Seed Relay of India: Players Gain or Consumer’s Headache

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The pro-technology government seems keen to introduce genetically modified (GM) crops in India and holding closed-door meetings with the affiliated groups like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh to end their opposition to the crops (Jyotika, 2015). It is noteworthy that three hybrids of Bt cotton were introduced in India by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB) in 2002 in Gujarat. This Bt cotton, which produces its own pesticide, is the country’s only GM crop and covers 95 percent of India’s cotton cultivation of 11.6 million hectares in 28.7 million acres (Krishna, 2015). The government is planning to introduce GM seeds for brinjal, maize etc. in near future for economic growth of the country. Apart from this the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 also allow the GM food and derivatives to be labeled and thereby one step ahead to flourish biotech food market in the country. This article tries to analyze farmers and consumers interest related to GM seeds in India.

Legislative Overview

The first specific legislation (though Environment Protection Act, 1986 is old but not specific) toward the bio-conservation is the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 for accelerated agricultural development in the country. As per the Preamble of the Act, it is necessary to protect plant breeders’ rights to stimulate investment for research and development, both in the public and private sector, for the development of new plant varieties; and whereas such protection will facilitate the growth of the seed industry in the country which will ensure the availability of high quality seeds and planting material to the farmers. However, the notable cause of enactment was sub-paragraph (b) of paragraph 3 of Article 27 in Part II of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights in relation to protection of plant varieties. After that the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 was passed in the light of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The said Convention reaffirms the sovereign rights of the States over their biological resources and has the main objective of conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of utilization of genetic resources. First genetically modified seeds (also known as transgenic seeds) were planted in the United States for commercial use in year 1996.

Commercialization of Seeds & Seeds Act

The commercial release of genetically modified seeds opened the floodgates for genetically modified (hereinafter GM) crops and other derivatives in the form of food and dairy products. As a result of approval by the various international organizations and countries’ (US,UK,EU etc.) legislature and government the multinational companies started producing and selling GM seeds by using terminator gene technology (Genetic use restriction technology or GURT) in which plant cells are modified to produce sterile seeds. This affected the rights and freedoms of farmers on one hand and the consumers’ right to food as well as informed choice on the other hand.

There is no doubt about the benefits of GM crops in terms of high yield and less use of chemical fertilizers but the impact on human health and contamination of existing biodiversity or bio-pollution is still a worry which is caused by an improbable concatenation of circumstances. Several incidents in recent years of adventitious presence of GM seed in conventional seed or incidents of accidental admixture of GM and conventional seed have highlighted the need for having reliable GMO analysis methods at hand. Consequently Indian Seeds Act, 1966 also needs amendment. Further the compulsory registration of seed combined with the power of seed inspectors to enter and search premises (which now mean farmers’ huts and fields), the power to break open any container and any door is tantamount to creating a ‘Seed Police’ to terrorize farmers who are conserving biodiversity and practicing a sovereign self-reliant agriculture. The fine for seed exchange and barter of unregistered seed (thousands of farmers varieties has a fine of up to Rs. 25000). While criminalizing farmers who consume biodiversity and traditional varieties, the Seed Act fails to do one thing it should have done, which is to regulate and hold liable private seed industry for seed failure and genetic contamination from GMO’s. For Example the failure of maize seeds in Bihar coasted more than 1000 cores to Bihar farmers and the constant failure of Bt. cotton annually is costing more than a billion dollars to Indian farmers.

Labeling and Consumer Rights

Several pieces of legislation at international and National plane now demand labeling thresholds to be observed. India’s name was also joined in the list of countries which have GM labeling law in January, 2013 when The Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 came into effect. The said rules were framed under Section 52 of the Legal Metrology Act, 2009 which came into operation in 2010. According to the Rules “every package containing the genetically modified food shall bear at the top of its principal display panel the letters “GM”. Now the issue is that the mention of capital English alphabets “GM” itself may be misleading for Indian consumers as the small English alphabets “gm” is used for the unit of weight i.e. grams. A common man who does not know the difference can purchase and consume the GM food or derivative. The other issue is about consumer law of India. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is silent as regards to the biotechnology treated goods and the provisions related to goods under the Act are not sufficient for these “novel goods”. The hue and cry so far was about labeling of GMOs but in author’s view the entry of GM goods in Indian market is by itself is the Pandora’s box due to lack of direct legislations and insufficiency of well-equipped sophisticated laboratories to trace the presence of genetic modifications in plants or animals or in their derivatives. More so, Indian markets are not limited to supermarkets or authorized outlets of packaged food and as a tradition large population buy the edibles from the road side shops in the vicinity of their residence. Hence to label the biotech product may not be helpful for the common man of India.

To sum up, it would be appropriate to say that the genetic engineering craze is absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars, untold time and energy both of promoters and skeptics. This is yet another catastrophic diversion from the core question of any democracy that Why hunger amidst plenty? The GMO debate jumps over this question entirely, as self-interested corporations deliberately reinforce the myth that our planet’s problem is scarcity from which only their products can save us. In fact, these corporations are seeking to make the world dependent on their engineered seeds, have had the gall to tell us we need their technology to “feed the hungry” when the bane of farmers around the world has long been overproduction, because too many people are so poor they can’t even afford what’s already grown. Still, for the rapidly developing Indian economy its biotechnology sector can do wonders. The cultivation of transgenic plants may turn to “Green Revolution II” if a balanced approach is adopted by enacting a simple but comprehensive legislation under strict surveillance by the law makers.

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