Seed of discontent: Bill to protect farmers or multinationals?

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published Published on Apr 26, 2010   modified Modified on Apr 26, 2010

Is India’s brand new Seed Bill capable of protecting the farmers' livelihoods? Or will it compromise their interest by allowing multinational seed companies to have a free run of the Indian seed market? The new Bill seeks to regulate the seed market and improve the quality of seeds as well as to harmonise and update the old policies in line with the current international practices for production, supply and for domestic and international trade. Already cleared by the Union Cabinet, the new Bill will replace the present Seeds Act (1966) if given the Parliamentary nod. (See the link below for the Draft Bill and proposed amendments)

The government has also circulated an amendment to the Bill, ostensibly under pressure from the farmers’ and civil society groups but the amendments do not alter the basic character of the bill. The amendments pertain mostly to the process of registration and inspection as also to the definition of a farmer.

The biggest charge of those opposing the Bill is that it is loaded against the small and marginal farmers while it bends over backwards to provide legal and institutional protection to transnational seed companies including those dealing in GM (Genetically Modified) seeds.

The new Bill makes it mandatory that all types of seeds and planting material be registered with the state governments before they are marketed.   This means that on the one hand it makes it difficult for the small farmers to enter the seed business which they often do on the side while on the other it provides him no proactive compensatory mechanism or protection against crop failure (Except the Consumer Protection Act of 1986). The proposed amendments do provide for a compensation committee if the seeds fail to perform to expected standards, but that for many stops short of being proactive.

A saving grace of the draft Bill is that it allows the farmer to save, exchange or share small quantities of generic seeds. The new amendments prohibit farmers to sell their seeds only under a brand name. However what works against them is that there is no provision for community certification system for small farmers, who incidentally produce more than two third of India’s seeds at the moment. The registration and certification is both expensive and time consuming.

It includes elaborate application and verification process, inspection of fields and post-harvesting and packaging processes and tests of seed health and genetic purity. It is anybody’s guess who would the proposed new powers of seed inspectors would harm.

Those opposing the (GM) crops believe that the Bill will make it easy for the private sector in general, and GM seed companies in particular, and would inevitably result in higher prices of seeds. Hence the Seed Bill seems to be more about providing industry status to the seed sector rather than about protecting the small farmers’ interests. It may end up taking the seed away from the community for the advantage of the big business. The Bill marks the shift from agriculture research as a public good for the small and marginal farmer to a tool of monopoly for the plant breeders and patent holders.

A United Nations paper which analyses Seed policies from the perspectives of the Right to Food and farmers’ human rights notes:

“The right to food requires that we place the needs of the most marginalised groups, including in particular smallholders in developing countries, at the centre of our efforts.”

While the Bill is ready to be introduced in the Upper House, the Opposition is preparing to corner the government for its ‘anti-farmer’ provisions.

The links below contain provisions of the Bill and pros and cons of the proposed new regime:

'Anti-farmer' Seeds Bill has the Left up in arms against govt
by AM Jigeesh, April 20, 2010,'Anti-

Public opinion survey on GE foods,

Seed policies and the right to food: enhancing agrobiodiversity and encouraging innovation, Note by the Secretary-General,
CSA seeks amendments to Seed Bill-2010, Express News Service, 25 April 2010,

Cabinet approves new Seed Bill, March 04, 2010,  

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