The Plant Breeder Rights (PBR) Bill 2012 has been pending in the National Assembly since March of this year. Multinational seed companies have long been demanding legal protection to market their genetically modified seed varieties in Pakistan. But legislation of this sort needs to balance the demands of business interests with those of poor farmers, within the overall context of achieving sustainable agricultural productivity within the Pakistani context. Despite a decade of mulling over contending challenges, the proposed bill leaves much to be desired.
Pakistan’s seed breeding programme was dominated by the public sector until the 1990s, but with the increasing emergence of the private sector in agriculture, there is a growing influence of private and multinational corporations (MNCs) in the provision of seeds. Moreover, since Pakistan became a signatory to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiated Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement in 1995, it has been obligated to provide patent protection to seed companies.
Proponents of corporate farming and genetically modified (GM) technologies emphasise the potential role of using GM crops to ensure food security and for boosting agricultural productivity. Such assertions also find resonance with international donors like the World Bank, for instance. Conversely, environmentalists and activists point to emerging evidence of the adverse health impacts of using GM crops. Nonetheless, Pakistan has given the international agribusiness giant, Monsanto, the green signal to trial its GM corn in Pakistan.
It is difficult to refute the fact that poor farmers are not able to afford expensive GM seeds. The experience of introducing GM cotton seeds in India in the 2000s is instructive in this regard, as it is blamed for causing 160,000 suicides among Indian farmers over a period of 12 years. These seeds promised lucrative profits but destroyed the ability of the soil to cultivate other seeds, leaving poor farmers heavily indebted.
The proposed PBR Bill 2012 acknowledges the TRIPS agreement, which is ‘pro-corporation’; yet, none of its clauses acknowledges the Convention of Biological Diversity, which recognises farmer and community rights to seeds.
Other developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ethiopia and Vietnam, have taken account of the need for the protection of farmers’ traditional knowledge and biological diversity in their legislation. However, Pakistani delegates seem to make no serious efforts to consult farmers and agricultural experts on the subject of importing GM seeds. Subsequent policymaking emerging from these international obligations also seems equally myopic. The proposed bill thus presents serious challenges to biodiversity and sustainable agriculture instead of protecting indigenous genetic assets such as seeds, as well as the livelihood of already disadvantaged and marginalised small farmers.
Recently, stakeholders gathered at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore for a discussion titled “Biodiversity under Threat: Traditional Knowledge and Plant Breeder Rights Bill”. Experts and civil organisation representatives gathered and demanded that the proposed PBR bill 2012 be renamed the ‘Plant Breeders and Farmers Rights Bill’ to protect farmers instead of MNCs trying to secure patent rights over indigenous plant and crop varieties. However, a mere alteration of the bill’s name is not enough. It must be accompanied by an effective benefit-sharing method to protect the rights of indigenous plant breeders instead of companies alone.
The International Patent Organisation in Pakistan must take some proactive initiative and start formulating a policy that will protect plant breeders’ rights in order to avoid increased rural poverty and further social unrest. Unless this is done, multinational and private companies will secure patents for existing seed varieties in the country, while restricting farmers from continuing centuries-old traditional systems of storage, sharing and multiplying of seeds.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2012.
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