A deal blocked

Print edition : January 31, 2003

Harvesting paddy in Wayanad, Kerala. India has the second largest collection of varieties of rice genome in the world. - K.K. MUSTAFAH

Strong protests led by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha help prevent the international seed company Syngenta from acquiring from India a rich collection of rice germ plasm.

BUT for intervention by a grassroots movement in Chhattisgarh, a multinational corporation would have made a `bumper harvest' of the largest collection of India's rice germ plasm.

In December 2002, the Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV) was prevented from handing over its repository of 22,972 varieties of rice germ plasm, developed over generations by farmers in the rice-rich State of Madhya Pradesh (now divided into Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh), to Syngenta, the Switzerland-headquartered agribusiness giant, largely because of protests organised by the Chhattisgarh Mukthi Morcha.

Details about the proposed deal were first reported on November 9 in the Raipur edition of Dainik Bhaskar. The daily reported the meeting held at the IGKV on October 23 with Syngenta representatives at which a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was to be signed to conduct combined research and develop hybrid and drought-resistant varieties using the country's largest and the world's second biggest collection of rice germ plasm. The new varieties, developed under collaborative research, was to be marketed by Syngenta after paying a fixed royalty to the IGKV. But some IGKV scientists objected to the draft MoU, which they felt were detrimental to the university.

As news about the proposed MoU leaked out, the Morcha launched the Seed Satyagraha, a massive movement involving thousands of farmers, peasants, women and youth, against the MoU. The movement was supported by organisations such as the Chhattisgarh Kisan Panchayat, the Chhattisgarh Mahila Jagriti Sangathan, the Chhattisgarh Bal Shramik Sangathan, the Indian Social Action Forum, the Sabla Dal (a trade union of women domestic servants), the Ekta Parishad and the Chhattisgarh Labour Institute. The protests spread quickly, and by end-November, thousands of people had courted arrest across the State. In Basna, 1,200 protesters were arrested; in Kasdol the number was 500, in Saraipalli 1,000, and in Pithora 600. In Raipur more than 500 women and children staged a dharna.

The organisers of the Seed Satyagraha submitted memoranda to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), State Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and Governor Dinesh Nand Sahai. Following this, the ICAR sought a clarification from the university and the Governor sought an explanation from the IGKV Vice-Chancellor. Vice-Chancellor V.K. Patil held a press conference on November 27 and conceded that talks had been held with Syngenta on the proposed collaboration and a draft MoU prepared. He, however, refused to make the document public.

According to a written statement by Patil issued at the press meet, the first "informal preliminary talks" with Syngenta were held on July 31, 2002, when a group of IGKV scientists met the Syngenta representative. Subsequently, Patil met the Syngenta representative in Aurangabad for further talks, and on October 23, they met again at the IGKV, where the MoU was to be signed. Patil told the media that at no stage had the IGKV considered compromising on the intellectual property rights of the parental lines. He went on the offensive saying that in a globalised era such collaborations were increasingly becoming necessary and that if any other company offered greater financial support than Syngenta, the IGKV would negotiate with it.

However, by the end of December, pressured by the ICAR, the university pulled out of the collaboration plan. But the ICAR has not initiated action against Patil for conniving in what is widely seen as a case of attempted biopiracy. Nor has any investigation been launched into the activities of Syngenta, which is "collaborating" with several Indian institutions, including the Vasantdada Sugar Institute in Pune, the G.B.Pant Institute of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, Uttar Pradesh, and the Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth in Dapoli, Maharashtra.

According to the Morcha, there is even a case to initiate legal proceedings against Syngenta, which, it says, has been shopping at various agricultural universities for hybrid varieties with the promise of marketing them for a return of 5 per cent of the revenue. This, according to the Morcha, is a ploy to collect rare genetic resources, as the MNC's core competence is to develop and sell genetically modified seeds in developing countries.

Syngenta, a 1999 hybrid of the seeds and agricultural chemicals divisions of Novartis and Astra-Zeneca, is the largest farm trade company spreading its roots in developing countries, with the ostensible aim of helping subsistence farmers. It was the first to map the rice genome, in January 2001 (Frontline, March 2, 2001). Its genetically modified "Golden Rice", which would provide more Vitamin A than other varieties, attracted much controversy. According to Vaijayanti Gupta, formerly with Syngenta's Torrey Mesa Research Institute in San Diego, United States, to get one's required supply of Vitamin A from Golden Rice, one would have to consume 9 kg of cooked rice a day! Further, since Vitamin A is fat-soluble and requires fats and proteins to metabolise it, a malnourished child would not receive the intended benefit of consuming the Golden Rice.

Reacting to the fizzling out of the collaboration with the IGKV, which would have given Syngenta the "right" to take over and profit from the 22,972 strains of local rice varieties, its Seeds Division president Pawan Malik told the Press Trust of India on December 10: "We are disappointed to see the misleading and false accusations that were made (against the collaboration)". He pointed out that rice is one of the 35 crops and 29 forages covered by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which aims to facilitate access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing, and that the collaboration was totally in keeping with the Treaty.

But, according to Patrick Mulvany, food security policy adviser, Intermediate Technology Development Group, United Kingdom, Syngenta's attempt to collaborate with the IGKV is perhaps an example of what can be expected in future as the International Seed Treaty comes into force. The International Seed Treaty, adopted in November 2001 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) after seven years of negotiations among 160 member-countries, has been signed by 68 countries, including the U.S. and the member-states of European Union, but ratified only by 12 countries, including India.

The Treaty, which has been interpreted to their advantage by developed countries, raises several important questions for developing countries, which are rich in genetic resources. For instance, there is the question whether intellectual property rights can be applied to the genetic resources in the `Multilateral System", that is, the 35 crops and 29 forages that the Treaty covers.

Article 12.3(d) of the Treaty, which states that "recipients shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System," was objected to by developed countries, particularly the U.S. But its subsequent interpretation by the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, set up by the U.K., which states that while patents cannot be taken "in the form received from the multilateral system", they can be taken on the genes "derived from the seeds kept under the rules of the multilateral system", made developed countries, including the U.S., sign the Treaty.

In other words, any material can be patented after it is modified. This Article would be most useful for multinational companies just as it helped Syngenta to try and acquire the rice germ plasm in IGKV's custody.

The IGKV-Syngenta controversy raises important questions about the legal mechanism to protect India's biodiversity. At present there are two pieces of legislation for this the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers' Rights Act (PVPFR), enacted in September 2001, and the Biodiversity Bill, passed in December 2002. But rules have been framed for neither.

How does one export/import germ plasm or share seeds for research with an international body? The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi, is the nodal agency to clear such deals. It relies on specialist bodies to facilitate clearances. For example, in the case of the Syngenta-IGKV collaboration, the Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad, would have had to approve the collaboration before the transfer was finally cleared by the Union Ministry of Agriculture. But, according to a report published by Down to Earth (December 31, 2002), NBPGR Director Baldev S. Dillon said that the IGKV had not even informed the Bureau about the collaboration proposal. According to Anurudh Kumar Singh, head of the NBPGR's Germ plasm Conservation Division, with the terms of engagement in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) still unclear, there is a virtual moratorium (though informal) on international transfer of genetic material.

According to well-known farm scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the Syngenta-IGKV controversy has come about because the CBD is yet to be implemented. The Biodiversity Authority, which is to put in place a structure for the implementation of the CBD, has not yet been set up. If the structure for the implementation of research collaborations had been made clear under the CBD, such a controversy would not have arisen, he said.

There are broadly two kinds of research collaborations partnerships for public good and for commercial gain. The two must be dealt with differently. In the case of research partnerships for commercial gain, the benefit-sharing norms, the conditions and rules of use of genetic material, and so on should be clearly laid down under the CBD. In order to gain from international research collaborations and in order to avoid controversies, the Centre should set up the Biodiversity Authority to implement the CBD without further delay, Dr. Swaminathan said.

Was the IGKV not aware of the due processes for such collaborations? "Yes, but we only had preliminary discussions," protests Vice-Chancellor Patil.

The IGVK-Syngenta controversy brings out the urgent need for a water-tight regulatory mechanism, and clear procedures for public awareness and scrutiny in the matter of sharing the country's genetic resources and thwarting private attempts at monopolising them.

Rice, the staple crop of millions of people, has strategic importance. At stake are the ability of the Indian farmer to compete in the global maketplace, the food security of the nation, and the public health of millions of people. But more important, such transactions make a mockery of the efforts of people such as Dr. R.H. Richharia, the well-known rice researcher, who spent a lifetime collecting rice germ plasm to help the local farmers.

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