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  • Siddharth Jain & Ishaan Sood

Sowing the ‘Seeds’ of Monopoly: GMO Regulations Vis-A-Vis the Farm Laws

Introduction

The Green Revolution since the beginning has seen its fair sceptics and defenders, but what remains undeniable is the vast increase in land productivity it effectively brought. Since the 1960s in India, the per hectare land cultivation of rice grain has doubled whereas for wheat it has quintupled. However, even in the wake of such exponential increase in productivity, rising populations have forced the resurgence of this phenomenon in the form of a second Green Revolution. Just as high-yielding variety seeds were at the centre of the first Green Revolution, a wide variety of genetically modified crops (GMCs, GM crops, or biotech crops) lie at the centre of the second.


Genetically modified crops are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. Genetic engineering is the simple addition, deletion, or manipulation of a single trait in an organism to create the desired change. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Currently in India there are more than twenty GM crops at various stages of research testing waiting to be commercialised, these include cotton, brinjal, mustard, potato, cauliflower, wheat etc.


GM Crops: Rules & Regulations in India

GM crops in India are regulated under the rules for the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous microorganisms, genetically engineered organisms or cells, 1989, mentioned in the Environmental Protection Act, 1986.  These rules are enforced through six different regulatory bodies jumbled in an inter-web of different departmental jurisdictions and at the top of the hierarchy lies the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Another important governing body which runs parallel to the GEAC is the Department of Biotechnology which operates under the Ministry of Science and Technology and while the GEAC has the authority to approve or disapprove GM testing, the role of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RDAC) (the main executive body of the Department of Biotechnology) is only advisory in nature.


A standing parliamentary committee report titled ‘Cultivation of genetically modified food crops- prospects and effects’ highlights the shortcomings of this regulatory framework. It reports that most of these committees lack statutory authority and the lack of a central body masks the entire process in ambiguity. Furthermore, India being a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol– which provides for the establishment of necessary infrastructure and proper redress mechanisms for biotechnology- has failed to fulfil its treaty obligations. Moreover, the committee opines that failing to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis, GM crops ultimately only benefit the industry providing such seeds and crops which is compounded by the  lack of proper research and testing and ultimately detrimental to the economic health of the farmers as well as to the environment. In addition to this, agriculture being a state subject, the open-field testing of GM crops should be a discretionary power of the given state but on the contrary, there were no provisions for mandatory consultation with the state governments regarding such testing. Therefore, on the whole, the committee elucidated the non-sustainability of GM crops in a developing nation like India.


What Genetically Modified Crops Bring to the Table; and Take Away

The primary concern of those who oppose GMOs is the undeniable unsustainable agricultural practices it eventually leads to. GM crops are fundamentally plant varieties of organisms whose genetic makeup has been modified, this can be done through scientific techniques such as gene splicing which is only possible in laboratories or through basic cross fertilisation which helps us attain hybrid crops. The progeny of either of these techniques can be categorised under the term transgenic crops, which is the same classification to which the HYV seeds of the first green revolution belonged, these seeds enabled farmers to produce 5 times the normal yield on the same piece of land and bring developing nations out of the clutches of famines and poverty,  But the entire picture is not so rosy, HYV seeds require high amounts of fertilisers, excessive irrigation and the use of toxic pesticides all of which have greatly affected the ecological balance of various states in India. The use of such seeds, especially in states such as Punjab and Haryana have led to severe water depletion, groundwater pollution, soil erosion and loss of genetic variation in these states. For instance,  Haryana which once produced a wide variety of pulse grains now solely produces wheat and rice which is a direct consequence of the availability of high yield varieties in such crop species, therefore, the apprehension ensues that the problems brought in by the first Green Revolution, will simply be carried onto the second. Scientists blame the extensive use HYV seeds for such deterioration in the crop variety and soil quality. Furthermore, a major problem with transgenic crops arises out of the fact that such seed varieties do not produce fertile crops, therefore after the third plantation, the farmer has to buy seeds anew. This has resulted in debt traps and a multitude of farmers committing suicide, therefore a major contention of the opposers of GM crops has been that through such practices, large corporations who control such seeds are the only ones who profit.


On the other hand, scientists and policymakers are pushing GM crops as the only available option to feed an ever-expanding population. In a country where 51% of the geographical land is used for agriculture and a large chunk of the population still relies on it for daily sustenance, organic farming cannot be the only option if it comes at the sacrifice of productivity. Eradicating hunger is a major sustainable goal to be achieved and some perceive the drawbacks of GM crops as being insignificant compared to the innovations that it offers.


Creation of Monopoly

While the seed manufacturing and trading of produce may seem two distinct issues, they are intimately connected. The critics of the farm laws fear the intervention of private players and the creation of monopolies in the agriculture sector but have sadly overlooked the pre-existing monopoly in the seed supply. Giants like Monsanto (Bayer), Syngenta and DuPont have a firm grip on the seed markets globally, and especially the genetically modified crop seeds. Monsanto alone has 95% market share in India when it comes to GM cotton.


By gaining control over the seeds, which is the first link in the chain, these corporations further control the process by providing pesticides, technology, machinery, etc. at expensive prices. With the emergence of these corporations, the small and medium seed manufacturing businesses were forced to move out of the competition. The farmers are lured into buying the hybrid seeds by promising exponentially higher yields with lower inputs (since GM crops require minimal pesticides and herbicides), however, the reports present a different story. In the first harvest, the yield increases by 15 to 30% but with every subsequent cycle, the quantity gradually declines. Moreover, these crops which are specially engineered to fight pests and diseases, lose their resistance to such pests over time, resultantly, the planters have to buy expensive chemicals and fertilisers to protect their crop. As a matter of fact, these fertilisers and pesticides are also produced by these mega-corporations, thereby not only controlling the seed supply but also by providing the ancillary products. Researchers find that similar yield can be produced even by using the natural seeds and they are also better from the economic and environmental point of view in the longer run. This has been a major cause of agrarian distress for the last two decades as it financially ruins them and pushes them into vicious debt-cycle.


Cumulative Impact of Seed Monopolies and the Farm Laws

The new farm policies tend to de-regulate the agriculture sector and aim to accelerate the growth by allowing private players to invest. The farmers can now access wider markets without the help of middlemen, this allows them to directly sell to national and international buyers. There are however a few concerns pertaining to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) which has not been codified in any of the Acts, and since the private markets won’t be supervised, the farmers are likely to receive prices far lower than the MSP. This poses a threat of creation of monopolies and formation of cartels by big industrial houses. Over time, the farmers would have to sell at the whims of these cartels and will assume the role of price-takers rather than price-makers.


If we take a holistic view of the existing seed monopoly and the potential monopoly in trading, we observe that farmers buy their seeds from corporations like Monsanto, use fertilizers and pesticides from such corporations, buy technology and machinery from the corporations and now, would have to even sell to the corporations, even against their own will. This will reduce the position of a farmer to a mere labourer, having no autonomy over the production, procurement of raw material and trading of the produce.


The private groups would only aim to multiply their profits at the expense of the farmers, who are already debt-ridden or are financially very weak. The monopoly power restricts the entry of new competitors, concentrates the research & development only to the hands of wealthy conglomerates and leads to massive price hikes. The farm laws have failed to address the advancements in the genetically modified crop sector. None of the three acts talk about the commercial trading of the GMO produce, leave aside the formation of seed-monopolies and generation of super-profits by the business organisations.


These corporations also have better access to the patenting and legal framework which gives them an upper hand over the farmers. Moreover, the GMOs and hybrid seeds, which are  expensive compared to the natural seeds, reduce the soil nutrients and fertility, and the crops also lose their pest-resistant abilities. As a result, these companies further tighten their grip on the market by providing solutions to such problems, and since the farmers are left with no other alternative, they succumb to the corporations.


The Way Forward

Although the research and production of GM crops and hybrid seeds are regulated under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (Rules, 1989), the procurement and trading of the GMO harvest should come under the 3 new farm laws namely, Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The government should look into adopting the following recommendations to serve the interests of the farmers, the capitalists and not to forget, the environment:

  1. Establishment of smaller authorities by the Competition Commission to look into the matters of cartelisation and monopolization. These authorities would work as the bridge between farmer unions and the CCI.

  2. Constitution of GEAC under a statutory act so as to provide more power and autonomy to function as a regulator. This would reduce the legal loopholes and also standardise the procedure for the companies to get approvals for GMOs.

  3. The government should fix stricter liabilities on the corporations which produce GM seeds and also on the organisations that further sell the products which are grown using genetically modified crops.

  4. Some form of liability should also be imposed on the companies which manufacture GMO and HYV seeds, if in case the seeds do not generate the desired output. This is because currently, only the farmers face the losses because of the high input-low output ratio.

  5. The corporations should assume a greater role by providing financial assistance to the farmers in need and also by enhancing their skills by introducing them to new techniques of cultivation.

  6. Seeds should be allowed for larger-scale commercial use only after rigorous tests. Proper environmental assessment and biodiversity impact analysis should be done for the GMO and hybrid seeds. The reports of such tests should be publicised so that the consumer can make an informed choice.

  7. The farmers need to be educated about the harms (both financial and biological) of the use of GMO. Along with crops produced using the genetic and hybrid means, farmers should also practice organic farming. Since organic and traditional farming is not only economically viable, but they also increase crop diversity. For instance, before the Green Revolution, India had around 50,000 varieties of rice which now has been reduced to mere 40.

  8. The policymakers should remould the existing intellectual property regime so that the corporations do not take undue advantage of small farmers by procuring unfair patents over the seeds and dragging them into vexatious litigation.

Conclusion

Even though Bt Cotton is the only commercialised GM crop in India at this point, with growing industrialisation and technological advancements, increase in the commercial use of GMOs and hybrid variety of seeds is almost inevitable. It is now the responsibility of the government to formulate policies and to execute them in the right way so that the damage these techniques present can be mitigated.


At one end, where the farmers were already struggling with the monopolisation and cartelisation in the seed supply industry, the government by introducing the new farm laws has further worsened the situation. The big corporate houses by expanding and capitalising on the agrarian sector would take away the little autonomy farmers had left with them. Complete deregulation and privatisation of the sector would prove detrimental to the status of the farmers as they form the majority of the workforce in India.


A balance needs to be created for the interest of farmers, business houses, consumers and the environment. Also, the general public should be responsible towards the small farmers and promote them by buying their products instead of enhancing the superfluous profits of large corporations.

 

This article has been authored by Siddharth Jain and Ishaan Sood, Junior Editor and Digital Editor at RSRR. This blog is a part of our Editorial Series, ‘Agricultural Laws: Breaking New Ground for Sustainable Futures’. 

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