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FARMERS’ ALERT

April 2007

REGISTRATION OR REWARD FOR ‘GENOME SAVIOURS’ DOES NOT MEAN PROTECTION OF FARMERS’ INTERESTS

The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority has announced ‘The Plant Genome Saviour Community Recognition’ Award to recognise the contribution of rural and tribal communities to “genetic resources conservation and enhancement” . The award has been announced as part of the Plant Variety Authority’s dedicated efforts at the implementation of the Protection of Plant Varieties’ and Farmers’ Rights’ Act 2001. The Awards detract attention from the real problem with the Act – that the law actually threatens to alienate farmers from their crops by granting intellectual property rights over plants to few individuals, institutes or companies. Going by the progress of activities of the Plant Authority, the Award is only a means to lure farmers into registering their crops so they can be used for developing newer varieties and issuing many more “breeders’ rights”, which is only a lesser form of a patent.

The Plant Variety Authority functions under the Ministry of Agriculture. Apart from the Chairperson, its fifteen members are to include one representative from a National or State level farmers' organisation to be nominated by the Central Government. Under this Plant Variety Authority a National Plant Variety Registry has been established. In the office of this Registry will be maintained a National Register of Plant Varieties, which will contain the list of all plant varieties that will be registered. Registration is optional under the Act; it is of interest to those who wish to get exclusive economic rights for a “new”, “distinct”, “uniform” and “stable” plant variety that they might have developed. The effect of registration under this Act is that the breeder applying for it gets a plant variety certificate that gives an exclusive right to produce, sell, market, distribute, import or export the plant variety for a period of 15 years if it is a crop and 18 years if it is a tree or vine. “Protecting” a plant variety by such registration, however, means protecting only the economic rights over the plant. It does not mean conservation of that plant! Granting a certificate of registration is equivalent to saying that the government recognises the breeder as the “maker” and owner of that plant. The law also states that the Authority may provide for the documentation, indexing and cataloguing of farmers’ varieties . It must be remembered that farmers cannot be forced to have their varieties listed in a government-maintained register if they do not wish to.

Now, the Act lays down that the farmer who is engaged in the conservation of genetic resources of land races and wild relatives of economic plants and their improvement through selection and preservation shall be entitled in the prescribed manner for recognition and reward from the National Gene Fund. The Central Government is supposed to set up the National Gene Fund and has been empowered under the Act to make rules to grant the awards. The Act, however, makes it clear that the reward is for only those farmer varieties that have some “economic” value for breeders and which have been used as base material or donor crop for further development by formal breeders. Thus, farmers are supposed to preserve the raw material, which breeders can further develop into a plant variety and market and profit from.

The National Gene Fund comprises of the fees charged from plant breeders (be it a research institute, domestic company or foreign multinational) when granting a certificate of registration of a plant variety. So the rewards to farmers are from the money got from the privatisation of farmers’ genetic material! To announce “genome saviour” awards to tribal farmers or rural communities from that same money is a manipulative tactic to garner support for a questionable legislation.

Small farmers do not simply save genes when they select and develop a variety; they sustain a way of life and a culture. To even label them merely “genome saviours” is to reduce the holistic nature of what farmers do, to a phrase they would neither understand nor appreciate. Seeds and plants are not “genomes” (DNA sequences out of context with mere economic value) to farmers, they are life, livelihoods and the very basis of their culture. Though the Act and Rules state that money from the Fund is also to be applied for conservation of agro-biodiversity hotspots and capacity building of Panchayats for conservation, will that money be acceptable to farmers if it is sourced from a process and principle that contributes to the alienation of their crops? Acts like this which claim to be recognising the contribution of farmers and tribal communities are actually stripping the poor of their collective rights over resources and paving way for greater and much more severe marginalisation.

From the Campaign for Community Control over Biodiversity