The Great Indian Gene Bazaar

Published: Monday, Jul 02,2012, 17:15 IST
plant genetic resources, PGR, Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, Wall Street Journal captioned, Global Seed Business, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, ICAR, CGIAR, NGO Committee, UN FAO, ibtl column

It has taken the civil society years of struggle to ensure that the plant genetic resources (PGR), which is essentially the preserve of farmers, are not passed on freely into the hands of multinational corporations/seed companies. After the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in 1992, and plant varieties were for the first time accepted to be a national sovereign resource, the battle to seek control over PGR had of course intensified. Several agreements were signed at subsequent international treaties, including material transfer agreements that ensured no IPRs were taken on plants that the private seed companies collected from the public sector gene banks.

While the focus remained at the global level, I was startled to read a news report in the Wall Street Journal captioned: India Institute Seeks Expertise in Global Seed Business (see link: quoting the deputy director general (crops) of Indian Council of Agricultural Research who appears more than keen to sell off India's massive collection of plant resources to MNCs. "Mr Datta said collaborating with MNCs would be hugely profitable ... We really wouldn't mind taking a small share of profits. What would be more important is if we could use such collaborations to bring high-yielding seeds to our farmers at 50% of the cost."

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According to the news report, ICAR has sought the approval of Ministry of Agriculture.

What is shocking is that while the effort globally is to preserve and protect the plant genetic resources under public sector, despite several attempts to seek private control, India somehow seems oblivious of the threat. Some years back, the NGO community has opposed the induction of Syngenta Foundation in the board of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which governs the 16 international agricultural research centres. I was a member of the CGIAR NGO Committee Plus that had enmasse resigned in protest. Our objection primarily was the access that seed giant Syngenta would get to these international collections.     

Before the resignation of the CGIAR NGO Committee, there had been uproars over attempts by private companies to take control over these resources. The entire global collections (estimated to be around 700,000 plant accessions) in public sector were earlier brought under the UN FAO. It was then said that FAO is merely a custodian of these genetic resources, which actually belong to farmers from across the world. Prior to this, when Margaret Thatcher sold off the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge (UK) to Unilever, these collections were shifted to John Inn's Centre in Norwich.

As a member of the CGIAR's Central Advisory Board on Intellectual Property Rights, I had witnessed the attempts by seed industry to seek easy access over these collections, and also bring them under IPR control. Several attempts were thwarted, and I am quite sure the seed industry never liked my presence in this crucial decision making body. But what shocks me still further is the ease with which ICAR seems to be determined to sell-off 3,77,000 plant accession that lie in the National Gene Bank being managed by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi. India is one of the mega-diversity regions in the world, and it is believed that India's collections are very diverse and unique.

The day I got to know, I was speaking at a conference in Bangalore. I took the opportunity to comment on the destructive proposal (Indian Gene Bank up for sale. This is a precious resource, and I don't think any sensible government would take the extreme and idiotic step of selling these collections. By doing so, it will make all agreements pertaining to farmers rights redundant, and will bring agriculture completely under the yoke of MNCs.   

That brings me to another question. If ICAR thinks MNCs can help us breed improved varieties, I wonder what is the world's second-biggest research infrastructure supposed to do. Isn't it time we shut down the plethora of agricultural universities and specialised national institutes? India's economy is already in doldrums, and saving the expenditure on ICAR year after year will surely bring some relief.

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