Letter to ICAR in protest against the reported offer of Indian gene banks to MNC partners

June 4, 2012

To:
Dr Swapan Kumar Datta,
DDG-Crop Science,
Indian Council For Agricultural Research,
New Delhi.
Email: ddgcs.icar@nic.in

In this news report, you are quoted as saying that ICAR is seeking to collaborate with MNCs, by offering its massive seed gene bank in exchange for “expertise”, to tap into an international seed market and for development of a variety of high-yielding, climate-tolerant seeds that could be used in India and elsewhere, “taking a small share of the profits”. Some of us assume that you have not said so and that you will send in a rejoinder to the journal.

However, if you had indeed said this, this letter is to highlight some pertinent points and register our serious objection to such proposals.

You seem to have forgotten that such collaborations with MNCs and others have already ended up with governments, public sector bodies and the private corporations having mud on their faces. This includes the infamous Bt brinjal bio-piracy issue with the National Biodiversity Authority deciding to prosecute the offenders, the “indigenous” Bt cotton ‘contamination-with-Monsanto-event’ episode and so on. All these cases show that complicated IPR issues are involved in all such collaborations and that farmer communities are not going to be sitting idle when germplasm that they and their ancestors have evolved goes to line the pockets of private corporations or entities such as yours, ostensibly set up for public good and run with public funds.

The Indian agricultural research establishment has evolved and released many seed varieties, through established varietal release mechanisms, over the years. However, the reason why such seed is not seen in the farmers’ field is because of deliberate government policies around promoting private and proprietary seed markets, not because you did not evolve new seed lines (especially in the past).

The germplasm collection, which you have so gratuitously offered, has been contributed to, by farming communities of the country. Public bodies like ICAR have been made a custodian of invaluable germplasm in good faith, and not to auction it off thereby alienating farmers from their own rightful resources and make such resources unaffordable and inaccessible for them! We have not forgotten all the scandals that abound in this country today, around the government making itself the owner of such natural resources.

We would also like to remind you about the ignominous Syngenta-IGKVV deal about a decade ago and how the farming communities in Chattisgarh forced both parties to beat a hasty retreat from such murky deals. Don’t also forget the attempted Mahyco tie up with the agriculture university in Kerala in the recent past to access their rice germplasm. This is just to remind you that farmers’ unions and all political outfits which are concerned about this country’s and farming communities’ sovereignty will not allow for such proposals. The reasons are obvious, the public is aware of the history of these corporations and the results of such tie-ups in the past. Also the fact of the matter is that even if you seem to want to write the epitaph of the public sector institutions like ICAR, the public is concerned about the genuine functioning and future of such public sector institutions, meant to support and cater to the real needs of farmers.

We are also deeply concerned about, opposed to and will continue to resist the anti-farmer, exclusionary, monopolistic behaviour of MNCs in their profit-mongering and we are unequivocally opposed to public institutions serving their interests. We are yet to see any collaboration where the farmers have actually benefited, that too in sustainable ways, from such partnerships with MNCs or other private entities. Remember that in the recent past, several state governments have realized this and decided against such collaborations in the states of Odisha, Rajasthan, Gujarat etc. In this context, ICAR coming up with such proposals demonstrates hubris and a complete lack of understanding about the real needs of the farming community.

It is ridiculous to talk about India and its public sector institutions capturing global seed markets (or a share of the same) when India’s seed sector is being captured by others leading to greater distress for our farmers – the cotton seed sector is a classic example where the public sector’s ineptitude and apathy was proven beyond doubt, with an American MNC controlling 93% of the seed market today.

The mandate for the Indian NARS is not to capture markets here or globally, but to cater to the real needs of our farmers, who are in deep distress. This is the hour when ICAR institutions should be rising to the challenge and providing sustainable solutions for farmers, not selling the germplasm of the nation and further jeopardizing our food sovereignty. Any meek or ambitious abandoning of its role and responsibility, despite the employees paying themselves good salaries and obtaining good infrastructure from public funds will not be tolerated.

Dr Datta, we would also like to remind you that during the Bt brinjal public debate organized by the then Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Environment & Forests, the issue of seed sovereignty was raised repeatedly in the debate, as a matter of grave concern for the citizens of this country. The Bt brinjal moratorium decision note of the MoEF also refers to potential jeopardy to national sovereignty and developing countervailing power (to Monsanto).

We regret having to make a personal statement about you and other people like Dr K C Bansal, who is heading the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, but this has to be said too – We don’t trust you to stand by the farmers in the country. You have personally proven yourself to be untrustworthy by interfering in the decision-making of the apex regulatory body related to GMOs in India (the GEAC – Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), by blatantly exhibiting conflict of interest in the case of your wife’s and your earlier research project on GM rice. Dr K C Bansal has openly lobbied along with industry associations in favor of transgenics and this ardent advocate of a controversial, unproven technology has now been given the responsibility of safeguarding the germplasm collection of the country, the NBPGR, even though it is well known that transgenic seeds will contaminate other varieties, and affect diversity!

This is to communicate our deep resistance to your proposals related to India’s gene banks. We will vehemently oppose all such moves and urge you to drop them.

cc:
Director-General, ICAR, Government of India;
Minister for Agriculture, Government of India;
Prime Minister of India.

Sincerely,

Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad
Kavitha Kuruganti, Sustainable Agriculture campaigner, Bangalore
Ramasubramanian, Samanvaya Consulting, Chennai
Ananthasayanan, Safe Food Alliance, Chennai
Usha Jayakumar, Thanal, Trivandrum
Pankaj Bhushan, Tara Foundation, Patna
Aruna Rodrigues, Lead Petitioner, SC PIL on GMOs