The stalemate between the Punjab government and a US-based agribusiness giant is indicative of the increasing complexity of interests involved in agricultural production. The Punjab government remains keen to gain access to genetically modified (GM) seeds, especially Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) cotton, yet remains reluctant to ensure intellectual property rights of Monsanto, the multinational corporation (MNC) which owns this technology. In the absence of adequate patent protection capacity, Monsanto is demanding that a fine of between $12 and $15 per acre be paid by the Punjab government. The Punjab government seems ready to make a one-time payment to Monsanto for the right to permanently market its seeds and then let farmers share these seeds amongst themselves. Monsanto, however, wants that farmers be compelled to purchase its seeds for each sowing season.
While sharecroppers and small-scale farmers increasingly rely on expensive pesticides and fertilisers, the majority of them still uses seeds from preceding harvests or borrows seeds from other farmers, instead of purchasing expensive seed varieties. Although there are now hundreds of companies in Pakistan, licensed to market seeds, they still account for about a third of the total market share. MNCs are thus keen to tap this market potential. Our Senate textile committee is in favour of promoting the use of BT cottonseeds to boost cotton production for the textile industry. International agencies such as the World Bank and the WTO also support the need for protecting intellectual property rights of multinational corporations and place faith in their high-tech solutions for boosting agricultural productivity.
However, environmentalists and development practitioners point to the adverse impacts of using GM seeds. Some of them insist that BT cottonseeds do not protect the crop from the sorts of pests most prevalent in Pakistan and may even be dangerous for consumers. Reluctance to using GM seeds is not confined to Pakistan alone. Via Campesina, the global, million-strong peasant movement for land, seed and food sovereignty, particularly in the Latin American countries, stresses how poor farmers produce ecologically sustainable and healthier crops, than a monoculture of crops using GM seeds.
In India, while these expensive seeds promised lucrative profits, multitudes of poor farmers experienced crop failures leaving them heavily indebted and compelling hundreds of thousands of suicides. Genetic modification of seeds is also deeply unpopular in Europe. French scientists have just released a study claiming that rats fed GM corn or exposed to its top-selling weedkiller suffered tumours and multiple organ damage.
After a damning report of a parliamentary committee on agriculture, the Indian Supreme Court recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM foods and the termination of all ongoing trials of transgenic crops across India. Such developments need to be given attention by our Technical Advisory Committee of the National BioSafety Committee, which has recently allowed field trials of BT corn in the country.
Besides health safety issues, critics point out that BT corn is a highly-pollinating variety and its pollen can easily travel and contaminate adjoining crops using normal seeds, inhibit their seed germination and even make farmers with contaminated crops liable to patent infringement. The existing version of our Plant Breeders Rights Bill 2012 is primarily focused on acknowledging corporation patent rights instead of protecting farmers concerns. The drafters of this bill should have paid greater attention to how other developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ethiopia and Vietnam, have sought to protect farmers’ traditional knowledge and biological diversity in their legislative measures.
There is little evidence on ground of attempts to bolster indigenous seed stocks to prevent the potential monopoly of GM seeds in our rural areas. This is an issue which NGOs and other development agencies working with poor farmers must particularly turn their attention to.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2012.