Monsanto patent victory on GM cotton seeds can aggravate agrarian crisis

Published on Jan 09, 2019 07:19 AM IST

Farm activists and environmentalists argue that Bt cotton technology affects biodiversity as well as farmers’ and consumers’ rights.

A Monsanto logo is pictured in the company headquarters in Morges, Switzerland, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo(REUTERS)
A Monsanto logo is pictured in the company headquarters in Morges, Switzerland, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo(REUTERS)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

The Supreme Court ruling that Monsanto can claim patents on its genetically modified (GM) Bollgard-II Bt cotton seed technology that resists the bollworm pest is likely to aggravate the agrarian crisis in India, activists said.

Some cotton-growing farmer groups, however, say it won’t change the situation as domestic seed companies are as much to blame for rising prices. Monsanto, a US company, is the world’s biggest seed-maker.

Intellectual property rights experts say the judgment should be viewed with caution. “The case has gone back to the trial court. Yes, the Supreme Court has restored the injunction, so Monsanto wins for the time being. But we will have to wait and see. The trial court has to do a determination of the patent claim, which is very complex. The technology also needs to be assessed,” said Shamnad Basheer, founder of the website SpicyIP, and former chair professor of intellectual property law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.


What is Bt Cotton?
  • Bt cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the bollworm pest.
  • It was created by genetically altering the cotton genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium -- Bacillus thuringiensis. The transgene inserted into the plant’s genome produces toxin crystals that kill the pests that eat it.
  • About 50 million packs of GM cotton seeds are produced each year, according to the National Seed Association of India.
Why does the Indian market matter?
India is the world’s biggest cotton producer, growing around 6.21 million metric tonnes of the plant fibre in 2017-18.
Why did Monsanto go to court?
  • March 2002 Bt cotton was India’s first transgenic crop and was commercialised in March 2002. The Bt (Bollgard 1) is not patented.
  • March 2007 Monsanto licensed its Bt cotton technology (bollgard II), superior to bollguard I to many Indian seed companies, including Nuziveedu Seeds Limited, to sell to farmers. The seed companies paid royalty to Monsanto.
  • October 2015 Eight Indian seed companies stopped paying Monsanto royalties because Monsanto had refused to lower royalty after many states capped cotton seed prices.
  • February 2016 Monsanto appealed for an injunction against three Indian seed companies for patent and trademark infringement before Delhi High Court.
  • March 2017 Delhi High Court declares Monsanto’s termination of contracts with Indian seed companies is illegal and allowed Nuziveedu and others to continue using Bt technology.
  • April 2018 Delhi High Court rejected Monsanto’s patent for Bt cotton technology saying Patents Act prohibits the grant of patents for "plants, plant varieties or seeds or any part thereof".
  • January 8, 2019 The Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court order saying royalties on GM technology would be decided by a specialised agency in the agriculture ministry.
What’s the significance of the judgment?
Activists say Bt cotton technology effects biodiversity, and farmers’ and consumers’ rights.

In 2016, in the Mahyco Monsanto Biotech and others vs Union of India case, the Centre filed an affidavit saying rising prices of Bt cotton seeds was financially burdening farmers, who still had to spend on pesticides and other resources to make the crop pest-resistant.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which is the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the Centre should review the Patents Amendment Act, 2005, to see if there are any lacunae in the law that Monsanto used to convince the Supreme Court to allow its patent.

Ashwani Mahajan, SJM’s national co-convenor, said: “As per our estimates, Monsanto has already earned more than 7,000 crore as royalty for Bt cotton seeds. Article 3 (j) of the Patents Amendment Act says an invention which causes serious prejudice to human, animal or plant life or health or to the environment is not patentable. We should check how Monsanto proved that Bt cotton technology is not affecting the environment,” said Mahajan.

Farm activists and environmentalists argue that Bt cotton technology affects biodiversity as well as farmers’ and consumers’ rights.

According to farm activist Kiran Kumar Vissa’s impleadment in the Monsanto Technology LLC and others Vs Nuziveedu Seeds Limited and others, Monsanto had filed for patent in 2001 for an invention titled ‘The method for transforming plants to express Bacillus thuringiensis delta endotoxins’.

Vissa, in his petition, said that Monsanto described the nucleic acid construct in Bt technology as a chemical compound, having a chemical structure but the function of genetic material. Activists have argued that under the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, a “living modified organism (LMO)” means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material and Bt technology falls under the LMO category, so Monsanto’s claim on the patent is contestable.

The case goes beyond an inter-corporation dispute as it has implications on the livelihood of farmers, insist activists. “Bt cotton pushed up costs for farmers and resulted in farmer suicides. The government’s own affidavit has said that Bt cotton has pushed farmers to the edge. We wanted to point out to the court that it is in fact a matter of life and death,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture, who impleaded with Kiran Vissa.

Rakesh Tikait, Bharatiya Kisan Union chief, said, “We condemn the Supreme Court order. Farmers have been under severe economic stress because of failure of Bt cotton; it may also be unsafe for cattle which graze in cotton fields. We don’t want this technology in India.”

The cotton-growing belt of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra, which is India’s largest cotton-producing state, will not be affected by the judgment, say farmer leaders from the region.

“This decision has no real impact on farmers, it is between Monsanto and local seed companies. I don’t think paying royalty of ~50 to ~70 is an issue. The real issue is that Indian seed companies have been selling BT seeds at inflated costs to farmers and there is no check on this,” said Vijay Jawandia, a farmer leader and expert from Vidarbha.

Seeds companies are not to blame, said Ajit Mulay, president of the Seed Industries Association of Maharashtra.

“We have been fighting against the unreasonable royalty demanded by Monsanto and its Indian arm. The royalty has come down over the years but only after our legal fight. We will adhere to the Supreme Court verdict.”

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