If genetically modified version of mustard is allowed, India’s mustard crop, including wild varieties, will get contaminated

mustardA two day gathering at Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad (September 3-4), attended by 100 delegates representing stake holders from agriculture and food security sector and farmers’ union representatives highlighted the need for seed savers to campaign for intensifying biosafety norms. The seminar was organized by Jatan Trust in collaboration with 20 organizations. Highlights of the seminar:

A gathering organized to discuss recent developments related to Indian agriculture has expressed deep concern over several farmer-unfriendly and anti-nature developments. Issues flagged for urgent public debate included pressure from trade rules, such as those of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on countries like India with direct adverse impacts on food and livelihood security, directions that the Indian intellectual property rights (IPR) regime is taking and serious threat from agricultural technologies in the seed sector such as genetically modified (GM) mustard, which is close to being considered for commercial cultivation in India.

The participants exhorted state governments to be extra-cautious even as they called on all citizens to engage with these issues as they pertain closely to food security and biosafety. Experts and practitioners also showcased sustainable solutions around seed diversity that continue to support small farming and farm livelihoods in the long run.

Speaking on the occasion, Afsar Jafri (Focus on the Global South) pointed out that India needs to find a permanent solution to the challenge posed by the rigged rules of WTO on the public stockholding for food security, under the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). He said that the ‘peace clause’ that India secured holds no solution for ensuring that our food security mechanism reaches all consumers nor that producers get maximum livelihood security through food grain procurement by the government for the PDS.

The current situation is such that India is being challenged on offering minimum support price to farmers, including more grains or procuring more; this is patently unjust given that developed countries offer huge subsidies to their farmers camouflaged within the “Green Box” (category of subsidies that are not considered as trade-distorting) in the WTO.

Countries like India should not be forced to resort to similar deceptive manipulations, but allowed to uphold their food and livelihood security in an unconditional manner, he demanded. In the forthcoming WTO Ministerial in Kenya India has to uphold the interest of our farmers by not succumbing to pressure from US, EU and Australia and try to seek a permanent solution to the food security issue in the WTO.

The meeting also discussed recent developments in the area of IPR (intellectual property rights) in the seed sector. IPR in this area were introduced by the WTO. IPRs on seed are not something that peasant communities in India had asked for. On the contrary peasant cultures and their seed systems run on the principle of sharing seeds. Yet many of them are now either being pushed or are choosing to seek IPR in the form of plant variety certificates for ‘farmers’ varieties’. Global trade rules prescribe IPR that grant private rights on life and lifegiving forms such as seeds. In this context the national IPR law most discussed was that of Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001.

The organisers of the meeting felt that the implementation of this law made to comply with the WTO, ought to undergo an honest assessment as the WTO itself turns twenty (1995-2015). The question to ask is if the Indian law on farmers’ rights, is actually helping small farmers? The current IPR system and its distortions are neither assuring our seed sovereignty nor encouraging seed diversity in our farming. For to be eligible for IPR, a seed variety has to be distinct, stable and uniform – standards which the industry set, to be able to sell seed like any other (agro) industrial product.

Shalini Bhutani, legal expert and policy analyst from Delhi, shared that the domestic policy space when it comes to IPRs is considerably restricted. Yet the irony is that our national laws on the subject made in compliance of international treaty commitments have some flexibility to address local concerns. She explained that there is constant pressure on India, especially through bilateral and regional free trade agreements, to adopt an IPR regime that will go much beyond what the WTO prescribes.

In such a scenario, it will be critical to amplify the real time experiences with IPR laws from the ground, to help countries such as ours make a case for pushing back restrictive trade rules in agriculture. For they have direct implications for farmers’ livelihoods, availability of affordable, diverse seeds and the freedom to choose planting material for both sowing and research. Most importantly, farmers’ apriori rights of saving, sowing, re-sowing, exchanging and using seed come under threat with any movement towards more rigid IPR systems and their enforcement.

Public research and ‘publicness’ of the national agricultural research system too is at risk with the further tightening of IPR. ICAR & state agricultural universities now have the maximum number of IPR under the PPV&FR Act. On the matter of a National Daily Development Board (NDDB) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) supported GM mustard being on the verge of being considered for commercial cultivation approval in India, speakers in the press conference expressed their deep concerns on the matter.

Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) pointed out that India is the centre of diversity of mustard and if a genetically modified version is brought in, all our mustard, including the wild varieties, will get contaminated. Further, this GM mustard has nothing in it for farmers and consumers – it is a hybrid seed-making technology which will only benefit seed manufacturers. The yield increases being claimed with this hybrid are questionable, since it has not been tested against non-GM hybrids in the market and will not be any different from those.

There will be serious health, environmental and socio-economic implications and India as a nation should reject this GMO, like we had done with Bt brinjal in the past, said Kapil Shah of Jatan Trust. Whether it is the WTO or the matter of GM technology, given that agriculture is a state subject as per the Indian Constitution, the Centre should not be able to bypass state governments in any manner, he pointed out. The meeting also showcased widespread grassroots work by organisations like Sahaja Samrudha and BAIF in reviving traditional seed diversity, and in creating alternative remunerative markets for farmers. Under the banner of Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch, thousands of seed conserver-farmers have come together to re-popularise and revive seed diversity to lend recognition to the positive characteristics of numerous neglected crops and varieties, and also as a key risk-reducing strategy in this era of climate change.

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