The Indian GM Conundrum – Will Forceful Licensing Win

International seed companies join hands to form the Federation of Seed Industry of India

m1India is on the threshold of making sweeping changes in regulations for its farming sector by providing high-quality and affordable seeds for farmers. This forms part of Indian Prime Minister Namenda Modi’s goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Opposing these regulations, major international seed companies with operations in India have joined hands to form an alliance called the Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII) on Friday, August 29th, 2016, saying that the regulations formed by the government would force them to share their genetically modified (GM) crop technology with local seed players, as reported by Reuters. Country heads of Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta, which have formed the alliance, stated that seed prices should be set by the market rather than by regulation.

m2The formation of the FSII comes after Monsanto, which pioneered the use of GM cotton in India, withdrew an application for its next-generation product from the approvals process on concerns over the security of its intellectual property. Monsanto’s new GM cotton seed, Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex, was developed through years of R&D and is considered to be a technological breakthrough since it addresses the bollworm issue while increasing yields. Monsanto is also at loggerheads with the Indian government regarding the pricing for its GM cotton seeds.

The FSII said that its prime objective was to develop and provide high performance seeds and technology-based solutions to benefit Indian farmers. It would also address difficulties in the seeds industry and believed that collaborations, joint ventures, and licensing arrangements are necessary among the members of the industry to share knowledge and technology.

Monsanto objects to government proposal

Monsanto, which has operated in India for decades, is now being investigated by regulators on whether it misused its near-monopoly on GM cotton seeds to inflate prices. India is Monsanto’s biggest market outside the Americas. Monsanto is considering quitting India because the proposed regulations mandate the sharing of its technology with local seed companies. Monsanto has also taken the government to court over a cut in the royalty it gets from seed companies for licensing use of its patented technology.

India focuses efforts on indigenous GM mustard

m3Earlier in February 2015, Monsanto was close to submitting the final trial results for its GM corn to the Indian government, as reported by Reuters. Meanwhile, the government was said to be focusing its efforts to introduce the country’s first indigenously developed GM mustard. While the government has not yet given approval to GM mustard for commercial cultivation, the biotechnology regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry for Environment, Government of India, will seek public comments on bio-safety data prepared by its sub-committee. Moreover, a panel of experts gave technical clearance for the GM mustard on August 11th, 2016, after multiple reviews of crop trial data generated over almost a decade, as per Reuters. The FSII is expected to lobby for doing away with any royalty cap on the sale of the new seed variety.

India’s resistance to GM crops

While India does not yet allow GM food crops, experts opine that the introduction of GM food crops could help the country reduce heavy imports bills, especially for items like edible oils. However, there is a lot of political and public opposition to GM food in India on concerns that GM crops could compromise food safety and biodiversity. The Government of India first issued the cotton seed price control order (CSPCO) in December 2015 and then issued draft licensing guidelines for GM technology in May 2016 to regulate the seed industry so that the farmers have access to high-quality seeds at affordable prices.

Private seed firms, represented by the National Seed Association of India with 374 members, represent over 70% of the Indian seeds industry, while the newly formed FSII represents 34% of the seeds industry. The government has been trying to put more restrictions on the seeds industry because of Monsanto’s dominance in supplying genes for GM cotton. On the other hand, foreign seed companies are opposed to the proposed introduction of compulsory licensing, which would force them to share their GM crop technology with local seed players.

Sharad Khurana, country manager for DuPont Pioneer, said: “I would always want a very transparent system around licensing. Forceful licensing stifles innovation. Nobody would want to invest.”

Whatever be the outcome, it remains to be seen if the Indian farmers are benefitted by the government’s populist measures in a largely rain-dependent economy.

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