Branded seeds: Free market, copyrights and farmers’ welfare

Published: March 12, 2012
Monsanto’s demand for protection of its intellectual copyright could be the best thing for Pakistani agriculture. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

Monsanto’s demand for protection of its intellectual copyright could be the best thing for Pakistani agriculture. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID


Pakistan is the largest exporter of cotton yarn in the world and the third largest exporter of raw cotton. About 1.3 million farmers (out of a total of 5 million) cultivate cotton over three million hectares, covering 15% of the cultivable area in the country. Cotton and cotton products contribute about 10% to GDP and 55% to the foreign exchange earnings of the country.

Thus any policy affecting the yield of this silver crop would have serious implications for national economy. It is in this perspective that Punjab government opposition to US agrichemical giant Monsanto’s demands for intellectual property rights protection for its BT cotton seeds need careful evaluation.

According to a recent news item, the Punjab government has refused to agree to Monsanto’s demands for intellectual property rights (IPR) protection for its BT cotton seeds and has accused the company of a “monopolistic” plan to take over agriculture in Punjab. This is a serious allegation and will have consequences for foreign companies working in Pakistan, which are always keen to assert protection of their intellectual property on account of their huge R&D investment as well as international regulations such as TRIPS. Monsanto has maintained that it is not against the use of other seeds, just against the illegal transfers of its own seeds.

Pakistan uses about 40,000 tons of cotton seeds every year, about 25% of which comes from the 770 seed companies operating in Pakistan. The bulk of the seeds are those that farmers share with each other. It is this practice of free-riding that Monsanto would like to be checked.

It is clear that Monsanto’s seeds do need to pass through a trial and error stage before being fully adapted to local soil needs. Moreover, it is not just seed alone but entire field management of planting of seeds which contribute to the ultimate outcome. Of course, this can only be done with the back-up of rigorous research apparatus and cannot be left to traders and smugglers of BT cotton seeds. Therefore Monsanto’s position that farmers should not be allowed to exchange seeds has some logic from crop management perspective.

Monsanto’s position is challenged not only by the provincial government but also by farmers’ lobbies. Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of Agriforum Pakistan has said that “Monsanto would destroy Pakistan. If we want a free economy in Pakistan, then Monsanto must not be allowed to market its seeds in Pakistan.”

Call for a free economy and opposition to the entry of a firm in a single breath is not only paradoxical but also ironic. Free market economy is featured with easy entry and exit and strong checks on anti-competitive practices such as monopolistic tendencies and cartelisation.

Monsanto is not the sole provider of BT cotton seeds in the world and thus there is no threat of a monopolistic conduct from this giant rendering fears of Punjab government and farmers baseless. Seed Association of Pakistan has earlier pointed out that the German multinational Bayer is providing the same technology like BT Cotton (Bollgard-II) without seeking any royalty and compensatory amount. So is the case with Biocentury Transgene, China’s leading biotechnology provider. Therefore, if for any reason, we do not wish to buy from Monsanto, we can explore other options. But if we end up buying from Monsanto, we need to ensure respect of contractual obligations and intellectual property.

The debate over intellectual property rights even within free marketeers is not settled with views ranging from stringent application of TRIPS like measures to open software, free for all, mindset. It is clear that without an incentive and legal protection of patents, no private sector firm is willing to invest billions of dollars in research.

IPR is beneficial for all. Several Pakistani research institutes, such as Punjab University’s National Center of Excellence for Molecular Biology (CEMB) and Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad have dedicated substantial resources over research and pilot production of BT cotton seeds. CEMB has successfully demonstrated efficacy of its seeds at a pilot farm near Multan.

The decision of buying a specific seed should best be left as a contractual exchange between the farmer and seed manufacturer and distributor. Enforcement of intellectual property, standardisations and maintaining fair competition are the most important obligations of the government. It risks loss of credibility by stepping out of this boundary.

The writer is a principal consultant at Development Pool and a founding member of Economic Freedom Network Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Mar 12, 2012 - 3:49AM

    There is no IP protection in Pakistan. As a software developer I know this full well and only create software for the International market. Most software houses in Pakistan are doing the same. I think enforcing IP laws is beyond the capabilities of the govt. of this country. It is impossible to stop farmers from sharing seeds.

    Also open source software isn’t public domain software. Open source software is fully copyrighted software it just gives users the freedom to view and share the source code. So the free in free software is in terms of freedom not free as in gratis.


  • Humayun
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:28AM

    Good read. Government should evaluate on merit.


  • Mar 12, 2012 - 10:34AM

    This is highly biased piece of writing in favor of so called intellectual rights. But the problem here is BT will over power local varieties. So called intellectual right will bankrupt neighbor farmers who are not using BT but due to pollination bt gene spread there. On the top of that bt push farmers in to vicious cycles of debt as Indian farmers already observe.


  • Mar 12, 2012 - 10:37AM

    this links give a highlight of aggressive push of Monsanto against farmers


  • Tanoli
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:14AM

    Good decision of Punjab Govt. Monsanto has the history of monopolizing the markets where it operates. It strives to wipe out the competition by squeezing the competitors and ruthlessly protecting its dominance. Govt needs to have a check on its activities.


  • Tanoli
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:19AM

    See one example of the corporate crimes of Monsanto.


  • Nash
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:35AM

    It’s not coincidence that this piece of Monsanto lobbying effort has not mentioned Vandana Shiva, who has documented and written extensively about the risks of genetically modified crops, patent myths, and agricultural colonialism of promoting monoculture crops.


  • baoji
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:46AM

    Mossanto is the perfect way to become dependent for seeds on a multinational giant. Where are own seed banks ?? do we only buy seeds,a not use our own ? kha gaye ?

    Monsanto in India

    10 reasons why we don’t need GM foods


  • baoji
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:48AM
  • Mar 12, 2012 - 1:21PM

    Thank you all for comments. I think most arguments resonate the same domestic industry protection policies, that have withheld innovation from our economy and has deprived consumers a good value of their money. If we were to depend on everything “local”, we shall sure strive ourselves to a famine. Remember how Mexico, India and Pakistan overcame dire shortage in wheat, and brought about Green Revolution in sixties. It happened because we paid to buy seeds from the institute of a gentleman called Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate, who created GM dwarf variety of wheat. Learn a bit from history: Dr. Pervez Hassan has ably documented how Pakistani government ensured payment to his institute even during the 65 war, and how the containers carrying the new seed variety eventually brought surplus, and food at every one door step! Want to understand how market economy can bring welfare!Recommend

  • Parvez
    Mar 12, 2012 - 5:23PM

    What is good for Monsanto is not necessarily good of Pakistan. What is Mansanto’s track record with this BT seed in the USA or in India ? I think the Punjab government and the opposing lobbies are doing the right thing.
    You negate your own position when you say in the opening that Pakistan is the largest exporter ………….etc., so we must be doing something right. Why spoil it. ??


  • Mar 12, 2012 - 6:42PM

    @ Mr Ali

    Dont compare Noraman Bourlaug with Monsanto, Monsanto has a blemish track record of cheating, abuse and monopolizing.

    Monsanto dont guarentee good production , look what they did with indian cotton grower. This will be in Pakistan if they are allowed.

    If monsanto is as good as u claimed why france banned it ?

    There are more few examples


  • Pro Bono Publico
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:07PM

    Govt of Pakistan should ask Prince Charles why he is devotedly against GM crops.


  • Mar 13, 2012 - 7:50AM

    @Pro Bono
    My point is simple food security is important but not at the cost of bio diversity we get over thousands of years , this is for our coming generations. And no One monstrously suspicious company should be allowed to destroy it. I dont care if Prince Charles support it or not , I will stand against this


  • Mastuj
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:32PM

    Mr. Ali Salman – with a little bit of research on Monsanto’s activities globally, you will find out exactly why we should prevent them from registering their IP here in Pakistan. Any cross-pollinating varieties (even by chance) will then become property of Monsanto. Add to this that only Monsanto pesticides work with their GM crops, we won’t be far from the day when the entire country’s cotton production is at their mercy.

    Like you say, our time is better invested in improving agricultural practices and improve our own local varieties which have been performing well in Pakistan for many years.


  • Ihsan
    Mar 20, 2012 - 2:53PM

    Its true that the IPs should be protected. But inthis case we have to look at the socio economic fabric of the poor pakistani farmers. The business tycoons like Monsanto are trying to monopolise the agri sector through these efforts.
    Instead, the local R&D should be strengthened to meet the local requirements.


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