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Who Controls Our Seed And Therefore, Our Food And Farming?

By Kavitha Kuruganti

07 August, 2011

64 years after India attained its Independence, not many might remember the insidious ways in which colonization of this country actually took place, to gradually subjugate our communities in a variety of ways. Not many might recall the East India Company making commerce and trade the means to slowly take over and control lives. However, it is not too out of place to bring up issues of sovereignty and control in the context of increasing corporatisation of Indian Agriculture, as we approach the Quit India Day and our Independence Day.

Increasingly, big corporations are taking control over Seed, which is one of the most critical inputs in agriculture. Starting from the 1980s, there has been a policy shift in India where private players have been allowed greater space in seed trade. While doing so, not enough thought has been applied to look at the future and the raison d'etre of the public sector bodies related to seed, whether it is research institutions or seeds corporations or agriculture departments. The somewhat-neat division that used to exist between private and public sectors in the form of hybrid vs. open pollinated varieties, low-volume-high-value seed vs. big-volume-low-value seed between private players and public sector respectively may not apply in the future given major crop shifts that are happening orchestrated both by policies and market machinations. A handful of crops are all set to expand at the expense of other crops. In Gujarat for instance, cotton has been steadily replacing pulses, oilseeds like groundnut and overall food grain area. And while cotton has expanded, it is important to remember that 93% of the market share is in the hands of only one company, directly or indirectly: Monsanto, the American multi-national corporation. This company reportedly has a substantive 38% share of our hybrid maize markets too.

Given that hybrids are being given a major thrust (including in crops like paddy) and certain crops like cotton and maize are eating into larger and larger areas, it is time that the public sector re-looked at itself without any complacency. Cotton and Maize are great examples where despite enormous investments into the public sector research, there are hardly any takers amongst farmers today for the public sector seeds released. Public sector bodies themselves do not hesitate to promote the private sector products, curiously enough!

Meanwhile, at the farmers' level, things don't look very good. Their lives seem to centre around queues – for credit, seed, fertilizer, insurance, marketing, compensation and so on and so forth. Very often, this also involves police presence, lathi-charging etc. It is not clear how we, as a nation, have allowed our Anna Daatas to degenerate to this undignified state. Seed producers are standing in lines as seed consumers and exploited as such.

For one thing, risks are actually higher now than ever before for cultivators, be it the climate change factor or the social reality of tenant farmers burgeoning in great numbers in many states. Therefore, any technology, including related to seed, has to seek to minimize risks as well as costs through locally appropriate seed and diversity-laden cropping. On the ground, however, the reality is different. Despite scientific understanding to the contrary, mono-cropping of hybrids is on the increase across different crops, driven by aggressive promotion in the name of yields. Only a few states seem to be measuring their cultivation areas with an appropriate assessment parameter: that of inter-cropping.–Orissa is one such state. Mono-cropping brings its own disadvantages including greater vulnerability to pest and disease attacks, soil health deterioration, higher crop loss possibilities etc. On top of this, is the issue of control over seed.

What's actually in store for our farmers on the seed front? Fewer choices, more expensive seed and abject dependence. This year, cotton farmers witnessed first hand their enslavement at the hand of companies. Black-markets thrived; farmers fell prey to several marketing strategies – however, seeds required for the planting of lakhs of acres of cotton did materialize miraculously despite pronouncements of great seed shortages. Seed industry did not shy away from subtle blackmailing when it came to hike in seed prices even as the Union Agriculture Minister refuses to appreciate that regulation of seed trade is not just about quality of seed but also about seed pricing, including royalties. The stalemate on the Seeds Bill continues.

Monsanto is becoming a player to cautiously watch out for, in this context. This is a profit-hungry corporation that has been allowed to sit in important policy-making spaces including on the Board of a bilateral deal that is supposed to have ushered in the second green revolution in India. It is a corporation that many state governments are partnering in their promotion of hybrid maize, putting aside all concerns related to sustainability or seed sovereignty. Through convenient amnesia, governments seem to forget that this is a corporation which has not hesitated to sue and jail farmers elsewhere on the crime of saving and re-using its proprietary seed, lest such violations of its “rights” mean lesser share of markets. To enforce its royalty claims, it did not hesitate to chase Argentinian soy (Argentina refused to provide legal proprietary rights to Monsanto on its Roundup Ready soy) to ports of import in Europe and sue soy importers there (Monsanto lost this case)! An anti-trust investigation is right now underway in the USA to look into allegations of anti-competitive conduct by Monsanto which resulted in higher seed prices for farmers. This company also did not mind resorting to bribery to get regulatory clearance for its GM product in Indonesia. It is not as though policy-makers are not aware of the monopolistic nature of this corporation. They couldn't care less for the farmers of the country.

On Quit India Day on August 9 th this year, hundreds of organizations and thousands of citizens are coming together to resist the most potent symbol of corporatisation of our food and farming (www.kisanswaraj.in). The idea is to save our Food, Farmers and Freedom from such corporate aggression. The call is for Monsanto to Quit India.

Please join the event nearest to you – visit http://www.kisanswaraj.in/2011/08/07/state-wise-listing-of-events-for-monsanto-quit-india-and-kisan-swaraj-week/ for more information.

- Kavitha Kuruganti is the National Convener of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture), which is an informal network of more than 400 organisations around the country




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