KARACHI: Fifty non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from across the country have urged the Senate not to pass an important bill the National Assembly quietly passed last month.

The NGOs insist that the draft of the Seed (Amendment) Act, 2014 had been developed without seeking input from key stakeholders, such as farmers, and was passed by the assembly without any debate.

“The text of the bill was neither made public nor comments sought from relevant stakeholders, despite the fact that the bill was linked to many contentious issues and, if turned into a law, would have far-reaching implications, especially on farmers,” says a recent letter signed by 50 NGOs and faxed to the chairman of the Senate, where the bill now awaits approval.

The bill seeking changes in the existing Seed Act, 1976 was approved by the lower house on March 16.

According to the letter, the bill takes away the most fundamental right of farmers to conserve, sell and exchange seed and it must be rejected by the upper house.

“The bill allows intellectual property rights (IPR) on seeds, which goes against the very ethos, social practices and seed cultures of Pakistan’s farming communities. The IPR in the seed sector has only gained recognition after the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, and its IPR agreement — Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Propriety Rights (TRIPS).

“Pakistan is a founder member of the WTO. Like any other WTO member, it has the legitimate right to use the flexibilities in TRIPS when it considers a WTO-compliant domestic legislation,” the letter says.

The TRIPS, it says, allows WTO member countries to develop a sui generis system for the protection of plant varieties, suited to their realities.

“Pakistan should not fulfil the monopolistic demands of multinational seed corporations, who were incidentally also involved in the drafting of TRIPS,” the letter reads.

It accuses the government of adopting an anti-farmer legislation on the directions of the United States. “The Seed (Amendment) legislation has been enacted to appease the United States whose agriculture department and trade negotiators have been consistently pointing out the supposed lack of IPR protection for its proprietary agricultural technologies, such as genetically engineered seeds, which it would like to market in the country and across the Asian region.

“A full-fledged legislation on IPR — the draft of the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act has been in the pipeline since 2007 and is pending in the National Assembly. There are reports that it would also be passed by the lower house. This too requires serious deliberation,” the letter states.

Violation of farmers’ right

Highlighting concerns over genetic engineering (GE) in the seed sector, the letter says it has barely been adopted in 30 countries worldwide, that too under pressure from the US and the biotech companies it fosters.

“GE crops have lacked acceptance by both the people and countries of the European Union, as they fear the adverse impact of such unnatural technology on human health, the ecological systems while having other socio-economic ramifications.

“In Pakistan, Monsanto, a US transnational corporation who holds patent rights on a GE cotton seed, namely Bt cotton, is a major player in demanding IPR protection. In addition, GE maize (also of Monsanto) is going through field trials in the country,” it says.

The new law, the letter says, will make the farmers dependent on the foreign companies and it will be a great hurdle in the development and sovereignty of the nation.

“The law if changed as per the current amendments will open the floodgates of hybrids and GE crop varieties, from countries like India where the international seed industry has been consolidating itself. In the past GE Bt cotton has been exported by seed multinational companies from India to Pakistan,” it states.

Under the yet-to-be approved law, famers will be bound to buy seeds from a licensed company or its agents and they have to do so every time they cultivate in a new season that would add to financial hardships of farmers that often rely on seeds they conserve.

“It is extremely tragic that farmers’ right to conserve, sell and exchange seeds has been taken away under this law. It may be mentioned here that farmers exchange 75 to 80 per cent of seeds among themselves,” the letter says.

The bill, according to the letter, is silent on guarantees on seed germination and has no mechanism for taking legal action against a company, if its seeds fail to produce desired results.

“On the other hand, farmers have been threatened under the bill by heavy fines and imprisonment for preserving, selling and exchanging seeds, a grave injustice to the right of small and landless farmers.

“These stipulations under the new law will only aggravate food insecurity in the country. The increase in the cost of the seed will also be borne by small and landless farmers who are already burdened by huge agricultural products cost such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides and other market driven agricultural inputs. However, encouraging the production of seeds within the country by our farmers themselves will not also secure sources for locally adaptive seeds but would also help tackle the climate crisis,” the letter says.

It also questions as why the National Assembly passed a bill that should have been deliberated by provincial assemblies as agriculture is now a provincial subject under the 18th constitutional amendment.

“We demand that this act that violates farmers’ fundamental freedoms should be effectively blocked in the interest of the people of Pakistan and the seed and food future of the country,” the NGOs demand, requesting the Senate chairman to provide them an opportunity for personal hearing.

The letter signatories include Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek, Pakistan Roots for Equity, Sindh, Sustainable Action Agriculture Group, Islamabad, ASR Resource Centre, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan Kissan Ittehad Network, Balochistan , Sungi Development Foundation, Abbottabad, Roshani Taraqiyati Tanzeem, Ghotki, Sindh, Peoples Peace Alliance, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan Kissan Ittehad Network, Sindh and Health & Rural Development, Balochistan.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2015

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