have any express provision to curtail farm-saved seed. Yet, the reality is that HYVs displaced traditionally grown local varieties. Farmers switched to HYVs not because they were of better quality but because the policy environment made loans and extension services available for these modern ‘improved’ varieties. The Seed Bill -- both I and II -- is based on the premise that seeds from ‘outside’ farmers’ own fields, be it from formal breeders, seed corporations or private companies, are of good quality from the viewpoint of increasing production. The original source of seeds -- the farmers themselves -- are now treated as end-users/consumers.

The justification given for the new law is that the government needs to strengthen the regulatory regime to be able to keep a check on seed quality since farmers complain about spurious seeds, mislabelled products and non-performance of planting material as advertised. The effect of prescribing seed certification and seed quality that meets industry standards is that it keeps farmers’ seeds out of the market. It also discourages small seed dealers and producers who may not be able to meet the costs of prescribed registration and certification.

Hybrid seeds

The seed industry is currently pushing for a second Green Revolution in agriculture. It is in a position to demand a favourable law and policy environment for its operations worldwide. The push for hybrid seeds is central to this move. Hybrids -- varieties with diminishing yields -- work as a physical prohibition against saving seeds. Saving seeds of hybrid varieties is pointless for farmers, as they offer high yields only for one generation. Under ideal growing conditions, hybrid crops give very high yields, but for a single generation. Saving these seeds therefore is fairly useless, which is what makes them so attractive to the private sector. So, even if the law expressly allows farmers to save seed or exchange it amongst themselves, their freedoms are rendered meaningless by sheer technical limitations. Seed Bill II, in its definition of crop “variety”, expressly includes planting material of hybrid varieties that will come under the new law.

Seed Bill II not only refers to this second legislative attempt since the first law on the subject was made, but also to the fact that it is linked with Green Revolution II. The Government of India is allocating around US$86.3 million to push a Green Revolution in India’s eastern states. In July 2010, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar announced the formation of a central-level taskforce to push hybrid rice varieties in the country. The taskforce will explore public-private partnerships for production, procurement and marketing of seeds. The country’s National Food Security Mission is also pushing hybrid seeds (2).

The big concerns from the ground regarding hybrid seeds are their pricing, chemicals that are required to be used with them, and the increasing control this gives to seed companies as farmers are locked into a dependency on company products. 

GM seeds

Seed Bill II also provides for the registration of genetically modified (GM) seeds. It is clear from the draft National Biotechnology Strategy, and otherwise, that the government is supporting the further introduction of GM crops. The Seed Bill follows this line; it does not prohibit the registration of GM seeds. Since the term “agriculture”, as defined in Seed Bill II, includes horticulture, forestry, cultivation of plantation, medicinal and aromatic plants, GM seeds sold for whichever of these purposes will be permitted, of course subject to registration. The Bill also requires mandatory bio-safety approvals under existing law before the GM seeds can be registered and sold.

India’s bio-safety regulatory regime comprises rules dated 1989, issued under the Environment Protection Law. After the draft Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is presented and cleared in Parliament, both these proposed laws will have to work in tandem for the regulation of GM crops.

Farmers’ groups and agricultural scientists from across the country are divided in their opinion on the ecological, social and health impact of GM seeds. The Seed Bill only disallows seeds that contain Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), commonly called “terminator technology” (it renders next-generation seeds sterile), from being registered for sale (3). 

Import and export

Chapter VII of Seed Bill II deals with the import and export of seeds. Under the new Seed Bill, all imported seeds will need to be registered (4), though the central government may allow the import of an unregistered seed for research purposes (5). 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 existing legislation. From the earlier version of the Bill to now, the change in this provision is to require additional information for transgenic seeds. This confirms the fact that, in principle, the government intends to allow the import of GM seeds, though it expressly states that the import of GM seeds will be made subject to bio-safety approvals under existing laws.

Seeds for export will also need to be registered. However, on the advice of the Central Seed Committee, the central government may stop such export on grounds of food security or any other public need. India’s aggressive outward-going policy gives the seed industry the strategic base and necessary impetus to expand in the Asia Pacific region, from India. India provides diversity of genetic material for plant breeding, an extensive agricultural research system, and a large population of farmers in and around the country as potential seed consumers. MAHYCO itself has exported several thousand hybrid onion seeds to Sri Lanka, after permissions given by the EXIM Committee for Export and Import of Seeds and Planting Materials (6). India’s neighbours are already bracing for the change. Sri Lanka is trying to wean itself off seed imports from India and other seed-exporting countries. The Sri Lankan agriculture minister has set up a taskforce to study the seed import process and make recommendations to produce 100% of the required seeds locally.

Formal market

Seed Bill II spells a clear message to small farmers to stay out of the formal seed market. According to the proposed section in the Bill, farmers’ ‘rights’ cease if they sell their seed or planting material under a brandname (7). Thus, no farmer can brand his/her seeds and enter the seed trade. If s/he does, then s/he must register as a seed dealer and comply with the same rules as the industry is required to for registration and sale of seed. The very definition of ‘farmer’ in the Bill refers to a person other than any individual, company, trader or dealer who engages in procurement and sale of seeds on a commercial basis. Sure, farmers are free to exchange, grow and harvest any seed they want to. But selling their own seed will now be restricted. In reality, under the proposed law, only formal breeders and big businesses can get their seeds registered.

Seed sovereignty

As long as farmers continue to save and breed their own seeds, it is difficult for seed companies to sell their seed. Those opposing the Seed Bill will, ironically, have to take a cue from a provision in the Bill that details what the law will not restrict. A farmer has the right to grow, sow, re-sow, save, use, exchange, share or sell his/her farm seeds and planting material. As long as traditional varieties and farmers’ seeds are supported, the freedoms of farmers can hope to stay alive.

1 Paragraph 1.43 of the Annual Report of the Ministry of Agriculture, 2009
3 Proposed Section 18(2), read with explanation
4 Proposed Section 36(1) (c)
5 Section 36(2) of above
7   Proviso to Section 1(3) (b)

(Shalini Bhutani studied law and focuses on the complex interface of trade, agriculture and biodiversity. She has been working in the development sector with various NGOs for the last 15 years. Currently she is associated with a small international NGO called GRAIN.

Infochange News & Features, November 2010