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A Bad Seed In The Bag

The Indo-US deal on agriculture looks loaded in favour of American business

A Bad Seed In The Bag
A Bad Seed In The Bag
Where It Will Hit The Son Of The Soil
  • The KIA paves the way for more agriculture patents, making farmers dependent on private firms for technology
  • Thrust is on new research rather than better efficiency of existing technologies
  • Transfer protocol of bio-resources for research unclear. So, danger of bio-piracy.
  • Major agri-business corporations well represented on the KIA board
  • Left says the inherent privatisation in the deal is against the CMP of UPA regime


It hasn't raised as much controversy as the nuclear deal but there's another Indo-US programme kicking up a lot of dust among the scientific community and the Left parties. While many agricultural scientists and the CPI(M) have all along been critical of the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA)—which hopes to boost 'agricultural cooperation' between the two nations—opposition gained momentum last month with the well-known Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), a Secunderabad-based organisation, sending an open letter to the prime minister demanding the initiative be put on hold and reviewed immediately.

The KIA was announced during Manmohan Singh's US visit in July '05 and formalised along with the N-deal during George Bush's visit to India in March '06. The initiative has already been launched and seeks to promote agricultural interaction in sectors like food processing and marketing, biotechnology, water management and capacity building at universities. However, critics are of the view that the KIA makes way for an "American model" of agriculture, heavily dependent on patents and enhanced use of biotechnology, which will threaten the livelihood of Indian farmers.

G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, CSA executive director who was earlier with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), puts things in perspective: "The KIA is driven by corporate interests to establish intellectual property rights-based control on resources and technologies in India. This model of agriculture is propped up by ever-increasing subsidies and sustains about two per cent of the US population. For India, where over 60 per cent of the population depends on agriculture, the model is ecologically, socially and economically unadaptable."

According to him, one need not look further than BT cotton to see the consequences. "In a few years, the seed firms have established a near-monopoly and reduced the state to a party that fights a losing battle to lower the cost of BT seeds, even make cotton seeds available. Imagine if this were the case with every other crop," Ramanjaneyulu adds.

Some scientists also say the KIA remains vague on the terms of transfer of Indian genetic resources to the US for research. "It maintains a surprising silence on this issue," says S. Bala Ravi, an advisor with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and an ex-ADG (intellectual property rights) with ICAR. "This leaves open the possibility of misuse of Indian bio-resources transported under this agreement by unauthorised parties to the US and elsewhere."

This is very relevant as the US is yet to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity that does not allow private ownership of national bio-resources, Ravi stresses. And, in the past, this has enabled formulations based on turmeric and neem to be patented by private American firms. However, with India maintaining that bio-resources are national property, these patents were revoked following fierce opposition from the government. Ravi says the move to transfer bio-resources abroad under such agreements often sidelines the authority of the National Biodiversity Authority that protects bio-resources here.

Other than these factors, there are also some who feel the KIA is out of step with the prevailing agricultural policy discourse in India such as the Planning Commission's approach paper to the 11th Plan or the draft Kisan Policy laid down by the National Commission on Farmers. Kavita Kuruganti, a consultant with CSA, says, "Both these documents stress on bridging the gap between what is possible with existing technology in the labs and what farmers achieve on the ground. The KIA, on the other hand, pushes scientists further back into the labs."

The composition of the KIA board has also come up for criticism. For it counts members like Ted Huffman (director of Wal-Mart's supply chain in India), Rashmi Nair (director, strategic integration, Monsanto) and S. Sivakumar (chief executive of ITC Ltd's agri-business division) as representing business interests. The only NGO representation is that of Marshall Bouton, executive director, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

C. Shambu Prasad, associate professor of rural development at Bhubaneswar's Xavier Institute of Management, feels the KIA misses a key operative word, "namely the farmer or his/her viewpoint". "There is no reference to the ongoing farming crisis that has seen several thousand farmer suicides," he says. "Why is it that while the ongoing National Agricultural Innovation Project, involving the ICAR, clearly mentions the need for greater role for civil society and farmer associations, the KIA sees none," he wonders.

Coming to the political angle, much like the nuclear deal, the CPI(M) also opposes the KIA. "We have been opposed to it right from the beginning. Given that it has an impact on the lives of so many farmers, it is even more dangerous than the nuclear deal," says S. Ramachandran Pillai, politburo member and general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha. "The KIA goes against the common minimum programme of the UPA government that pledges to ensure that government agencies responsible for procurement and marketing will pay special attention to farmers. The KIA, on the contrary, allows private corporation to come in with their patents regime," he adds.

ICAR officials insist the KIA will help deal with emerging trends in agriculture arising out of climate change, new pests and natural resource depletion while also enhancing the role of the private sector in agriculture. A US embassy official said the KIA has already helped reduce food wastage because of improvement in market infrastructure and spread of the use of resource conservation technologies in the Indo-Gangetic plain. "The KIA's goal is to provide partners in the US and India exposure to contemporary developments in agriculture science. The applied research and innovations achieved are already being made available to farmers and agri-business in the US and India," the official added.

Those calling for a review of the KIA though aren't convinced. They now seek to revamp the National Agricultural Research System to accommodate local agri techniques which may not fit into the existing "scientific" framework. "This technical arrogance and reductionist science has caused the erosion of precious knowledge and natural resources amongst our farming communities," concludes Ramanjaneyulu.
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