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Private sector investment and farm laws

January 06, 2013

PUNJAB minister for agriculture said recently while presiding over a meeting in Lahore that his government intends to amend certain laws relating to the agriculture sector.

The laws he mentioned related to pesticides, fertiliser and seeds. The legislative work for amendments in these and other farm laws would be complete after consultation with the stakeholders in the province.

One may recall that work on some important amendments has already begun in the National Assembly and their adoption had in fact been delayed. The problem arises from the fact that after the passage of the 18th Amendment, agriculture has become a provincial subject and any amendment to agriculture-related laws is the responsibility of the provincial legislature.

Two bills of extraordinary importance moved in the National Assembly in 2009 were approved by the standing committee on agriculture in 2010 but have not yet been taken up by the house for the final passage. They are Plant Breeders Rights Bill 2010 and Seed Amendments Bill 2010. These bills are of controversial nature and may cause a major setback to small farmers, in particular, by preventing them from performing their traditional and productive role in producing crops.

The objectives of the amendments are to provide larger participation to the private sector in agriculture and introduce latest developments in seed technology and seed industry to meet the country’s obligations under the WTO regime. Under the proposed legislations, which will create necessary conditions for the introduction and development of industrial agriculture, the farmers will have to give up their centuries-old practice of exchanging, sharing and reusing seeds of the previous crops.

The rights of the plant breeders are described as a limited form of proprietary rights, which permit their holders to exclude others to produce and sell seed of their plant varieties without legal authorisation. The holder charging royalty on the sale of seeds may initiate civil proceedings against the persons found infringing his rights. Such protection may provide reasonable incentives and encouragement to invest in plant breeding and research especially in the private sector. Pakistan being a member of the WTO is required to provide protection to plant varieties under sui generis system under Article 27-3 (b) of the WTO-TRIPS Agreement. The sui generis system for plant varieties must comply with the basic principles of national treatment.

Once the bill is passed, a Plant Breeders Rights Registry will be set up under the administrative control of Intellectual Property Organisation (IPO)-Pakistan on modern and competitive lines to provide an effective IPR system for granting protection to the development of new plant varieties and to establish a seed industry that ensures the availability of high quality seeds and planting material to farmers. The Plant Breeders Rights Bill would ensure protection of intellectual property rights of the breeders. The law is expected to pave the way for enhanced investment of private sector in breeding programmes for development of high-yielding hybrid varieties.

On December 12, officials of IPO-Pakistan and WTO wing of Punjab Agriculture Department held a meeting to devise an effective mechanism to jointly protect the rights of plant breeders and farmers as well as protection of geographical indications and use the latter as economic tools to bring investment in agriculture sector. This may lead to greater cooperation between federal and provincial governments for IPRs’ enforcement and for strong measures against counterfeit agricultural products to attract foreign investment in the agriculture sector.

A seminar held in Islamabad on December 28 was highly critical of the main features of the PBRs Bill 2010. The representatives of small farmers and civil society urged the parliamentarians not to pass the bill in its present form. They should first take measures to remove the flaws in the bill by taking on board all the stakeholders. And in case it was passed in haste there is every likelihood that it may lead to conflict of interests between the farmers community and the seed producing companies. The speakers asked the government to defer the bill to the next National Assembly after the elections.

The Bill, lying frozen in the National Assembly since 2010, has received fresh attention from the government after the emergence of the Intellectual Property Organisation (IPO) as a regulator of IPRs in the country. There are fears that if the existing version of the bill is passed, it will lead to creation of seed monopolies and enable multinational corporations to dominate Pakistan’s agriculture sector.

The Seed (Amendment) Bill, 2010, also passed by the NA standing committee in the same year, incorporates certain amendments to the Seed Act 1976 which were approved by the federal cabinet on September 30, 2009. Under the bill, those found selling and keeping unregistered and substandard seeds in the country will be subjected to heavy fines and may even face imprisonment of six months to two years.

Imported seeds, which are likely to dominate Pakistani market, would be registered only when they complete field trials of a mandatory period of two years and their success is proved in the trial period. There would be a larger fee structure for the private seed companies. The bill aims at making the seed legislation more effective as required under the rules of the WTO.

Once passed, it would enhance the role of the private sector in the garb of seed companies, seed dealers and seed processing units. It would create conditions for making available the pre-basic seed for the production of basic and certified seed in the private sector. The law would create opportunities for training of the people engaged in the seed industry and regulate the quality of transgenic varieties developed through genetic engineering.

While looking at history of the seed industry, one finds that from 1947 to 1961, there existed no independent seed production and distribution system. In 1961, West Pakistan Agricultural Development Corporation was created for procurement and distribution of seeds. It was dissolved in 1972.

The federal government initiated a Seed Industry Development Project on the recommendation of World Bank Appraisal Mission’s Report which provided legislative support through Seed Act, 1976. This law provided a regulatory mechanism for controlling and regulating the quality seed by creating necessary institutional infrastructure.