Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Intellectual Property Rights and Ownership of Seeds

Does the Genetically Modified cotton, known as Bt Cotton or Bacillus Thuringiensis, give higher yield than the traditional variety of cotton that the Vidarbha farmer has been planting? Some studies have suggested it does. Qiam and Zilberman (2003); Qaim, 2003; have concluded after studying the field trials of Bt Cotton in India that it successfully reduces pest damage and increases yield. Bennet, Ismael, and Morse’s (2005) study shows that the official variety of Bt cotton outperform the unofficial variety. 

However, this seeming ‘change’ in planting unofficial hybrid variety to official variety is not simply a matter of habit for the farmer. Because, the seed that the now sows doesn’t come from the produce he got from the previous crop cycle. It now comes at a very high cost from a multinational corporation called Monsanto. Bt Cotton seed, aptly called the terminator seed, is designed in such a way that it terminates itself after one production cycle. The terminator technology would be theoretically capable of producing plants that don’t produce viable seeds, forcing farmers to buy new seeds each season (Herring, 2005).

The transgenic variety of cotton requires much higher inputs. It needs sufficient water; and the agriculture in drought-prone Vidarbha is rain dependent. Government’s agriculture extension services are poor, therefore farmers depend on input dealers for advice. There is a lack of formal credit institutions, as a result of which, farmers take help from informal money-lenders (Mishra, 2006).

The Bt cotton seed is patented by Mahyco, licensed by Monsanto, a multinational corporation that is known to employ coercive ways to destroy the traditional varieties of crops and collect royalties from farmers whose crops are found to have the gene developed by Monsanto, even though it is a result of cross-pollination from a neighboring farm due to wind. This new mode of agriculture is capital driven and coercive that is premised on the principle of destruction (as reflected by the terminator technology, and destruction of indigenous varieties of crops). Not only is the farmer’s conventional ways of living erased in adapting to this ‘progressive’, ‘technology-based’ agriculture, he is also robbed of his means of production – the seeds - that he has owned for generations. He gets implicated in the processes of globalization. Capitalism in this way becomes a newer, indirect version of colonialism. The right of the poorest people in developing countries are bought off with the power of the capital, their means of earning are taken from them with no just and fair compensation; and those very means, now owned by big corporations are used to dictate and govern their lives. The principle of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ aided by the glorious narrative of Green Revolution in India overrides the knowledge systems of the poor farmers, discards them as backward, not good enough for the progress of the nation. As over the years, more and more of these indigenous knowledges are erased, the prevalence of uniform, West-centered knowledge system emerges as the only way of practicing agriculture. And thus the project of the new form of colonialism would be complete. And this is accomplished with the help of Intellectual Property Rights. The very central point of this blog is to suggest that technology mediates power relations through Intellectual Property Rights.  

The task for a development communication scholar is cut out here. How could these universalizing processes be opposed in favour of diversity? How can this process be reversed? Can all the various movements touched by Intellectual Property Rights – e.g. Free Software Movement, piracy, etc. be brought into the discussion together with Biotechnology and medicine, for finding any possible theoretical solution?


Qaim, M., & Zilberman, D. (2003). Yield effects of genetically modified crops in developing countries. Science, 299(5608), 900-902.

Qaim, M. (2003). Bt cotton in India: Field trial results and economic projections. World Development, 31(12), 2115-2127.

Bennett, R. M., Ismael, Y., Kambhampati, U., & Morse, S. (2005). Economic impact of genetically modified cotton in India. The Journal of Agrobiotechnology & Economics, 7(3)

Herring, R. J. (2005). Miracle seeds, suicide seeds, and the poor. Social movements in India: Poverty, power, and politics, 203-232.

Mishra, S. (2006). Farmers' suicides in Maharashtra. Economic and Political Weekly, 1538-1545.

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