Navara rice controversy: Plant Variety Act doesn’t protect farmers’ interests, say experts

A farmer’s plea to register a traditional rice variety has once again raised concerns about loopholes in the Protection of Plant Variety Act

By Meenakshi Sushma
Last Updated: Saturday 02 June 2018 | 03:44:34 AM
In the absence of a database of traditional varieties, claims by farmers for patenting such seeds cannot be verified. Credit: DTE
In the absence of a database of traditional varieties, claims by farmers for patenting such seeds cannot be verified. Credit: DTE In the absence of a database of traditional varieties, claims by farmers for patenting such seeds cannot be verified. Credit: DTE

The state government of Kerala and the Kerala Agriculture University recently objected to a petition filed by a farmer from Palakkad for registering Navara, a traditional medicinal rice variety under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act, 2001 (PPVFRA).

P Indiradevi, the Director of Research from Kerala Agriculture University says Navara has been cultivated for centuries and hence, it is not ethical to patent it under a single farmer’s name. The university objected to the claim as soon as they saw the petition on the PPVFR act website.

According to a media report, Narayanan Unni, the farmer claims that the variety cultivated on his farm is an exclusive variety belonging to Chittur. To support his claim, he cited an award called, Plant Genome Savior Community, presented by PPVFRA two years ago.

Indiradevi says that one of the reasons for him to patent the variety could be for its commercial value. She adds that this is not a sudden development as he has been working on Navara rice for a long time and has also formed a Farmer Producer Company.

Experts Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to believe that this is an unethical move. First, in the absence of a database for traditional seeds, there is no credibility to claims such as Unni’s. Second, loopholes in the act allow IP rights to be given on a first come first basis.

Bharat Mansata, who is associated with a pan-India seed saving organisation, Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch says that it is highly likely that he just made a small change to a traditional variety, where the most of the characteristics were developed by old farmers. “It is not as if a new variety was formed,” he told DTE.

There is no database of traditional variety to compare it with when the new variety is registered under the Act. If the data on traditional variety is available, officials can compare and then certify it as new variety. But currently, registration can be given to any individual who claims that they have developed the variety.

“PPVRFA’s approach is wrong as it registers on first-come-first-serve basis. It ignores that different farming communities may be custodians and caretakers of the same variety, may be even by different names,” Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) told DTE.

She also pointed out that the relatively well-off farmers might get to know about this registration regime in the first instance, and get a variety registered. This is the denial of recognition of the contribution made by others to conserve and maintain a variety.

“Under Sec. 8(1) and 8 (2)(c) of the PPVFR Act, the Authority is supposed to pro-actively document and catalogue farmers' varieties. This should have been implemented first,” says Kuruganti. “If registration of farmers' varieties is mainly to prevent bio-piracy, then multiple farming communities' claims as custodians of a community can always be accommodated,” she adds.

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