People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09


Agriculture Initiative: Handing Indian Agriculture to Monsantos




Bush descends on the country, a number of events are planned to synchronise with
his visit and mark its success. One amongst the many has a vital bearing on more
than 60% of Indian population, namely the “Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on
Agricultural Research and Education.” This is a follow-up of the understanding
reached during Manmohan Singh’s US visit and the subsequently, the Indo-US
Umbrella Agreement signed in October last year. The disquieting part of this
knowledge initiative is that it is very clearly driven by Monsanto and Wal Mart
from the US side. The US side has also made clear that any funding that comes to
this initiative from the US side will be from the private sector and will be
obviously tied to the US IPR laws.


Indian side may hark back to the green revolution and the role that the US land
grant universities played in it. The world has changed since then and the key
element of this change in the realm of agriculture is that unlike the science of
green revolution that came from public domain science, today’s gene revolution
depends almost entirely on private domain science. This means that if we harness
Indian scientific research to the US, then it is allowing the complete dominance
of companies such as Monsanto on Indian agriculture. If the future of Indian
agriculture lies in biotechnology, as the Indian Government believes, then
allowing US MNCs to dominate Indian agricultural research would be the worst
outcome for Indian farmers.


with this attempt to yoke Indian agricultural research to the US private
bandwagon, is the attempt to sell a model of a completely corporatised
agriculture. Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia have been talking about the
need to bring in private capital in a big way in Indian agriculture as the only
solution to the agrarian crisis in the country. We will not go in the details of
this vision, but will only note that corporatising agriculture will do little to
help the bulk of the rural population. With its focus on commercial crops, bulk
procurement and retail chains, such
can only weaken the small farmer even more. Already in Punjab, corporate
interests such as Monsanto, Reliance and others are making a beeline for agri-retail
trade. With gradual withdrawal of the Government from procurement, more and more
of retail trade for agriculture is going pass into these hands. 
The presence of Wal Mart on the US side also makes clear the interest
that the US has in opening India’s internal and external trade in agriculture
to US companies.


first Green Revolution grew from an international public research system that
began in the 1940s and built up a chain of research centres worldwide. These
centres collaborated through the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of donors including foundations,
national governments, United Nations institutions, etc. These centres operated
in a world without Intellectual Property Rights and distributed seeds and new
varieties all over the world. The striking improvements of yields in a number of
crops, particularly wheat, rice and maize came out of this open institutional
structure of science and research.


key difference today from the green revolution days is that agricultural
research has now been largely privatised in the US. Even the university system
in the US today operates with the patents being licensed to private parties.
This is a fundamental shift in science that has taken place. Earlier, all
advance stemming from publicly funded research was supposed to be in the public
domain. However, in the US, it changed with the Bayh Dole Act of 1984 that
allowed knowledge created by public funding to be patented. This has been
followed in most countries with public institutions joining the private sector
in the rush for patents. The problem here is that such patents held by public
institutions are not used for public good but in turn are licensed to private
companies. The university or the public institution may get a large revenue as a
result, but the public does not get any benefit to this public funding of such


even the institutions that helped in the first green revolution are pursuing a
different agenda today. They are so closely tied up with agribusiness in the US
that instead providing help to our agricultural research, they are more likely
to be allied with US big agribusiness.


other major shift that has taken place in agriculture is that before the 80’s,
the only protection available for plants were plant breeder’s rights. However,
since then the US has followed an aggressive policy of patenting
micro-organisms, life forms, seeds, genes and even gene sequences. This is the
route that other countries are also following, particularly after the WTO/TRIPS
agreement of 1994. TRIPS forces IPR protection for micro-organisms and allows
countries to introduce life form patenting. A recent survey published in Nature,
found that about three-quarters of plant DNA patents today are in the hands of
private firms, with nearly half held by 14 multinational companies; virtually no
such patents existed before 1985.


us take the current biotechnology advances in creating new varieties of plants.
The major thrust of creating new varieties is to introduce new traits by
transferring genetic material from other species. This is why such varieties are
called transgenic (more commonly genetically modified organisms or GMOs). 
The two main processes for transferring genetic material across species
is to use a soil bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens as a vector for
transferring genetic material or to use the gene gun. Agrobacterium is a soil
bacteria that introduces some of its own genetic material in the infected plant
causing tumours or gall in the plant. Agricultural scientists have modified the
bacteria and can use it as a carrier for other genes to incorporate novel traits
of other species. The gene gun sprays the genetic material and thus can be used
to insert genes from one species to another.


the above procedures are covered by a variety of patents. Cornell University
holds the patents on the gene gun which in turn it has licensed it to Du Pont.
Monsanto and a few companies hold the patents on the use of Agrobacterium and
thus make it difficult for any transgenic variety to be developed without
infringing their patents. Although much of the basic research that led to Agrobacterium-mediated
transformation was done in public institutions, the private sector now holds
many of the key patent positions, either through internal research and
development, or from public institutions in the form of licenses.


simple case of trying to use genetically modified organisms for public good is
that of the much-touted golden rice, which incorporated beta-carotene as a
source of Vitamin A. It is subject to at least 40 patents and only after a major
international effort could its use in public domain be permitted. The current
patent landscape effectively seals the potential of using it for the small and
medium farmers in developing countries. They simply cannot pay the cost of
intellectual property that is being claimed by the agribusiness companies such
as Monsanto.


have already written extensively on IPR issues in these columns earlier. This
article is not simply to repeat the dangers of the current IPR regime. That does
not need any reiteration. What we are bringing out here is that by tying
India’s agricultural research to Monsanto and other agribusiness companies, we
are effectively sealing other avenues of development.


there other options available to Indian agricultural research? No one denies the
strength of Indian science today. Indian agricultural scientists number 7,000
and another 40,000 are involved in the extension program. What other avenues
exist to use this strength in the interests of our agriculture?


of the most exciting developments in biotechnology today is the development by a
group of scientists – a multi-country initiative called Cambia 
— of Transbacter for transferring genetic material, as an alternative
path to that of Agrobacterium. It is not the actual technical advance that is
important but the model of science used. This group decided that the current
model of IPR protected biotechnology is against the interests of the farmers and
it is necessary to provide in the public domain alternatives to such patent
protected technologies. They explicitly modelled themselves on the Free
Software/Open Source Software paradigm and now Transbacter, effectively have
broken the monopoly of Monsanto and others private companies. The Cambia
initiative does not do away with patents; what it does is to put this patent in
public domain and ensures that any process that uses Cambia’s patent also has
to be put in public domain.


development of Transbacter as an alternative to the Agrobacterium route has been
hailed as a major technological achievement in itself. While Monsanto and others
did make some initial noises of examining whether Cambia is violating any of
their patents or not, it is now clear they have thrown in the towel. Cambia had
in fact looked at all the current biotechnology patents and found that if an
alternative to Agrobacterium exists, the rest of the patents could be
circumvented: most of these patents stood on the narrow base of this specific
gene transfer vector. But more than the scientific achievement itself, it is the
vision of scientists joining worldwide in a co-operative venture to develop
public domain science that provides the excitement around the Cambia initiative.


has taken a different route in ensuring that their agriculture does not succumb
to the seed MNCs such as Monsanto. They have bought some crucial patents from
smaller companies in Japan and other countries and have developed their own GM
products. Bt Cotton and Bt rice in China are from their public sector scientific
institutions and operating on the same principles that green revolution did.


of the major challenge that genetically modified plants face is that no country
can afford to give up its independence and surrender its agriculture to
Monsantos of the world. Unfortunately, if the scientists across the globe are
banding together to develop public domain science, the Indian science
establishment, under the Mashelkar-Montek Singh aegis is tying up to the apron
strings of global private capital.


Umbrella Science Agreement signed between Kapil Sibal and Condoleeza Rice last
October has yet to be made public. We do not know what are the terms of this
agreement. All we know is that in 1993 a similar agreement collapsed on IPR
issues. The nation would like to know what has changed in the Indian position
since then which make the IPR issues raised earlier no longer valid? Why is it
that this agreement is still being kept secret? Are the IPR terms of the
Agreement in conformity with our patent laws where no life form can be patented?
How has micro-organism been defined? Or has micro-organism being defined in a
way that genes and gene sequences can also be patented? The country has a right
to know these issues before any grandiose agricultural knowledge initiative is
signed between the US and India.


the British conquered India using Indian soldiers, this Government seems eager
to provide similar services to the US. In today’s knowledge world, instead of
soldiers, the US requires Indian scientists. The knowledge initiative seems to
be tailored to this purpose. A sad day indeed for Indian science when the very
institutions set up to develop Indian agriculture are used to subvert it.