'Farmers will have no choice'

DAVID HATHAWAY is a social scientist who has worked in Brazil on issues such as transnational corporations, pesticides, genetically engineered crops, patents and biopiracy. He tells T V JAYAN why Brazil's proposed seed bill will hurt farmers

Published: Friday 31 January 2003

A new seed policy is on the anvil in Brazil. Why is it controversial?
Farming communities and non-governmental organisations (ngos) working closely with farmers in Brazil are worried about the set of new seed laws the government is considering. The bill (Production, Marketing and Control of Seeds), proposed about two years ago and still before the Brazilian Congress, will change the existing seed registration in the country. The bill has two major thrusts. One, it privatises the seed certification process. At present, the government certifies seeds and maintains a registry. Besides, only seeds sold by commercial seed companies require certification.

The other aspect is the way it defines seeds. It changes the focus of the 1977 seed law (Inspection and Control Over the Production and Marketing of Seeds and Seedlings) in the country. All seeds, even those in the hands of farmers, will require certification, if farmers intend to exchange or sell seeds. Essentially, this means that no one can sell seeds that are not registered in the ministry of agriculture and so meets certain criteria: distinct (from similar varieties), uniform (in grain size), stable (same yield over a number of cropping seasons) and have a name (a brand name, for example). This makes it difficult for farmers' varieties to be sold, exchanged or exported as a seed in the formal market.

Farmers and ngos say the 'uniformity clause' is a recipe for monoculture and genetic erosion. The real concern is that this move will drive underground the historical seed market, and the entire genetic wealth and germplasm that plant breeders have collected over a long period of time; probably into open clandestinity. This uniformity clause is an obtuse proposal. But this is being proposed in many countries as a new criterion for seed law. It may even come to India.

Will farmers be able to store, sell or exchange seeds at least for their own purposes?
They can store and use it in their own farms. But cannot exchange seeds even with neighbours. Since the proposed bill makes all seeds subject to the same regulations, they need to register with the ministry if they want to sell it in the market. Currently, the law is applicable to a very tiny portion of the seeds sold in Brazil (mostly sold by seed firms).

If the bill is approved, it will have disastrous implications. Unlike in the past, where the government issuedregistration and maintained the federal registry of seeds, the bill proposes handing over the registration process toprivate industry. It is a two-pronged thing: it privatises certification. And in most cases, seed companies themselves will be the certifiers, not the government.

Will certification cause problems?
Theoretically, yes. The farmer will have to invest a lot of money in having all the phyto-sanitary procedures in place, and putting in place tools to identify the genetic composition of seeds. Technically speaking it is possible, but small and medium size farmers may not find it feasible. Even big farmers in Brazil go for public varieties of seeds, reproduce and sell them in the market.

Is the seed market in Brazil big?
Not large. I guess it will be in the range of us $25 million. A majority of the farmers depend on exchange of seeds rather than buying them commercially. All this will change, once the new law is in place. The seed market would then see a sudden spurt, for the farmers will have no choice.

Does the proposed bill talk about genetically modified (GM) crops?
No, not in particular. It makes no distinction in the certification of gm seeds as compared to conventional seeds.

What is Brazil's stand on GM crops?
Brazil is yet to allow commercial cultivation of gm crops. In fact, the Brazilian federal court is looking into the issue. In June 1998, Monsanto requested authorisation for commercial release of its soybean, which it had been testing since 1996-1997. In September 1998, the National Biosafety Commission granted approval. Immediately following this, Greenpeace Brazil and the Brazilian Consumer Defence Institute filed suits against the approval and procured a restraining order. A sentence and an appeal after, the case is currently in the regional federal court. There has been no final verdict yet.

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