Draft Seeds Bill, 2019
TOPIC: General Studies 3
In News: Availability of good quality seeds to farmers is a necessary condition for boosting agricultural output. Seeds occupy a peculiar position in agriculture. They are at the root of big policy making, scaled agricultural outputs, while also at the top of discourses on food security, livelihood and innovation. They may seem to strengthen the quality food policy, but are integral to farmers. The draft Bill will replace the 1966 Seeds Act.
Purpose: To provide for regulating the quality of seeds for sale, import and export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto
In 1994, India signed the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). In 2002, India also joined the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention. Both TRIPS and UPOV led to the introduction of some form of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over plant varieties. Member countries had to introduce restrictions on the free use and exchange of seeds by farmers unless the “breeders” were remunerated.
TRIPS and UPOV, however, ran counter to other international conventions. In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provided for “prior informed consent” of farmers before the use of genetic resources and “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” arising out of their use. In 2001, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recognised farmers’ rights as the rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. National governments had the responsibility to protect such farmers’ rights.
As India was a signatory to TRIPS and UPOV (that gave priority to breeders’ rights) as well as CBD and ITPGRFA (that emphasised farmers’ rights), any Indian legislation had to be in line with all. It was this delicate balance that the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act of 2001 sought to achieve. The PPVFR Act retained the main spirit of TRIPS viz., IPRs as an incentive for technological innovation. However, the Act also had strong provisions to protect farmers’ rights. It recognised three roles for the farmer: cultivator, breeder and conserver. As cultivators, farmers were entitled to plant-back rights. As breeders, farmers were held equivalent to plant breeders. As conservers, farmers were entitled to rewards from a National Gene Fund.
Why does India need a new Seed Bill?
- To enhance seed replacement rates in Indian agriculture
- Specify standards for registration of seed varieties
- Enforce registration from seed producers to seed retailers
Features of the Bill
- All varieties of seeds for sale have to be registered.
- The seeds are required to meet certain prescribed minimum standards.
- Transgenic varieties of seeds can be registered only after the applicant has obtained clearance under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
- The label of a seed container has to indicate specified information.
- The Bill exempts farmers from the requirement of compulsory registration.
- Farmers are allowed to sow, exchange or sell their farm seeds and planting material without having to conform to the prescribed minimum limits of germination, physical purity and genetic purity (as required by registered seeds). However, farmers cannot sell any seed under a brand name.
- Done away with the clause that stipulates constitution of a committee to decide on compensation to be given to affected farmers when seeds sold by companies and their agents fail to meet the promised performance under given conditions.
- Redressal mechanism is absent: Seed failure happens when shoddy companies sell shoddy seeds. To protect farmers against this, there are provisions within the PPVFRA to claim compensation. In the seeds bill, the farmer cannot claim compensation within the purview of the law. Here, he must approach the consumer courts under the Consumer Protection Act to claim compensation for the failed seed. This is manifestly unfair since the government has washed its hands off its responsibility and laid the burden on the farmer. He will spend his money and run around from pillar to post for years claiming compensation, which may never come. For the farmer, the redressal mechanism has to be simple, accessible and time bound. The primary onus has to be taken by the State, to get justice for farmers in case of seed quality failures. It cannot be left to individual farmers to fight it out as consumers in the market
- Provision to regulate prices of seeds sold – Regulation of quality of seed will no longer be enough to protect farmers’ interests unless seed prices are also regulated
- As per the PPVFR Act, all applications for registrations should contain the complete passport data of the parental lines from which the seed variety was derived, including contributions made by farmers. This allows for an easier identification of beneficiaries and simpler benefit-sharing processes. Seeds Bill, on the other hand, demands no such information while registering a new variety. As a result, an important method of recording the contributions of farmers is overlooked and private companies are left free to claim a derived variety as their own.
- The PPVFR Act, which is based on an IPR like breeders’ rights, does not allow re-registration of seeds after the validity period. However, as the Seeds Bill is not based on an IPR like breeder’s rights, private seed companies can re-register their seeds an infinite number of times after the validity period. Given this “ever-greening” provision, many seed varieties may never enter the open domain for free use.
- Exemption for offences committed by companies – This clause seeks to absolve company officials from any punishment for violations, saying that if they prove it happened without their knowledge, they are not liable.
- According to the Seeds Bill, farmers become eligible for compensation if a plant variety fails to give expected results under “given conditions”. “Given conditions” is almost impossible to define in agriculture. Seed companies would always claim that “given conditions” were not ensured, which will be difficult to be disputed with evidence in a consumer court.
- Definition of farmer – The given definition is that a farmer is anyone who owns cultivable land. Seed Bill, in fact, has got nothing to do with ownership of the land.
The Way Ahead
Strong public agricultural research systems ensure that the choices between hybrids, varieties and farm-saved seeds remain open, and are not based on private profit concerns. Even if hybrids are the appropriate technological choice, seed prices can be kept affordable. For the seed sector and its laws to be truly farmer-friendly, the public sector has to recapture its lost space.
Connecting the Dots:
- The new draft Seed Bill will make the farmer run from pillar to post. Do you agree? Substantiate