Punjab and Monsanto have reached a ‘dead end’ in their fight over intellectual property rights’ enforcement: it appears that the Punjab government wants access to Monsanto’s BT cotton seeds, but does not want to pay for them after the first year.
Sources told The Express Tribune that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had informed the federal government that Lahore had said no to Monsanto’s plan for intellectual property rights protection, first proposed by the company in 2010. “After that [refusal], no progress has been made between the Punjab government and the US-based firm Monsanto,” said one source, quoting Punjab government officials.
The breakdown in talks was confirmed at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate textile industry on Monday. The federal government, meanwhile, is trying to revive talks between the provincial government and the American firm. The Senate textile committee is in favour of Monsanto marketing its genetically modified BT cotton seeds in Punjab, which would help the province boost its cotton production. That rise in cotton production, in turn, may lower prices which would help the textile industry.
The source of the disagreement appears to be Monsanto’s insistence that it be compensated if farmers violate its intellectual property rights by sharing seeds amongst themselves, rather than buying them from authorised distributors. Pakistan’s intellectual property rights currently do not cover genetically modified seeds, which has already made Monsanto skittish about setting up a distribution network in the country.
Many countries already have such laws, but the bill that would rectify this gap in Pakistani law, the Seed Amendment Bill, has been under consideration in Parliament since 2006 and has not been passed by either house of the federal legislature. In the absence of such a law, Monsanto is requesting a fine of between $12 and $15 per acre of every farm found to be using unauthorised seeds.
The Punjab government has two major problems with Monsanto’s proposals: firstly, that the US company demands that the fine be paid by the provincial government, and secondly, that Monsanto’s request amounts to a ban on sharing Monsanto’s seeds among farmers, which is the traditional way farmers get seeds in Pakistan.
“Farmers provide up to 75% of the seeds used in sowing crops to each other,” said one government official sympathetic to the Punjab government’s position.
The government estimates that the demand for cotton seeds alone in Pakistan is about 40,000 tons per year. There are about 770 companies in Pakistan licensed to market seeds, but all of them combined account for less than 30% of the total market share. Monsanto plans on tapping some of these local firms as distributors, offering them a share of its profit margins.
The Punjab government wants to make a one-time payment to Monsanto for the right to permanently market its seeds and then let farmers simply share the seeds amongst themselves, a position the US firm rejects. However, a bill that would sanctify farmers’ right to share seeds – the Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill – has been languishing in Parliament for years, suggesting while Pakistani law is not robust in its protection of intellectual property rights, that there is little political support for codifying a violation of intellectual property rights into law either.
Meanwhile, the Punjab government has begun a “sour grapes” argument: insisting that Monsanto’s BT cotton seeds would not protect the crop from the kinds of pests most prevalent in Pakistan, and may even be dangerous for consumers.
“The Red Cotton Bug, Mealybug, and Dusky Cotton Bug are the emerging threats to the cotton crop, and there is no variety of BT cotton that would resist those diseases,” said one official. Monsanto’s “Bollguard” variety of BT cotton seeds protects primarily against bollworms, the most commonly prevalent pest that afflicts cotton production in the country.
Another official hinted that Pakistan may consider following European Union standards for labelling genetically modified food, though it is unclear how the official thinks this might affect cotton seeds, which are not commonly used in food production.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2012.