Indo-US Agriculture Initiative: Handing Indian Agriculture To Monsantos

As 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.

 The 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.

Coupled 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 corporatisation 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.

The 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.

The 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 research.

Therefore, 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.

The 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.

Let 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.

Both 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.

A 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.

We 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.

Are 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?

One 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.

Cambia’s 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.

China 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.

One 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.

The 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.

If 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.