Seeds of Prosperity

Eradicating poverty is possible only by raising productivity, employment and wages in rural India. One way of achieving this is to create conditions for India to become a big player in the global production of seeds.

Dr MS Swaminathan has repeatedly highlighted India’s potential in this respect, given its cheap scientific and agricultural manpower. He estimates India can capture one-fourth of the $ 16 billion world business in seeds, transforming rural employment, income and poverty.

Producing seeds is far moral labour-intensive than growing grain. Seed companies use specialised farmers to multiply foundation seed and produce hybrids. Such seed farmers use a lot of labour to space plants accurately, weed out non-standard plants, and ensure quality control. Some hybrids require ultra-labour-intensive manual sterilisation or hand-pollination.

While labour-intensity varies from one seed variety to another, some experts (like Dr JS Sindhu) estimate that seed production may use 10 times as much labour as grain production (this was confirmed by farmers’ associations in Belgium and Germany during a recent visit I made there).

So, if an additional one per cent of our agricultural area is devoted to the production of seeds for the global market, farm employment will rise by 10 per cent. This will be enough to wipe out unemployment and create labour shortages in the relevant areas, raising rural wage levels. This increase rural prosperity will in turn spark non-farm activities (shops, transport, construction), and will constitute a second-generation Green Revolution.

More than one million farms shrink to below one acre every year, thanks to population growth. Such small farmers are condemned to poverty growing grain. But even a one-acre farmer can earn good money through seeds. Dr Swaminathan estimates that seed production gives a farmer thrice as much income for cereals and ten times as, much for fruit and vegetables.

More than two-thirds of Indian farmers use seed saved from the last harvest. The rest have long used seeds bred, multiplied and certified by public sector institutions (sadly, the National Seeds Corporation is notorious for sub standard seeds). The 1988 seeds policy made it feasible for private breeders (many with foreign collaboration and investment) to start hybrid production, and they now account for the lion’s share of hybrid seeds for maize, Jowar, sunflower and possibly cotton. But in the absence of strong plant varieties protection (PVP), private breeding continues to be inhibited, and many world-class varieties are simply not brought into India.

HIGH YIELDS: If India is to become a global production centre for seeds, this will not only earn dollars but make available a much greater range of high-yielding, disease-resistant and pest- resistant seeds for all crops. These new varieties will cost more than existing ones but still be more profitable. Hybrid rice, for instance, may mean increased seed costs of Rs 500 per acre but increased rice production of Rs 3000 per acre.

There was a long debate in India on plant variety protection (PVP) mandated by the Uruguay Round of GATT. Protection was opposed by activists using both legitimate arguments (like the ethical questionability of patenting life forms) and plain lies (that GATT forbade farmers to save or exchange seeds).

Besides, the activists implied that the plant breeders were all from rich countries, whereas India itself has one of the biggest agricultural scientific workforces in the world, with a track record of producing world-class varieties (notably in cotton and castor). Now that GATT has been signed and its provisions have become the global rule, the debate is over. If India does not provide plant protection; foreign breeders will use Indian research free of charge while Indians will have to pay royalties for foreign research, which is ridiculous.

PLANT PATENTS: So we have to enact a Plant Varieties Protection Act. Some activists want help farmers by having the weakest possible protection, while most Indian scientists and breeders want strong protection. In fact we can have both. GATT, as well as the UPOV 1991 agreement, permit a country to protect farmers’ rights (to save and exchange seeds without paying royalty) while providing greater protection for breeders (against plagiarism, for longer periods, and for all varieties). So our new legislation should include strong breeders’ protection to promote R and D and attract global breeders to use India as a production centre; and it should simultaneously enshrine strong farmers’ rights. Breeders and farmers need each other and are not natural enemies.

Legislation alone will not suffice. Breeders in Europe are already using Hungary, Turkey and Israel for multiplying seed cheaply. They will move to India only where agroclimatic conditions are correct; where measures are taken to free the seeds produced from pathogens; where cheap Indian labour more than compensates for higher transport costs; and where quality is assured.

Of these, the last condition may be the most difficult, given the deplorable reputation of the National Seeds Corporation. But private seed companies have already commenced exports, and those with international collaboration will find it easiest to ensure the rigorous quality control needed. This great opportunity must not be wasted.

What do you think?