The situation of India’s farmers has only become grimmer in the past decade, according to the latest National Sample Survey Office report
The lot of the embattled Indian farmer only keeps on getting worse with the passage of time. In the last 10 years, the voluminous debt of Indian agricultural households has increased almost four-fold whereas their undersized monthly income from cultivation has increased three-fold. Even the number of indebted agricultural households has increased in the last 10 years. At the same time, there has been a micro-increment in the number of agricultural households in India.
It states that 52 per cent of the total agricultural households in the country are in debt. The average debt is Rs 47,000 per agricultural household in this country, where the yearly income from cultivation per household is Rs 36,972.
The report comes after a gap of 10 years. The last Situation Assessment Survey by the NSSO was for 2002-03. In that year, 48.6 per cent of agricultural households were in debt. The average debt was Rs 12,585. And the yearly income from cultivation per household was Rs 11,628. At the time, India had a little less than 89.35 million agricultural households.
In fact, some think that the report may not even be reflecting the entire truth. “The NSSO survey gives us an idea of the existing situation but not the clear picture. In my opinion, it is not just 52 per cent agricultural households that are in debt but 80 per cent,” says Devinder Sharma, a food analyst. “If you adjust for inflation, on an average 7 per cent every year, farmers’ incomes have remained frozen in the past 10 years,” says Sharma.
The other main takeaway from the NSSO report is that the debt is being incurred by the the richer, more prosperous farmers. NSSO data shows that richer agricultural states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab have the highest average outstanding loans per agricultural household, whereas poorer states like Assam, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have the lowest amount of average outstanding loans.
This is substantiated by the data which shows that among agricultural households which possess less than 0.01 ha the share was only 15 per cent of the total outstanding institutional loan, whereas for households which possess more than 10 ha the share was about 79 per cent.
Reasons behind the rise
The question then is: why have farmers’ debts increased? Ashok Gulati, former chairperson of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), thinks outstanding loans to farmers are natural because of increasing intensification in agriculture. “As the intensification of agriculture increases, so does the loan.
The loan would be in the form of working capital, else the fixed capital will increase,” says Gulati.
Others believe that this report is like the one in 2002-2003 and brings out the same systemic problems. They add that India has not learnt anything in the past one decade. One such issue is investment in the sector. Even as agriculture has intensified, investment in it is very less. Even the yearly agriculture budget is not more than that of the flagship employment guarantee programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
“The current year’s budget of agriculture was nearly Rs 31,000 crore while the MGNREGA budget was nearly Rs 34,000 crore. If we see the seven-year budget, the ministry budget was never more than MGNREGA,” says Sharma.
According to A note on Trends in Public Investment in India by S Mahendra Dev, Director, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, the share of private investment in total investment in agriculture increased significantly over time from about 50 per cent in the early 1980s to 80 per cent in the decade of the 2000s. In other words, the share of public investment declined from 50 per cent to 20 per cent during the same period.
The public sector investment showed a negative growth in the 1980s and 1990s and a growth of 15 per cent in the 2000s. On the other hand, growth rate of private investment increased gradually from 2.5 per cent in the 1980s to 4.1 per cent in the 1990s and 52 per cent in the 2000s.
Another reason debt has increased is that market price of agricultural produce is not commensurate with rising input cost. Dev says that two-thirds of farmers do not get minimum support price (MSP) for their crops and are compelled to sell their crops at lower rates in the open market.
“Seventy-five per cent of farmers in India sell in the open market at lower than fixed MSP. Only the farmers of Punjab and Haryana get MSP. The situation of other states is deplorable,” says Dev. “For instance, in 2009, when I was the chairperson of CACP, in states like Bihar, farmers used to get Rs 700- Rs 800 for paddy when the MSP was fixed at Rs 1,000.”
The reason for farmers not being able to get MSP, according to the NSSO data, is that large numbers of them are not even aware of it. As per the data, only 32 per cent of paddy farmers are aware of MSP. But even then, less than half are able to sell their produce in government procurement centres.
“In collusion with local traders and commission agents, government agencies delay in starting procurement centres by 30 to 50 days. In between, farmers sell their produce to traders at lower than minimum price,” says Yudhveer Singh, a farmers’ leader.
Gopal Naik, who teaches agro-economy at IIM Bangalore, feels that total collapse of agriculture extension centres could also be the reason behind the outstanding loans and poor conditions of farmers. “The agriculture extension centres have collapsed. At one time, they were helping and guiding farmers in a number of situations like making the best use of pesticide, fertiliser consumption and modern tech, and making them aware of MSP and the nearest procurement centres,” he says. “Now farmers depend on dealers and sellers of pesticide for all that, which results in losses and non-profitability,” he adds.
Naik believes the loan-waiving culture of the government also fuels continuation of outstanding loans. “Government policies are uncertain and increase the tendency of not repaying loans. It can also be a reason of increasing outstanding loans.encourage non-repayment of loans. The big land holders have high outstanding loans because they can easily access credit from institutions. They can access loan for other activities like setting poultry and other farms and wait till the government waives their loans,” says Naik.
The data shows that about 60 per cent of the outstanding loans were taken from institutional sources which included government (2.1 per cent), cooperative societies (14.8 per cent) and banks (42.9 per cent). But while the big farmers can afford to take loans, the small farmers still have no access to them.
“Credit from institutional sources is still a dream for small and marginal farmers,” says Jasveer Singh, a Bengaluru-based senior researcher who works on agricultural labourers’ issues. Anshuman Das, an activist who works with small farmers in Jharkhand, thinks that while they do not get institutional loans, they help in maintaining food security of the country.
“The small farmers practise farming which is different from that of big land holders. They try to keep investment low and innovate. For this, they do not access institutions for loans but are still dependent on non-institutional money lenders,” says Das.
The increasing debt and its skewed nature are surely driving many farmers away from agriculture. Agricultural house-holds are moving away to livestock, other agricultural activities, non-agricultural enterprises and wage employment. Data shows that 37 per cent of agricultural households no longer have agriculture as their principal source of income.
The contribution of agriculture in India’s GDP is nearly 18 per cent and it provides employment to nearly 56 per cent of the total workforce of the country. Despite this, as the NSSO report shows, the sector is no longer the first preference of rural households in India. It is heading towards a huge debt crisis and will need serious policy intervention instead of an ad-hoc approach.
Ready to eat: The supply chain for organic produce has long been hampered by poor linkages between farms and consumers
Grower and buyer find each other directly on the Eco-Farmers Market info-exchange portal
Maridesi Here Gowda of Mandya District, Karnataka, has for seven years now grown sugarcane without using pesticides on his two acres and produced organic jaggery. But selling it has been a challenge each year and it often goes for a low price. This year, Gowda sold a bulk of his stock to a buyer from Hyderabad at a rate he found fair.
This was made possible by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and its new information-sharing portal, Eco-Farmers Market. Here the producer and buyer come together on the same page to conduct business. The supply chain for organic produce has been long hampered by poor linkages between farmers and buyers.
According to Ananthoo, the co-convener of ASHA who handles the portal, “Agriculture today is failing because there is no fair pricing for the farmer and consumer. Our efforts are to encourage the local economy and bridge the gap between farmer and market.”
The months-old Eco-Farmers Market has 300 registered farmers and around 20 organic buyers. Those registered can recommend other organic farmers. Each registration request is screened by call agents, who collect from the farmer data regarding the produce, land area and organic practices. Before registering, ASHA co-ordinators visit the farmer, if necessary, to ascertain his or her organic practices. Currently the portal registers only farmers with 100 per cent organic practices and classifies them as “declared” organic, “certified” organic (third-party certification) or “guaranteed” organic (belonging to a Participatory Guarantee Scheme).
To be doubly sure, all the organic farmers are re-verified by a panel of credible referees in each State. And, even after all these precautions, the portal urges buyers to do their own checks to verify the organic nature of the produce.
Once registered, each farmer’s crop details, including the next season’s produce and current availability, are updated on the portal by the call agents. The farmers can update this every 10 days, as also set a desired price for the produce.
When searching for a product, registered buyers or distributors can directly contact the farmer closest to them and thereby reduce both transportation costs and food miles. The actual transaction happens outside the portal. There are no charges for registering or transacting through the portal.
As the portal evolves, buyer loyalties are expected to increase towards specific sets of growers, rendering the portal redundant or free to offer a different kind of service. “In the future, we would like to open the portal to consumers as well, so they can link with the farmer directly to buy their food requirements,” says Ananthoo.
ASHA is an informal network of more than 400 groups in 20 states that came together in 2010 to organise the Kisan Swaraj Yatra, a nationwide mobilisation to draw attention to issues impacting food and farmers. The network includes farmers’ organisations, consumer groups, women’s organisations, environmental organisations, individual citizens and experts working for sustainable farm livelihoods.
The portal has received financial support from German organisation Welthungerhilfe (through Pravah and Forum For Integrated Development). For small farmers like Gowda in remote villages, it is literally a gateway to fair prices.
The writer is an organic farmer based in Dahanu, Maharashtra
Governments must shift subsidies and research funding from agro-industrial monoculture to small farmers using ‘agroecological’ methods, according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. And as Nafeez Ahmed notes, her call coincides with a new agroecology initiative within the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
This is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers.
Modern industrial agricultural methods can no longer feed the world, due to the impacts of overlapping environmental and ecological crises linked to land, water and resource availability.
The stark warning comes from the new United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Hilal Elver, In her first public speech since being appointed in June
“Food policies which do not address the root causes of world hunger would be bound to fail”, she told a packed audience in Amsterdam.
One billion people globally are hungry, she declared, before calling on governments to support a transition to “agricultural democracy” which would empower rural small farmers.
Agriculture needs a new direction: agroecology
“The 2009 global food crisis signalled the need for a turning point in the global food system”, she said at the event hosted by the Transnational Institute (TNI), a leading international think tank.
“Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilisers, and based on massive production. This policy has to change.
“We are already facing a range of challenges. Resource scarcity, increased population, decreasing land availability and accessibility, emerging water scarcity, and soil degradation require us to re-think how best to use our resources for future generations.”
The UN official said that new scientific research increasingly shows how ‘agroecology’ offers far more environmentally sustainable methods that can still meet the rapidly growing demand for food:
“Agroecology is a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society. New research in agroecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.”
Small farmers are the key to feeding the world
“There is a geographical and distributional imbalance in who is consuming and producing. Global agricultural policy needs to adjust. In the crowded and hot world of tomorrow, the challenge of how to protect the vulnerable is heightened”, Hilal Elver continued.
“That entails recognising women’s role in food production – from farmer, to housewife, to working mother, women are the world’s major food providers. It also means recognising small farmers, who are also the most vulnerable, and the most hungry.
“Across Europe, the US and the developing world, small farms face shrinking numbers. So if we deal with small farmers we solve hunger and we also deal with food production.”
And Elver speaks not just with the authority of her UN role, but as a respected academic. She is research professor and co-director at the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy in the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
She is also an experienced lawyer and diplomat. A former founding legal advisor at the Turkish Ministry of Environment, she was previously appointed to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Chair in Environmental Diplomacy at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta.
Industrial agriculture grabs 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funds
Hinting at the future direction of her research and policy recommendations, she criticised the vast subsidies going to large monocultural agribusiness companies. Currently, in the European Union about 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding go to support conventional industrial agriculture.
“Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world. According to the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 70% of food we consume globally comes from small farmers”, said Prof Elver.
“This is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers. As rural people are migrating increasingly to cities, this is generating huge problems.
“If these trends continue, by 2050, 75% of the entire human population will live in urban areas. We must reverse these trends by providing new possibilities and incentives to small farmers, especially for young people in rural areas.”
If implemented, Elver’s suggestions would represent a major shift in current government food policies.
But Marcel Beukeboom, a Dutch civil servant specialising in food and nutrition at the Ministry of Trade & Development who spoke after Elver, dissented from Elver’s emphasis on small farms:
“While I agree that we must do more to empower small farmers, the fact is that the big monocultural farms are simply not going to disappear. We have to therefore find ways to make the practices of industrial agribusiness more effective, and this means working in partnership with the private sector, small and large.”
A high-level roundtable at the close of the symposium included the agricultural ministers of France, Algeria, Costa Rica, Japan, Brazil and the European Union agricultural commissioner.
FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said: “Agroecology continues to grow, both in science and in policies. It is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, in the context of the climate change adaptation needed.”
A letter to the FAO signed by nearly 70 international food scientists congratulated the UN agency for convening the agroecology symposium and called for a “UN system-wide initiative on agroecology as the central strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience in the face of water crises.”
The scientists described agroecology as “a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”
More than just a science – a social movement!
A signatory to the letter, Mindi Schneider, assistant professor of Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, said:
“Agroecology is more than just a science, it’s also a social movement for justice that recognises and respects the right of communities of farmers to decide what they grow and how they grow it.”
Several other food experts at the Transnational Institute offered criticisms of prevailing industrial practices. Dr David Fig, who serves on the board of Biowatch South Africa, an NGO concerned with food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, said:
“We are being far too kind to industrialised agriculture. The private sector has endorsed it, but it has failed to feed the world, it has contributed to major environmental contamination and misuse of natural resources. It’s time we switched more attention, public funds and policy measures to agroecology, to replace the old model as soon as possible.”
Prof Sergio Sauer, formerly Brazil’s National Rapporteur for Human Rights in Land, Territory and Food, added: “Agroecology is related to the way you relate to land, to nature to each other – it is more than just organic production, it is a sustainable livelihood.
“In Brazil we have the National Association of Agroecology which brings together 7,000 people from all over the country pooling together their concrete empirical experiences of agroecological practices. They try to base all their knowledge on practice, not just on concepts.
“Generally, nobody talks about agroecology, because it’s too political. The simple fact that the FAO is calling a major international gathering to discuss agroecology is therefore a very significant milestone.”
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author, and international security scholar. He is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and The Guardian where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, among many others. His new novel of the near future is ZERO POINT.
The NDA government – amidst speculations that it is set to dilute important provisions of the new land acquisition act – has recently notified the Rules for two of its most important and progressive sections, those pertaining to the Social Impact Assessments and the Consent provisions. These Rules, notified on 8th Aug 2014 detail out how to implement these two provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 which is the full and formal name of the new Land Acquisition Act( referred to hereinafter as Act).
Overall, these Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Social Impact Assessment and Consent) Rules, 2014 (Rules hereinafter) provide a relatively progressive framework of implementation.
Provisions for Social Impact Assessment
There are some significant provisions for carrying out the SIA. First and foremost, the Rules require that the SIA be carried out in consultation with the local self-government institutions in the affected area. This provision is also there in Act.
The Rules require the state or the central government to establish a Social Impact Assessment Unit, “an independent organisation which shall be responsible for ensuring that Social Impact Assessments are commissioned and conducted by such person or bodies other than the Requiring Body as per the provisions of the Act”. (Emphasis added). This is a critical provision for maintaining the credibility of the SIA. Here, a lesson seems to have been learnt from the problems with the Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) process, where the project proponent selects, commissions and pays the agency that carries out the EIA. This creates a direct conflict of interest, and it’s not surprising that most EIAs are highly biased towards the project proponent’s interests.
The Rules empower the SIA Unit to formulate the Terms of References for any SIA proposal, list the activities required, decide the size and profile of the team required, and prepare the costs estimates for the same. Then, the Requiring Body (the agency that wants the land) will deposit the money with the Government, and the SIA Unit will select the agency to carry out the assessment from the roster that it maintains.
To further ensure a distance between the Requiring Body and the SIA team, the Rules explicitly state that the Requiring Body shall not be involved in any way in the appointment of the SIA agency, and that it should be ensured that there is no conflict of interest involving the team members of the SIA agency.
The Rules allow the SIA team to include independent practitioners, academics, qualified social activists, and mandate the inclusion of at least one woman member.
The SIA Unit is also tasked with building and “continuously expand a Database of Qualified Social Impact Assessment Resource Partners and Practitioners”, “conduct training and capacity building programmes for the Social Impact Assessment team and community surveyors”, and “continuously review, evaluate and strengthen the quality of Social Impact Assessments and the capacities available to conduct them”.
Apart from giving a detailed list of the aspects that the SIA must cover, which include all direct and indirect impacts, the Rules also require the SIA to “assess the viability of impact mitigation”. This is critical because often, the mitigation measures are just listed out as a lip service and the project cleared on this basis, but the affected people suffer because it is practically impossible to carry out the measure effectively particularly when the displacement involves large numbers.
In this context, it is also important that the Rules require the SIA to “provide an assessment as to whether the benefits from the proposed project exceed the social costs and adverse social impacts that are likely to be experienced by the affected families or even after the proposed mitigation measures, the affected families remained at risk of being economically or socially worse, as a result of the said land acquisition and resettlement”.
There are several other important provisions including the time period for the SIA (six months), recording the views of the affected families in writing, involving local voluntary organisations and media in the public hearings, recording and considering in the SIA every objection raised in the public hearings, the SIA and public hearings to be in local language and a web-based flow management information system of the acquisition process.
The Consent Provision
The Consent related Rules specify that the Consent process shall be carried out by the Government, through the District Collector. The consent would be obtained (where required by the Act) at two levels – the Gram Sabha level and for the private and public-private partnership projects, at the individual land owner levels.
For getting the consent from the Gram Sabha, the quorum requirements not only ask for 50% of the total members to be present, but also require that one third of total women members also to be present.
The Rules specify that negotiated terms for rehabilitation, compensation, impact management and mitigation which the Requiring Body has agreed to, shall form a part and parcel of the Consent Agreements. This means that the Consent is given only against these commitments.
It also declares that any attempt to coerce or threaten anyone into giving consent shall be treated as a criminal offence, and most important, if any such threat has been made, the consent so given shall be void.
Of course, these Rules cannot and do not transcend the fundamental problems with the original Act itself (see here for a detailed account of these), but within that limitation, provide a much better process than has been available earlier for project affected people.
Second, it’s a question as to whether and how long these Rules will survive, as the very provisions that these Rules help actualise are the ones that the Central Government seems to want to do away with. However, till such an eventuality, these Rules will be the ones that will provide the framework for implementation of the Act.
A Lesson for the MoEF
All in all, even with several limitations, these Rules provide a process of SIA that is miles ahead of all earlier processes. Indeed, at this time, the Ministry of Environment and Forest is examining all the environment protection laws, and it could do well to adapt all these provisions of the SIA for the EIA process too.
Girish Badragond, a 28 year old guy from Bijapur District came to Bangalore in 2006 with a laptop, a wireless router and one way bus fare. Now, after six years he is a partner at Santepp Systems, a fast growing technocrat proprietary firm in the field of agricultural technology manufacture.
“Ever since I was a child, I loved playing with the machines. My first experience in machine was when I dismantled my cousin’s watch and fixed it again,” Badragond says.
As we walk inside his office, the light switches on automatically and turns off as soon as we leave the room. His eyes sparkle as he talks about the sensors in his office space. “This saves around 60 percent of the energy,” he says.
When he first moved to Bangalore, he had no money with him. He stayed with his friends for a couple of days and then found a room on sharing basis. With the help of an old DTH antenna he enhanced his router and sold the bandwidth upto 10 kms and earned some money.
SSLC pass Badragond didn’t get an opportunity to study further but this didn’t come in the way of his dreams. When he was in High school, he could easily do projects like making an inverter, power supplier etc. for engineering students.
Supported by NABARD and NIF, Santepp Systems, provides simple solutions to various agricultural needs. Some of his inventions include-
Bore well Scanners
Studying underground water has never been easier. The Borewell scanners have a camera with flash and180 degree rotation in horizontal space. The equipment can click pictures, check inflow and outflow of the water.
“It also checks whether the borewell has stagnant water. There is no point digging a borewell when there is no proper inflow of water as it is waste of money,” says Badragond.
Bore well scanners can also check for leakages and holes.
Advanced Mode Micro irrigation system
This unique irrigation controller helps you to operate the pump sets and irrigation valves from remote places without physically being there.
Micro irrigation controller regulates the flow of water and feeds water to plants to the extent of their requirement. There by water wastage is minimized and available water is put to max usage.
“Drip irrigation sometimes leads to excess water to the crops which spoils the crop, while this system works according to the crops’ needs,” says Badragond.
The solar sensors are inserted in the soil at various places, these sensors send signal to the unit. The unit will automatically turn on the motor for water flow according to the priority and turn off after the requirement is fulfilled.
The system can cover over 10 acres of land and costs Rs. 1.5 lakhs. The basic version of the machine covers 2-3 acres of land and costs Rs. 20, 000-Rs.25,000.
Bandragond has also developed an android app for the system.
This equipment with eight speakers and a timer repels the bird through various noises. The farms are located in outskirts of the village and noises won’t trouble the villagers. The main unit is kept near an electric point. It also has 3 days battery backup.
Urban Terrace Gardening
You are going on a vacation with no one to look after your garden? This equipment by Bandragond switches on the water flow every day at prescribed time and stops after a certain time. The system costs Rs.5,000.
These are just a few of the many incredible innovations this brilliant man has up his sleeve. For more information about his inventions, please contact Girish: +91 9902133996 or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Born with a hobby to travel, talk, express and write, Shreya gets to do all of that and is even paid for it! Interested in rural development and social issues, she dreams of actually bringing a change in society and writing a book of her own one day. When she is not preaching others about a better India she is busy watching movies and playing video games. Follow her on twitter: @shreya08
– See more at: http://www.thebetterindia.com/10808/man-solved-india-agriculture-problem-simple-invention-innovations/#sthash.wOxdq9yu.kV7TqIw2.dpuf
Time to usher in “Acche din…” for the Indian farmers.
Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture if given a choice is a stark reminder of the grim crisis. What should be the agriculture agenda for the new government? I am being asked this question time and again. Here is my 11-point agenda:
1) Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report the average monthly income of a farm family is Rs 2,115. This includes Rs 900 from non-farm activities. About 60 per cent farmers are dependent on MNREGA activities to survive, and an estimated 55 per cent farmers go to bed hungry. But these farmers produce economic wealth for the country in the form of agricultural, horticultural and dairy produce. It is high time they are adequately compensated for generating that massive economic wealth in the form of food. My suggestion is that the new government should set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should have the mandate to compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.
2) The time for price policy is now over. Every time the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is raised questions are asked about its impact on food inflation. Moreover, the Bali Ministeral of WTO has questioned India’s subsidies that it provides to farmers by way of MSP. It is therefore an appropriate time to move from Price policy to Income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market. That is why I have been asking for a guaranteed monthly income for for farmers. Let us not forget, if inflation is rising it is also rising for the farmers. While the Govt employees get DA instalments every 6 months to compensate for inflation, and get a pay commission every few year, farmers get only MSP and that too is un-remunerative. In an interesting study from Kerala, it was computed that if paddy price rise was to match the salary rise of govt officials, paddy price in 2005 should have been Rs 2669/qntl. It’s Rs 1,310 today. In other words what paddy farmers are getting in 2014 as paddy price is 50 per cent of what they should have earned 9 years ago.
The burden of providing cheap food therefore to 1.25 billion people should not be only on the shoulders of farmers. The society too must share the burden.
3) There is an immediate need to strengthen the network of mandis (market yards) across the country whisch provides farmers with a platform to sell their produce. Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale. To illustrate, let me take the example of rice farmers in Punjab and Bihar. In Punjab, which has a huge network of mandis linked with roads, farmers bring the produce to these mandis. Last harvest, Punjab farmers got an MSP of Rs 1,310 per quintal for paddy. In Bihar, where APMC Act does not operate, farmers resorted to distress sale with prices not exceeding Rs 900 per quintal. The Commission for Costs and Prices (CACP) is now pressurising Punjab Govt to dismantle themandis and let markets operate. Which means, Punjab farmers will soon go the Bihar way.
4) For a country which was able to build up an excellent marketing network for one of the most perishable commodities — milk — I see no reason why a similar approach cannot be adopted in providing a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables. If the National Dairy Development Programme could ensure that milk is procured from each and every village, and then through a cooperative chain it is finally delivered to the consumers in the cities, I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.
5) Cooperate farming need to be encouraged. Appropriate laws must be framed to make cooperatives more independent and effective. Drawing from the experience of the Amul cooperative in dairy farming, a similar system needs to be adopted for vegetables/fruit farming. I know of small cooperatives of organic farmers which have done wonders. Why can’t it be replicated to rest of the crops?
6) Aim at making villages self-reliant in agriculture and food security. Feeding the population has to be linked with farming. Chhatisgarh has given an excellent model of self-reliance in agriculture and food security. It has shifted the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution. This is exactly what needs to be done throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs an amendment. Instead of providing 5 kg of wheat/rice/millets every month, the focus should be on making the villages take care of their own food security needs. This will help reduce the huge subsidy bill on food security that is required every year and thereby reduce fiscal deficit. Such a programme will also help in removing hunger in the long term.
7) Green Revolution areas of the country are facing a crisis in sustainability. With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt. The new Government should launch a nation-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques. In Andhra Pradesh, no chemical pesticides are used in 35 lakh acres. Farmers have even stopped using chemical fertiliser in some 20 lakh hectares. Production has gone up, pesticides pollution has come down, insects attack has also come down, and more importantly farm incomes have gone up by 45 per cent because of reduced health expenses. There has been no farm suicides in these areas. The same system now needs to be extrapolated to the entire country with local modifiations/adaptation.
8) Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole. This will also shift the focus to low external input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) practices. At the same time such an approach will limit the ecological footprint.
9) Importing food is importing unemployment. Recently, apple growers in Himachal Pradesh have been protesting against the low import tariffs for imported apples as a result of which the local produce goes abegging. There are no buyers for Himachal apples, and the prices have plummeted . Similarly for other crops. The Govt must raise the import duties on agriculture, horticulture and dairy products and refuse to buckle under the pressures being exerted through the Free Trade Agreements. It should not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties. Studies have now shown that indiscriminate signing of FTAs and bilateral agreements has been disadvantageous to the country. Time to revisit the trade treaties and protect domestic agriculture thereby millions of livelihoods.
10) Climate change is certainly going to affect agriculture. But instead of looking at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Considering that agriculture share in greenhouse gas emissions is about 25 per cent, the thrust must shift to reducing the application of chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming. Following the AP model of non-pesticides management being the right approach, the cropping pattern too needs a revision. In the dryland regions of the country, for instance, at present hybrid crops which required almost twice the amount of water than normal crop varieties, are grown. Common sense tells us that in rainfed regions, which occupy 65 per cent of the cultivable area, crops requiring less water should be grown. But it is just the opposite in reality thereby accentuating the water crisis at times of rainfall delay.
I see no reason why Rajasthan, a semi-arid region, should be cultivating water guzzling sugarcane, cotton and rice crops. Similarly I see no reason why Bundelkhand should be cultivating mentha crops, which requires 1.25 lakh litres of water to produce 1 kg of mentha oil. Why can’t the cropping pattern in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh shift to pulses, oilseeds (like mustard) and millets? Why can’t the Goovt provide special incentives by way of a higher price for these crops so that farmers can willingly shift to more sustainable cropping patterns?
11) Lack of storage for foodgrains is appalling. It was in 1979 that under the Save Food Campaign, the Govt had promised to set up grain silos at 50 places in the country. This should be the top agenda for the new government. Not even a single grain should be allowed to go waste. #
Bees are dying at an alarming rate, and scientists are doing everything they can to figure out if the main ingredient in Roundup®, glyphosate, is the cause. Monsanto’s most successful product is its Roundup Ready® seeds which have stirred a global commotion about the safety of animals and humans who ingest food that comes from GMO crops like soy and corn. Natural News, conducted a poll where 51 percent of readers expressed their disdain for Monsanto.
Readers polled in the Natural News survey must really care about bees, because they went as far as calling Monsanto “evil,” based on the altruistic motives the corporation claims to practice. People who question Monsanto’s motives point to the company’s pledge on its website that stands in complete opposition to the negative influence that Monsanto has on the global environment, “Benefits: We will use sound and innovative science and thoughtful and effective stewardship to deliver high-quality products that are beneficial to our customers and to the environment.” Monsanto considers its GMO crops such as, soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola to be its high-quality products. These crops are grown from seeds that have been engineered to withstand the toxic ingredient glyphosate.
One study presents evidence that links glyphosate to mutations in animals. Glyphosate found in water at 3 parts per million leads to “morphological changes” in amphibians. GMO soy is particularly exposed to high levels of glyphosate, and the threshold the EPA uses to evaluate the risk of this toxin keeps rising over the years. An article on the site Mother Jones points out that on average GMO soy tested for glyphosate contains an amount that hovers around 11.9 ppm. The maximum amount of glyphosate in GMO soy recorded was 20.1 ppm. The allowed average for the EPA is 20 ppm which is a high level according to Monsanto’s representatives who were quoted in 1999 as saying that a level of glyphosate at 5.6 ppm was dangerous.
Dr. Mae Wan Ho is conducting research to find the cause of cancer in farmers that use Roundup®. This type of study is one of many that has the potential to connect the cause of why bees are dying at an alarming rate to glyphosate. This research found a correlation between Roundup® and illness, “The incidence of numerous disease and adverse conditions has gone up in parallel with the increase in GM crops and the use of glyphosate herbicide since 1994, the first year of commercialization of GM crops.” The most controversial aspect of glyphosate use among farmers is that the EPA has dismissed most of the scientific research on the detrimental effects of Roundup®.
Dr. Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology at Purdue University, is known for his research about Roundup’s® hazards. Dr. Huber has several publications on agricultural bioterrorism and supports an increase of research on glyphosate’s effects on humans, animals, and the environment. In his unpublished work titled, “Is Glyphosate a Contributing Cause of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?,” Dr. Huber hypothesizes, “The focus on insecticides and their acute toxicity may have resulted in over-looking the direct and indirect chronic effects of glyphosate as a contributing factor to bee colony collapse disorder.”
Even though bees are dying at an alarming rate, Monsanto is not supporting any claim that glyphosate could be the cause. However, many scientists are not backing down to the biotech giant and are building a collection of evidence that links the glyphosate in Roundup® and Roundup Ready® seeds to disease in humans and animals. The most challenging aspect of uncovering the true cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is whether or not scientists who are not funded by Monsanto can overcome the company’s attempt to squash any scientific evidence that does not comply with Monsanto’s mission.
Revolutionizing American agribusiness from the ground up, one seed at a time.
From a distance, Jim Myers looks like an ordinary farmer. Most autumn mornings, he stands thigh-deep in a field of wet broccoli, beheading each plant with a single, sure swipe of his harvest knife. But under his waders are office clothes, and on his wrist is an oversized digital watch with a push-button calculator on its face. As his hand cuts, his eyes record data: stalk length and floret shape, the purple hue of perfect heads and the silver specks that foretell rot. At day’s end his broccoli goes to the food bank or the compost bin—it doesn’t really matter. He’s there to harvest information.
Myers is a plant breeder and professor of genetics at Oregon State University. The broccoli in his field has a long and bitter story, which he told me last September at the university’s research farm. We sat at a picnic table under a plum tree that had dropped ripe fruit everywhere; around our feet, the little purple corpses hummed with wasps that had crawled inside to gorge on sweet flesh. Myers has dark hair and dark eyes that are often set behind tinted glasses. In public, he rarely registers enough emotion to move the thick mustache framing his mouth. Still, as he talked about the broccoli his voice buckled, and behind those shadowy lenses his eyes looked hard and tense.
In 1966, a breeder named Jim Baggett—Myers’s predecessor at Oregon State—set out to breed a broccoli with an “exserted” head, which meant that instead of nestling in the leaves the crown would protrude on a long stalk, making harvest easier. The method he used was basic plant breeding: Mate one broccoli with another, identify the best offspring, and save their seed for the next season. Repeated over decades by Baggett and then Myers, this process produced the broccoli in the field that day. The heads were so nicely exserted, sparrows used them as a perch.
Most classical plant breeders will tell you that their work is inherently collaborative—the more people involved, the better. Baggett had used versions of another broccoli called Waltham, released by the University of Massachusetts in the 1950s, as part of the foundation for his original exserted-head lines. Hoping to advance its evolution by letting others work on it, he and Myers shared their germplasm (an industry term for seed) with breeders throughout the United States. One recipient was the broccoli division of Royal Sluis, a Dutch company that had a research farm in Salinas, California. Through the channels of corporate consolidation, that germplasm ended up with the world’s largest vegetable-seed company, Seminis, which in 2005 was bought by the world’s largest seed company, Monsanto. In 2011, Seminis was granted US Patent 8,030,549—“Broccoli adapted for ease of harvest”—whose basic identifying characteristic was an exserted head. More than a third of the original plant material behind the invention was germplasm that Baggett had shared in 1983.
As Seminis began previewing its Easy Harvest broccoli to the farm press in 2011, the company’s lawyers began calling Myers, requesting more samples of broccoli seed. The patent they held covered only a few specific varieties that the company had bred, but now they were applying to patent the trait itself—essentially, any sizeable broccoli with an exserted head. They needed the Oregon State plants for comparison to prove their invention was, in patent language, truly “novel.”
Last August, the examiner seemed dubious, writing, “Applicant is in possession of a narrow invention limited to the deposited lines; however, they are claiming any and every broccoli plant having the claimed characteristics.” The application was given a “Final Rejection.”
And yet, as Myers told me at the picnic table in September, “That’s not necessarily final.” Just before Thanksgiving, Seminis appealed, beginning a process that may last for years. As one intellectual-property manager who helps write patents for the University of Wisconsin told me, some examiners simply “cave and grant the broader claims as they get worn down by the attorneys’ arguments.” If Seminis receives the patent, their claim would likely encompass the plants growing in Myers’s plots at Oregon State, meaning they could sue him for infringement.
Myers is not alone in this predicament. Irwin Goldman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, had been developing a red carrot for fifteen years when, in 2013, he learned that Seminis had an application pending for “carrots having increased lycopene content”—in other words, very red carrots. Likewise, Frank Morton, a small-scale, independent plant breeder in Oregon, had finally achieved a lettuce that is red all the way to its core, only to find that the Dutch seed company Rjik Zwaan had received a patent on that very trait. Their cases are just some of many.
When Myers talks about the issue, his frustration seems to turn him inward toward greater silence. But Morton is considerably less reserved. “It rubs me the wrong way that works of nature can be claimed as the works of individuals,” he said, his voice growing louder and louder. “To me, it’s like getting a patent on an eighteen-wheeler when all you did was add a chrome lug nut.”
Myers contends that, when applied to plants, patents are stifling. They discourage sharing, and sharing is the foundation of successful breeding. That’s because his work is essentially just assisting natural evolution: He mates one plant with another, which in turn makes new combinations of genes from which better plants are selected. The more plants there are to mix, the more combinations are made, and the more opportunities there are to create better plants. Even some breeders who work for the companies that are doing the patenting still believe in—indeed, long for—the ability to exchange seed.
“It’s this collective sharing of material that improves the whole crop over time,” Myers told me. “If you’re not exchanging germplasm, you’re cutting your own throat.”
If all of this seems like the concern of a specialized few, consider that plant breeders shape nearly every food we eat, whether a tomato from the backyard or the corn in the syrup in a Coke. Because of intellectual-property restrictions, their work increasingly takes place in genetic isolation and is less dynamic as a result. In the short term, that can mean fewer types of tomatoes to plant in the garden, or fewer choices for farmers and, by extension, consumers. In the long term, it could hinder the very resilience of agriculture itself. Having access to a large genetic pool is critical for breeders who are adapting crops to the challenges of climate change. Every time intellectual-property protections fence off more germplasm, that gene pool shrinks.
What infuriates Myers, though, is that patents such as the one Seminis is seeking don’t just impede sharing; they deter others from using their own germplasm. As the examiner noted, Seminis’s patent application claims essentially all broccoli with an exserted head of a commercial size. If Myers’s plants are too similar to those grown by Seminis, he won’t be able to release his own variety for fear of patent infringement. Even if he did, no farmer or seed company would use it lest they be sued for the same violation.
“If they get the patent, they really hold all the cards,” Myers said, wasps buzzing around his feet. “Then it comes down to at some point deciding whether to continue my program or to hang it up. Sell off the germplasm…” His voice trailed off. Then he gave a sad little laugh. The only buyer, of course, would be Seminis.
Fueled by both frustration and outrage, Myers, Morton, and Goldman helped establish a subtly radical group called the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) in 2012. Operating under the radar, its mission was to reestablish free exchange by creating a reservoir of seed that couldn’t be patented—“a national park of germplasm,” Goldman called it. By 2013, the group had two dozen members, several of them distinguished plant breeders from public universities across the country.
OSSI’s de facto leader is Jack Kloppenburg, a social scientist at the University of Wisconsin who has been involved with issues concerning plant genetic resources since the 1980s. He has published widely about the concept behind OSSI, and his words are now echoed (even copied verbatim) by public plant-breeding advocates in Germany, France, and India. As he explains it, for most of human history, seeds have naturally been part of the commons—those natural resources that are inherently public, like air or sunshine. But with the advent of plant-related intellectual property and the ownership it enables, this particular part of the commons has become a resource to be mined for private gain. Thus the need for a protected commons—open-source seed. Inspired by open-source software, OSSI’s idea is to use “the master’s tools” of intellectual property, but in ways the master never intended: to create and enforce an ethic of sharing.
Kloppenburg’s office plays to caricatures of lefty academics: every flat surface stacked with books and papers, a poster of Karl Marx on the wall. At OSSI meetings, amid a sea of plaid button-downs, he sticks out in his collarless, hemp-looking shirt. But he is fiery and, as one OSSI member says, “persistent as hell.”
“The reason I’m doing this,” he said, leaning forward in his creaking swivel chair, “is that I’ve spent the last twenty-five years doing the other thing, and what have we got?” That “other thing” has been exploring nearly every possible avenue to put control of seeds back in the hands of farmers and public-minded plant breeders: orchestrating international treaties, challenging interpretations of patent law, lobbying to amend the laws themselves—in other words, slow change. Indeed, over the course of three decades, it has felt to Kloppenburg like barely any change at all. Now nearing retirement, he wants action. He sees open source as a kind of end run. “The beauty of it,” he said, “is that finally we get to create some space that is ours, not theirs.”
As Kloppenburg talked about OSSI, he covered territory from the monopolistic tendencies of the American Seed Trade Association to Colombian peasant protests to the little-known story of German prisoners of war being used as forced labor in American corn-breeding fields. He pulled a hulking dictionary from the bookshelf and read aloud the precise definitions of “ownership” and “property.” He made it clear that while OSSI’s practical goal was to create a reservoir of shared germplasm, its true mission was to redistribute power.
In this era of ownership, the consolidation of seed companies has meant the consolidation of control over germplasm, the industry’s most essential tool. The plant breeders behind OSSI decry that trend for the constraints it puts on their individual breeding work, but they also see its damage in global terms. As founding member Bill Tracy, a sweet-corn breeder at the University of Wisconsin, articulated in his paper “What is Plant Breeding?”: “Even if we assume that the one or two companies controlling a crop were completely altruistic, it is extremely dangerous to have so few people making decisions that will determine the future of a crop…. The future of our food supply requires genetic diversity, but also demands a diversity of decision makers.”
People who sell seeds have always struggled with an inconvenient reality: Their merchandise reproduces itself. In the past, this has meant that farmers needed to purchase it only once, and competitors could make a copy by merely sticking it in the ground. In order for seeds to become a commodity and generate a profit, there had to be a reason for people to buy them year after year. Over the course of the twentieth century, the industry devised certain solutions, including hybrid seeds and “trade-secret” protections for their breeding processes and materials. But perhaps the most effective solution is the application of intellectual-property rights, of which the utility patent is the gold standard.
More commonly associated with things like electronics and pharmaceuticals, the utility patent is a fortress of protection. It lasts for twenty years and allows even inadvertent violations to be penalized. Since the Patent Act of 1790, its intent has been to inspire innovation by giving exclusive rights to reproduce or use an invention, allowing its creator to reap a just reward. It was in exactly those terms that Monsanto’s Vegetable Communications Manager, Carly Scaduto, explained the Seminis exserted-head broccoli patent to me. “On average, it takes Monsanto vegetable breeders between eight and twelve years to develop and commercialize a new vegetable seed variety,” she wrote. “Obtaining patents [is a way] for us to protect our time, ideas and investment spent to develop those products.”
It took seed companies nearly a century to secure that protection. As early as 1905, industry leaders advocated “patent-like” protection for plants, but they ran up against society’s ethical resistance to patenting a product of nature. This view was famously aired by the United States Patent Office itself in 1889, in its denial of an application to patent a fiber found in pine needles. If it were allowed, the commissioner reasoned, “patents might be obtained upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth, which of course would be unreasonable and impossible.” But many plant breeders insisted that their work was on par with that of mechanical and chemical engineers. Their desire to achieve the same exclusive control over their inventions eventually led to the Plant Patent Act (PPA) of 1930. According to the Committee Report accompanying the Senate’s version of the bill, the purpose was to “assist in placing agriculture on a basis of economic equality with industry… [and] remove the existing discrimination between plant developers and industrial inventors.” Thomas Edison, already a household name for his own inventions, was enlisted to lobby for the bill, and later lauded the PPA’s passage to a reporter from the New York Times. “As a rule the plant breeder is a poor man, with no opportunity for material rewards,” he said. “Now he has a grubstake.”
What finally became law was in fact quite narrow. Instead of allowing utility patents for plants, the PPA created a new “plant patent,” which applied only to plants reproduced asexually, like roses or apples, whose limbs are cloned. It excluded plants that reproduce sexually, through seed—which included wheat, corn, rice, and nearly every other staple food crop. The official reasoning was that sexually produced offspring weren’t guaranteed to be identical replicas of the original plant—“true to type”—and so enforcement of a patent would be difficult. (It is notable, though, that an additional exclusion was made for tubers, which reproduce asexually but include potatoes—another indispensible food.) Writing in the Journal of the Patent Office Society in 1936, patent examiner Edwin M. Thomas explained the true reasoning: “The limitation, ‘asexually reproduced,’ was put in the law to prevent monopolies upon the cereal grains or any improvements thereof, while the limitation, ‘other than tuber-propagated’ was introduced to prevent patent monopolies on potatoes, etc.” Congress had condoned the general concept of patenting plants, but it had drawn the line at patenting seeds of the sort that farmers plant and people eat.
By midcentury, the official reasoning was moot. Advances in breeding had enabled seed producers to ensure that their plants would grow true to type, leading the industry to renew its efforts for protective legislation. Its first victory was the Plant Variety Protection Act, approved in a voice vote by a lame-duck session of Congress, on Christmas Eve, 1970. The act granted intellectual-property rights that were much like a patent, but it was tempered by concessions to those who continued to oppose the exclusive control an actual patent would have granted: Farmers were allowed to save and replant seed from protected varieties, and researchers could use them in breeding their own plants. The real victory—the one the industry had been seeking for nearly a century—happened in 1980, when the US Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented if they were a new “composition of matter” produced by human ingenuity. That case concerned bacteria, but in 1985 the US Patent Office extended the logic to plants. By the time this policy was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2001, already 1,800 utility patents had been granted on plants, plant parts, and seeds.
The availability of this long-sought protection transformed the industry by solidifying the opportunity to treat seed as a proprietary technology. Already the promise of genetic engineering was attracting investment from international chemical companies and others whose experience lay more with developing industrial products than with breeding plants. Wielding this newfound, impenetrable intellectual-property protection, companies like Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy (now Syngenta), and Dow redesigned the business using a revolutionary metaphor: Seeds were software. Genetics were improved almost surgically, with breeders altering DNA the way programmers rewrite code. The resulting corn, soybeans, and other commodities were modular components of a larger agricultural operating system, designed to work only with the company’s herbicides. Even some labeling began to take a play from Microsoft: The seller’s licensing agreement was printed on the back of seed bags in six-point font. Users didn’t sign it; as with a box containing a copy of Microsoft Office, they agreed to it by simply opening the package. Among other things, those terms specifically prohibited use in plant breeding.
Market analysts Phillip McDougall calculated that in 1995, right around the time the software metaphor began to take hold, the global seed business was worth $14.5 billion. By 2013, it had grown more than 250 percent, to $39.5 billion. Transparency Market Research, which calculates a similar figure for 2013, forecasts the business will grow to $52 billion by 2018. In this context, the patent office’s 1889 assertion that patenting the “plants of the earth” would be unreasonable and impossible sounds dated, if not naïve. Seen through the lens of this new metaphor, patents make perfect sense. If seeds are software, then protecting them as intellectual property is a natural, even essential, requirement for their technological development. In a 2004 legislative study, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization explained that this encouraged breeders “to invest the resources, labour and time needed to improve existing plant varieties by ensuring that breeders receive adequate remuneration when they market the propagating material of those improved varieties.” In other words, innovation no longer grew out of sharing, it came from monopoly. “In the absence of a grant of exclusive rights to breeders,” the report concluded, “the dangers of free riding by third parties would be considerable.”
In 1997, as the laws of intellectual property had begun supplanting the ethic of sharing, a mild-mannered bean breeder named Tom Michaels also began thinking about seeds as software—but with radically different results. Michaels was struggling with the brave new world unfolding at his job in the University of Minnesota’s horticultural sciences department. Until recently, germplasm samples had simply been mailed between colleagues with no more than a friendly note, just as the exserted-head broccoli seed had been. But Michaels began to see this tradition of open exchange being curbed by legal documents that restricted research and demanded royalties. He tripped on the new vocabulary, which stipulated conditions about “unmodified derivatives” and “reach-through rights.”
“If you’re in plant breeding, you know you can’t do it on your own,” Michaels told me. “But I remember thinking, ‘If this is the direction we’re going, we all become islands.’ So what could we do to assure that we continued to work interrelatedly?”
During that time, Michaels’s computer-savvy son was messing around with alternative operating systems for his PC. Through him, Michaels learned about Linux and other software that was free to be used, altered, and shared by anyone. Linux came with a license that turned the concept of licensing on its head: Instead of restricting people from copying the product, it restricted people from restricting it or any of its offshoots. It marked the code indelibly as part of the commons.
One fateful morning in Minneapolis, Michaels awoke with a Linux-inspired epiphany: What if we did the same thing with our seeds? Just like hackers, he and his colleagues would make their germplasm “free” by attaching a license that kept it in the public domain. No one could patent or otherwise restrict it or its offspring. Over time, Jack Kloppenburg and others heard about the idea, and together they honed it into the shrewdly elegant concept of open-source seed.
When Michaels first presented his idea to a group of fellow bean breeders in 1999, it wasn’t greeted as a grand prophecy. Jim Myers was in the audience then and recalls that while he and others found it interesting, they simply didn’t feel a need for it. Intellectual property was on the rise, but utility patents were still rare in vegetable crops. There were, however, already more than 500 on maize, and at least 250 on soybeans; today, most germplasm of practical use for those plants is restricted as intellectual property, much of it by patents.
Because they comprise a smaller share of the world agricultural market, only recently have vegetables begun to attract the multinational investment and technological attention that commodities have had for decades. Also, because there are so many types of vegetables, and countless variations within each, they are much harder to blanket with intellectual property. Traded by gardeners around the world, vegetable seed still has a cultural identity—it is not yet simply software. Even within the industry, much of vegetables’ breeding and control of its germplasm remains in the public sector.
Kloppenburg sees vegetables as the realm where open source can take root. “Corn and soybeans don’t turn anybody on,” he told me. “Nobody eats corn and soybeans. But they do eat what our breeders are doing.” When he speaks with consumers about the open-source- seed concept, he asks them, “Do you want the same people who are breeding corn and soybeans to be making decisions about the stuff you buy at the farmers’ market? Or do you want Irwin’s beets and Irwin’s carrots?”
That Irwin is Dr. Irwin Goldman, the University of Wisconsin vegetable breeder in patent limbo with his red carrots. If Kloppenburg is the brains behind OSSI, Goldman is the conscience, as warm and sincere as Kloppenburg is intense. When asked a question, he sits with his head of curly gray hair tilted to one side, neck thrust forward, in a posture of really listening. When he answers, he often begins with, “That’s a great question.”
Curiously, despite his role as a founding member and unofficial vice president of OSSI, Goldman holds three utility patents on vegetables—two on beets, one on carrots. He explains that the patented vegetables are used to create industrial dyes and have little crossover with food plants. Plus, it was the university that sought the patents in his name. Still, Goldman offers the disclosure like a personal confession. His explanation for going along with it is that he was young and foolish, a new professor seeking tenure. At the time, his only reference point was his grandfather Isadore, a poor Russian immigrant who had designed and managed to patent a unique barber coat that didn’t collect hair in its pockets. His family had always been deeply proud of Isadore. When Goldman found himself listed as the inventor of those beets and carrots, he flushed with the honor of this parallel achievement.
“But over time,” he told me, “the experience of doing it made me realize what the implications of patents like those are. I asked myself, What would make me feel like I had made a contribution to the future—to a sustainable future?” After a hiatus during which he served as the college’s dean, he returned to breeding and devoted the rest of his career to developing germplasm that is “free and clear.”
Goldman agrees with Kloppenburg that vegetables are the most likely arena for OSSI to come to life. In his more hopeful moments, he envisions a food label alongside “organic” and “fair trade” that tells consumers their food is “open source.” But, he warns, if they are going to claim any significant amount of genetic territory, OSSI needs to act fast. Patents already cover everything from “low pungency” onions to “brilliant white” cauliflower, and a gold rush is taking place, with seed companies scrambling to claim what territory remains. Since 2000, lettuce alone has garnered more than one hundred patents; an additional 164 are pending. When Goldman went online to show me Seminis’s red-carrot application, his search brought up another, newer application for a different red carrot that he hadn’t even known about. During the writing of this article, seven more applications for patents on carrots have been filed.
“Open source still has a chance with vegetables, but our window is only as long as the bottleneck at the patent office,” Goldman said. “It could be a matter of less than a decade before what has happened with corn happens with crops like carrots and onions.”
On a sunny August day, at a research station in Mount Vernon, Washington, the men and women of OSSI were arranged around a flotilla of conference tables. The group was almost comically homogenous in appearance: two-dozen men with gray hair, glasses, and collared shirts; a dozen women, young and athletic, mostly graduate research assistants. Kloppenburg sat at the head of the tables in a linen shirt and a turquoise necklace. Goldman was at his side.
The group had convened in order to finally transition open-source seed from a clever idea to a legally defensible system. They were all clear on the basic principle—that, as Kloppenburg has written, “the tools of the master are repurposed in a way that…actively subverts the master’s hegemony.”But an hour into determining exactly how to do that, eyelids were drooping. The coffee machine began gurgling out refills. “OSSI has indeed found,” Kloppenburg would later write, “that the tools of the master are technically very cumbersome.”
A sweet-corn breeder named Adrienne Shelton made the case that the “political jujitsu” of open-source software wouldn’t work for seeds. When computer code is written, she explained, the author automatically gets copyright. That ownership allows the author to then take out a copyleft that says the material can be used freely. But plant breeding isn’t governed by copyright law, and by breeding a plant one does not automatically own it. One would need to patent the plant first in order to then claim the “patent left” of declaring it open source. “Most of the people that would be supportive of what we are trying to do as open source,” Shelton said, “they probably would be very, very skeptical if we said, ‘Well, first we have to patent it.’”
An alternative would be to employ another of the master’s tools: contract law. No patent would be necessary. Instead, before receiving germplasm, a person would sign a license agreeing to the open-source rules. On the table in front of Kloppenburg lay a draft of such a license, but no one could suffer the legalese long enough to survive even the first page in that cold pile of paper.
Goldman tilted his head and looked at the license with concern. “I can’t imagine handing over a vial of seed and, oh, let me go to the copy machine and give you this seven-page, single-spaced document,” he said. “It seems incompatible with what we’re trying to do: the open seed, and then a license that if you want to understand, you need to ask your attorney.”
Discussion turned to the quick and dirty “bag tag” licenses modeled on the stickers that sealed boxes of software; by opening the box or bag, the user agrees to the terms. Could a similar mechanism be used to mark seed as open source? Would it be legally binding? No one was sure.
Kloppenburg directed the group’s attention to a series of slides on the screen behind him. They were advertisements for private security firms and other organizations that enforce plant-related intellectual-property rights in the United States, Europe, and South America. Many of the largest seed companies are partners, as are numerous land-grant universities, including the one where this meeting was being held. The “Farmer’s Yield Initiative,” or FYI, offered a toll-free hotline where callers could submit anonymous tips about people using patented seed illegally.
Heads shook in disbelief and disgust, but the point had been made: Intellectual-property protections work because of deterrence; the ill-fitting metaphor of seeds as software was held in place by fear. None of the OSSI members I asked was able to name a plant breeder who had been sued for patent infringement or broken contracts, and yet nearly every one of them was willing to abandon material he or she had been working on for years rather than test how forgiving the intellectual-property holders might be. Later, Bill Tracy, the sweet-corn breeder, put it bluntly: “If you fear the company, you’re not going to cross it and the patent works. If you don’t fear the company, it doesn’t work. It comes down to who has the most lawyers.”
Looking around the room, it was clear this was not the group with the most lawyers. They had had one, who drafted their open-source license pro bono. But the week before, she had stopped returning their calls.
After the meeting, I spoke with Andrew Kimbrell, a public-interest lawyer and the executive director of the Center for Food Safety. He has led numerous legal challenges to plant patenting, and he certainly sympathizes with OSSI’s intentions. “In the midst of climate disruption,” he said, “having a diverse seed supply created through a robust public breeding program is a food security and national security issue. For that alone we should get rid of this patent issue and invest in public plant breeding.”
He advocated slower kinds of change: Legislation to return to the days when farmers and plant breeders were free to use any seed as they wished. More legal challenges to puncture the precedent that leads courts to rule consistently in favor of intellectual property protections. He even encouraged the basic, boring act of publishing research on plant breeding, since the most effective way to prevent something from being patented is to have documented that the thing already exists.
But the jujitsu that OSSI was trying to pull off he found “problematic” at best. “Just because you declare something open source doesn’t mean it’s off limits,” he said. “It could simply mean that you passed up your chance to get to the patent office.”
In the following months, Kloppenburg, Goldman, and a few others began meeting weekly to try to salvage the idea and launch it, somehow, before another growing season slipped by. They spoke to half a dozen lawyers, who confirmed that the licenses wouldn’t work. They were advised to patent their seed. “I never wanted to hire lawyers,” Goldman told me, exasperated. “I don’t want to be in the business of tracking licenses. I just want to free the seed.”
The reason OSSI stumbled in trying to make like computer hackers and open source their seed wasn’t just their naïveté with legal matters. In a way, the larger problem was the metaphor itself. Seeds are not software, they are living entities that grow and reproduce. Indeed, that’s the reason why the industry sought intellectual-property rights in the first place. But those protections can’t truly contain biology—seeds slip right through barriers made of words. If you want to reproduce a patented soybean, just lift one from a farmer’s field at harvest time and plant it in a pot. Without deterrence, a plant-utility patent is just an expensive piece of paper.
Even with a fleet of lawyers, chances are OSSI could never outsmart the intellectual-property system: Normally patents and licenses need to last for only one generation of plants; they say the seed can’t be planted back, and that’s that. But open source was supposed to allow the material to proliferate, which means OSSI would need to make sure that its license accompanied every new generation of plant—an exponentially expanding demand. Enforcing that viral replication would be nearly impossible. Without it, the seed would go right back to the unprotected commons, where anyone could claim it and patent it. The fluid nature of seeds, their natural impulse to regenerate, is both the impetus for the open-source concept and its legal undoing.
In January, the group drew up a new license. This time, they dispensed with the legalese altogether and instead wrote from their hearts. At just three sentences long, it wasn’t much of a legal document; it would never stand up in court. Instead, they would print it on the outside of each packet, just as Seminis does theirs, but with the opposite effect. “This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users,” it read. “By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means.”
Goldman toyed with the idea of also printing the pledge on slips of paper to be included inside the packet, like fortunes in a fortune cookie, to encourage people to pass it along. “I’m coming to see it more as a performance-art piece,” he told me brightly.
Despite his optimism, the group was admittedly disappointed. The goal had been to replace their defensive stance around intellectual property with a legal mandate. “Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, please don’t patent these things, it’s not right,’” Kloppenburg said, “we wanted a commons protected by law.” Now they were back to relying on the thin armor of ethics and morality for protection. They were back to slow change.
But with a blue-sky tone, Kloppenburg said that the true objective had never been to create a license per se. Instead, it had been to create a positive alternative to the intellectual-property regime. He was confident they could still do as much. The open-source idea had generated enthusiasm from all corners of the agricultural world. (Even the inventor of the Seminis red carrot, an old-school plant breeder caught in the tangle of the modern industry, had expressed his support.) This signaled to Kloppenburg that perhaps finally there was enough momentum to build an American seed movement big enough to have an impact.
OSSI was one of many nuclei organizing around the larger topic of seeds. Over the previous two years, the national seed-swapping nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange had grown its membership by 33 percent—to 13,000 gardeners. Later, in 2014, Vermont would pass the first law in the country requiring the labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients, a goal anti-biotech activists had sought for years. But there was still no concerted, sustained effort around that most fundamental issue of control and ownership, as there was in other countries. Kloppenburg pointed to Canada, where the National Farmers Union had been waging war against increased intellectual-property protections, and to countries throughout the developing world, where seed issues were an integral part of the international struggle for peasant rights. Across the Atlantic, there had been an uproar for more than a year over European Patent 1,597,965: “Broccoli type adapted for ease of harvest”—granted to Seminis in May 2013. As the title suggests, the claim is essentially identical to the company’s American patent on exserted-head broccoli. But while Jim Myers was about the only person upset about the US version, a coalition of twenty-five organizations from Europe and India filed a formal opposition to the European patent within months of its approval. Along with the requisite paperwork requesting that it be revoked, they delivered 45,000 signatures from supporters.
“Patents on naturally occurring biodiversity in plant breeding are an abuse of patent law,” the opposition statement read, “because instead of protecting inventions they become an instrument for the misappropriation of natural resources.” *
Their argument centers around a single line in the European Patent Convention, Article 53b, which states that patents shall not be granted on “plant or animal varieties or essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals.” Recent objections to similar claims (one on a different broccoli, another on a tomato) led the European Patent Office’s board of appeals to clarify that a new variety created by simply crossing plants and selecting their offspring—exactly the work of Myers and the Seminis broccoli breeders alike—was considered essentially biological and so not patentable.
The latest American ruling on the topic, in June 2013, established just the opposite. In the highly publicized case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, the US Supreme Court ruled that DNA itself was “a product of nature and not patent eligible.” But in delivering the opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas made the distinction that new plant breeds developed by conventional plant breeding were patent eligible. He cited the American Inventor’s Protection Act of 1999 as well as court precedent—namely, the opinion in the landmark 2001 case, which he also authored.
So while OSSI believes in the same basic principles as the European coalition—whose statement about the ethical implications of patents could have been written by Kloppenburg himself—the Americans’ fight is arguably much tougher. Its challenge is to amend patent law, which involves lobbying Congress against the powerful forces that are deeply invested in maintaining, if not strengthening, intellectual-property protections. Slow change, indeed.
Kloppenburg hopes that OSSI, with its new approach, can at least help speed things up. Listening to him and Goldman describe their new vision, it’s almost as if they have replaced seeds as software with a new metaphor—one inspired by plant breeding itself. Instead of building a protective barrier, OSSI would reach out into the world as widely as possible. Each time open-source seed was shared, the message on the packet would germinate in new minds: It would prod the uninformed to question why seeds would not be freely exchanged—why this pledge was even necessary. It would inspire those who already knew the issues of intellectual property to care more and spread the word. As the seed multiplied, so would the message. With three simple sentences, OSSI would propagate participants in the new movement like seedlings. They would breed resistance.
On April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiativeannounced itself to the public in a ceremony at the University of Wisconsin. The original plan was to rally on the steps of grand Bascom Hall, next to a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln—“an appropriate witness to our emancipation of seed,” Kloppenburg said. Instead, the rally took place outside the less charismatic Microbial Sciences Building, beside a tree still bare in the young springtime. Unfazed, volunteers planted the dry lawn with dozens of short, white flags reading free the seed!!!, which shivered in a brisk breeze. Clad in winter jackets, about sixty people gathered to hear Kloppenburg, Goldman, and others talk about food sovereignty and the importance of genetic diversity. Then organizers handed out packets printed with the OSSI pledge. Each contained seed from one of thirty-six open-source varieties, ranging from barley to zucchini. They included two carrots bred by Goldman, one of which he named “Sovereign,” in honor of the occasion.
They also included a broccoli from Oregon whose history began in 1997, the same year as Tom Michaels’s epiphany about the future of plant breeding. That year, Jim Myers began breeding a plant he now calls “The O.P.,” which stands for “open-pollinated.” Until then, his broccoli were either hybrids or inbreds, created by a process of narrowing the genetics until one select mother is bred with one select father to create a single, most desirable combination of genes. The O.P., by contrast, is the result of a horticultural orgy. Myers began with twenty-three different broccoli hybrids and inbreds, including some of the lines behind the exserted-head trait. He let insects cross-pollinate them en masse, and the resulting plants were crossed at random again—and again, and again, four generations in a row. He then sent germplasm to farmers around the country, had them grow it in their fields, and send back the seed they collected. Over the winter, Myers bred it in another greenhouse orgy, then sent it back to farmers. For six years, he repeated this process.
The broccoli evolved in two ways simultaneously. The back-and-forth of the breeding scrambled the plants’ genetics, making the germplasm wildly diverse. It also let the environment whittle away at individual genes. For instance, plants without pest resistance produced less seed or simply died, reducing their presence in the gene pool. When it was hot, plants that could tolerate heat produced more seed, increasing their presence. Survival of the fittest.
In the seventh year, Myers sent most of the seed back to the farmers—just gave it to them, without licenses, royalties or restrictions. The idea was that each farmer would adapt that dynamic gene pool to his or her farm’s particular climate and conditions, selecting the best plants every year to refine the population. In other words, they could breed it themselves. In time, each would end up with his or her own perfect broccoli.
The beauty of the O.P. is that rather than challenge the intellectual-property system, it inherently rejects the concept of ownership. It contains many of the desirable genetics of Myers’s commercial broccoli lines, but in a package that is designed to be shared, not owned. Because it is open-pollinated, not a hybrid, its seeds can be saved by any farmer. And because it is genetically diverse, it would be difficult to pin down with a patent. Even if someone did claim to own it, because each new seedling is a little different, that claim would be all but impossible to enforce. In this case, the plant’s natural instinct to mate, multiply, change—to evolve—isn’t an impediment at all. Rather, it is a central reason why people would want to grow it in the first place.
One of the farmers who received seed from Myers was Jonathan Spero, who grows and breeds vegetables on his farm in southwest Oregon. After a decade of working with the O.P., he released his own variety, a sweet, purplish broccoli that sends out numerous side shoots after the main head is harvested. Spero named it Solstice because it produces earlier than most—if planted by mid-April, it will yield florets by the first day of summer. Some people also refer to it as Oregon Long Neck, because it has an exserted head. On April 17, in front of the Microbial Sciences Building at the University of Wisconsin, it gained another title of sorts: the world’s first open-source broccoli.
That day, as the last act in the ceremonial birth of OSSI, the audience turned over their crisp little packets of seed and recited the pledge on the back. What they held in their hands was no silver bullet. It wouldn’t keep Seminis from getting its broccoli patent application approved, much less rewrite the laws of intellectual property in favor of free exchange and genetic diversity. But still, as Kloppenburg and Goldman read those precious words in unison with the small crowd gathered in the cold before them, there was a new power to their voices. The seed wasn’t even in the ground yet, but already open source was taking root.
* Opposition was filed also by Syngenta, the Swiss biotech company and direct competitor to Monsanto. Their objection followed the same general logic as the coalition’s: that the broccoli under protection was created by an “essentially biological process.” It was ironic, then, that they had just applied for their own patents in the United States and the European Union, covering a broccoli plant distinguished in part by a “protruding” head that makes harvest easier.
Editor’s note: This article was produced with support from The UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship program.
Writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on agriculture and rural communities. Her work has taken her from castration time on a Wyoming sheep ranch to a meeting of radical plant breeders in Iowa; from dairy farms in the highlands of Bavaria to sacred rice paddies along the coast of Japan. She is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, and her work has also been published in Harper’s, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Orion, and Gastronomica. As a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 2010, she explored the uncertain future that American agriculture faces as a result of climate change, depleted water resources and the end of cheap energy. More recently she has focused on her home state of California, exploring its rural communities and landscapes for the multimedia work Real Rural.
Kids being poisoned: Pesticides sprayed in French farms and vineyards are being absorbed by children living nearby, claims the group Generations Futures. -AFP
A study shows that several children from agricultural areas in France have been exposed to harmful chemicals.
French children in agricultural areas are being exposed to a dangerous cocktail of pesticides, some of them banned, a French health and environment group has claimed.
Generations Futures carried out independent analysis of the hair of young people living or studying near farms or vineyards after parents expressed concern about their children being exposed to poisons that could disrupt their endocrine system. The group, a non-profit organisation specialising in the use and effects of pesticides on humans and the environment, says its findings confirmed their fears.
Researchers took hair samples from a selected group of children aged between three and 10 living or attending schools between 50m and 200m from different agricultural zones. It sent the samples to an independent laboratory in Luxembourg that used methods similar to those employed by detectives investigating poisoning cases.
A total of 624 pesticide traces were found in the 29 samples tested – one sample was deemed of insufficient quantity – suggesting that 80% of the children had been exposed to agricultural pesticides in the previous three months. In total, the laboratory found traces of 53 pesticides believed to affect the hormone system of mammals, leading to cancerous tumours, birth defects, developmental disorders and learning disabilities in humans.
An average of 21.52 different pesticides were found for each child, 35 so-called “endocrine disruptor” pesticides were found at least once, while 13 were discovered in every hair sample. Just under three-quarters of the children ate organic produce regularly, suggesting the contamination came from an outside source and not their food.
“The presence of more than 21 pesticides, on average, that are endocrine disruptors in the hair that was analysed shows that our children are exposed to a significant cocktail of these substances,” said Francois Veillerette, a spokesperson for Generations Futures. “Now the European Commission must finally make public a clear and protective definition of the endocrine disruptors that have to be banned.”
The group’s report urges urgent action. “Our demand is simple and based on an ambitious goal: no organism should contain endocrine disruptors, in order to protect the health of unborn children.”
The group says the French government’s own national strategy to deal with endocrine disruptors has reached a dead end. The plan was originally to be published in 2013, but has been repeatedly postponed until the end of this month.
“Because children are part of the population especially vulnerable to the dangers of endocrine disruptors, they should not be exposed to them,” it said.
The research showed that several children had been exposed to harmful chemicals banned in agricultural use but still used in parasite treatments for pet animals.
Jean-Charles Bocquet, director of the European Association of Plant Protection Product Manufacturers, dismissed the research. “The presence of pesticide traces is not necessarily indicative of a health danger, especially in infinitely small doses. I’m sure you’d find traces of diesel in our hair if you looked for it,” he said.
Veillerette disagreed. “It’s not the dose that’s the problem, but the accumulation of pesticides causing a cocktail effect,” he said. Generations Futures says it has sent its findings to a specialised university research team for further analysis. – Guardian News & Media