THE Standing Committee of the National Assembly approved the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act on Jan 6. The story has taken 20 years in telling people that the current Plant Breeders’ Rights Act lies in the corporate interest.
The country is in an extremely vulnerable situation be it the economic hardship faced due to shrinking productivity, escalating hunger and malnutrition, or the multiple faces of climate change in the form of heat wave, drought or floods. To these factors may be added the WTO trade-related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement.
The backbone of the economy is still largely agriculture not only for food security but for the livelihood of the most vulnerable people. Farming is also a crucial raw material provider to our industries particularly cotton for our most thriving textile sector.
The consistent interest of international aid agencies such as the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) and Australian Aid Agency (DFAT) is very visible in the agriculture sector encompassing the farm land, policy arena and universities. This interest is tied to their self interest as agriculture is a lucrative sector for their corporate businesses. And the seed sector is a critical area in this context. The amended Seed Act 2015 was part of the agenda to promote corporate interest in Pakistan’s agriculture.
The Plant Breeders’ Rights are similar to patent systems, meant to prohibit the unauthorised use of a plant variety that is ‘owned’ by a plant breeder. Specialists explain that the PBR laws as applied only to plants, and hence are among the class of sui generis systems, that is, special purpose systems. For a plant breeder to be granted PBR, the variety has to meet conditions of being distinct, stable in successive generations and with uniform characteristics. Plant breeders have to seek intellectual property (IP) protection in every country where they want to commercially produce their plant variety.
The corporate seed sector, much of which is based in the rich industrialized North and their powerful governments, has insisted that all WTO member states comply with a harmonized minimum level of IP protection
This is the crux of the matter. Giant seed corporations who now claim ‘ownership’ over genetic material are using it to produce new so-called GMOs, such as Bt cotton, golden rice or other hundreds of genetically modified seeds and plants.
The corporate seed sector, much of which is based in the rich industrialised North, and their powerful governments, has insisted that all WTO member-states comply with a harmonised minimum level of IP protection.
The International Convention (treaty) for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants was first adopted in 1961. This treaty in its earlier years basically catered to industrialised countries when IP on living things were forbidden. The treaty has been revised many times and the last time in 1991.
The treaty is considered highly dangerous to not only farmers but Earth’s biodiversity as conditions of stability and uniformity rely on very few genes.
The vast array of genetic resources is critical to the survival of ecological zones and systems. The myopic intervention in the agriculture system can result in wide spread disease and disaster as seen in the Bt cotton harvest season in 2015.
According to the 1991 treaty, if a farmer has sown a field with protected variety, he/she is liable for infringement and can end up paying penalty as is specified in the PBR laws. It needs to be stressed that the PBR will take away the ability of farmers to save and exchange seeds and economise on costs.
For the small and landless farmers, the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act will result in a fresh wave of financial hardships. The indigenous, traditional methods and systems of food production are all at risk.
However, there is still time. Agriculture is a provincial subject as per the 18th Amendment. It is critical that this PBR legislative process should be brought under the ambit of the provincial assemblies and opened for farmers’ consultation. We cannot afford to have our seed sector governed by the giant corporate.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, January 18th, 2016