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Seed Problem unsolved?

 Last year it was worse than the previous year. Even that previous year was worse than the year before. Every year, farmers are facing an increasing problem of access to seeds. Standing in long queues, with cash in hand (procured from private money lenders with great difficulty and high rate of interest), and anxiety writ on their faces, farmers do not know if this method of seed procurement is likely to be permanent or a temporary phenomena. Every year, they hope that the situation might change. Problems with seeds are deep rooted, and extending these roots into new areas. It is not just availability of seeds on time. It is also not just about quality of seeds. Good quality seeds, with good germination potential, are becoming rare, as the number of hybrids are increasing. On the other hand, prices of seeds are increasing every year. So much so, farmers are now shelling out 10-30 percent of per acre investment on seeds alone, starting from zero. Yet, they are not assured of good quality seeds.

 There are administrative, economic, management and legal issues here. However, farmers who are forever busy with farming do not have information, knowledge or wherewithal on how to deal with these issues. The traditional systems of selection, saving, improving and production of seeds have been deliberately replaced by the governments.

 Seed shortage?

 The big question is seed shortage for real? A national report on requirement and availability of seeds for kharif plan 2013-14 cites surplus availability in all seeds, including major crops such as paddy and cotton. This report which mentions 31 crops, availability of 1.54 crore quintals of seeds, against a requirement of 1.40 crore quintals, declares a surplus of 14 lakh quintals for kharif 2013-14. Except in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, all other States report a surplus of seeds. In Andhra Pradesh, the big producer of seeds, this surplus is 4 lakh quintals, with availability being 32.43 lakhs against a requirement of 28.33 lakh quintals.

 Crop-wise, deficits have been reported in the case of 9 crops such as Maize, Banyard Millet, Niger seeds, Arhar, Cow Pea, Moth bean, Jute, Dhaincha and Guar. Large deficit can be seen in Maize seeds. There is balance too in 5 crops – availability and requirement match exactly in the case of crops such as Italian Millet, Rajma, peas, Bajra Napier and rice bean. However, it should be big relief to know that in the case of major crops such paddy, cotton and ground nuts, more seeds are available than the requirement. One needs to see how the situation pans out, when farmer starts buying seeds to start sowing in kharif 2013.

 However, past record shows that private seed companies, with the connivance of few government officials, official apathy and neglect, would continue to play tricks with seed markets, distorting demand and supply.

 In AP, as per official information, in 2010-11, the area under cotton crop was 18 lakh acre and about 80 lakh packets (of 450 gm) were used by farmers. The expected area under cotton crop in 2011-12 was about 20 lakh acres and the requirement of cotton seed would be around 90 lakh packets of 450 gm. Even if one takes, 4 packets per acre, there should be surplus of 10 lakh packets in AP state alone. There should have been sufficient packets, as per their own estimates, given before the announcement of increase in seed packet market prices. However, it was free for all, with farmers losing out ultimately.

 Seed prices were increased by the governments, with no independent verification of the information proffered by the seed companies about rising seed production costs. There have been reports in the media of corruption involving some higher political and administrative functionaries.

 In Andhra Pradesh, the problem of cotton seeds as surmised by government officials in 2012-13 kharif was that farmers wanted only a particular variety, of a particular company, despite the availability of ‘good quality’ seeds from other companies. However, with 1,128 BT cotton hybrids introduced in the markets (from 2002-2012), farmers have to make a choice. This ‘choice’ has been distorted by marketing tricks played by seed companies. Advertisements with high promises, attractive brochures and packets, promotional campaigns by high profile individuals, collection of advance payments in crores of rupees, etc., extend their pernicious influence on the farmer’s choices.

 Seed Testing Laboratories, seed certification standards, seed inspectors and seed germination reports of this system have not helped the farmers. Independent, informative and accessible information system is not available to the farmers in the form and language they can understand about the quality, quantity and accessibility of these 1,128 BT cotton hybrids and other crop seeds as well. Agricultural extension system does not help either. Farmers are left to the network of ‘gullible’ officials, seed traders, commission agents and seed companies.

 Pricing: Pricing of seeds is a major area of concern, with little regulation of the same from the government. Seed companies demand that price for Bollgard-I and Bollgard-II (Bt cotton seeds) should be increased. Accordingly across India, BT cotton hybrid prices were increased.

However, seed companies have been saying primarily the government has no say or role in fixing the BT cotton seed price. They want freedom to fix and sell the seeds, and would not undertake any responsibility for the quality of seeds.

 Interestingly, Mr. Sharad Pawar, Union Minister of Agriculture and Food Processing
Industries, had asked the AP State to deregulate the cottonseed pricing. “A competitive and vibrant seed industry would be able to serve the interests of farmers by ensuring the timely availability of cottonseeds at reasonable prices,” Mr. Pawar observed in a letter to the AP Chief Minister, Mr. N. Kiran Kumar Reddy. “The area under Bt cottonseed cultivation has reportedly come down. This would adversely affect the availability of Bt cottonseeds in future. In the long term this would harm entire cotton economy,” he cautioned.

“This trend can only be reversed if cottonseed farmers are paid substantially higher prices to encourage them to continue with production of Bt cottonseeds. This needs revisiting of policy that regulates cottonseed pricing,” he said in the letter.

 The same Union Minister for Agriculture did not bother to write a letter on the losses suffered by farmers, due to bad seeds, heavy rains and floods, every year. It is another matter, he did not even consider visiting them and giving them confidence.

 Meanwhile, the cost of seeds for the farmers has been increasing. Quality is a major issue for farmers, as most seeds, which come in packets and branded, do not germinate, grow, develop leaves, flower or give proper yield. Many farmers, who invest on land preparation, water and electricity, labour, crop protection, land fertilization, etc., find that with low quality seeds, all their efforts go waste – down the drain. This leaves them poorer by so much of investment. Risks due to seeds are increasing, and their worries are multiplying. Other risks include market prices and natural disasters (sudden rains, hailstorms, extreme heat or cold conditions, floods, drought, water shortages, etc.).

 It is important that prices of seeds are regulated by the government, on an annual basis. Private seed industry is supplying high-value, low volume seeds to the farmers, through local production and imports. Seed prices are being arbitrarily fixed, leading to a huge burden on the farmers. Today, the percentage of expenditure on seed in the overall cost of production ranges from 6 to 33%. Seed industry has been claiming success of their seeds/labeled products, as an argument to increase the seed prices. Thus, they brought performance of seeds as a causal factor for seed pricing. Hence, performance of their products needs to be discussed. It would be important to measure the performance against the current price.

Cost of production of seed has been the contentious issue. While seed farmers are crying hoarse about practices of the private seed industry, which denies them proper price for their sweat and efforts, seed industry so far has not responded with any transparent and acceptable mechanism of benefit sharing with the seed farmers. Seed farmers need an assured price and a mechanism that is supported by the government in ensuring proper returns for them.

Royalty or trait fee continues to be the major problem. One needs to study this aspect more deeply and extensively. International norms and practices in other countries need to be referred to. Trait fee is supposed to be based on the R & D investment and should not be more than 5-6 percent as per agreed norms. However, it would be absurd to link it with paying capacity of the farmers. As with every commercial product, cost of production continues to be the basis for arriving at the market price, and not the market price of the benefit accrued from the supplied raw inputs. Market price for the harvested crop cannot be the criteria for fixing the seed price. Even if by any chance this principle is applied, then the loss also needs to be linked.

 Importantly, when BG I cotton seed is no longer performing as per its original expectation, as admitted by the seed industry, why trait fee is being levied for the same? While the price for refuge crops is included in the cost of production given by the industry, in the field, one can see that there is no supply of the same. As a result, Rs.50 to 75 is being collected by the companies, without supplying the same.

 National Seed Policy:  National Seed Policy envisions encouragement of private seed sector as a solution. Governments, both central and State, have exempted seed companies from income tax, provide incentives and encourage them to spread their trade networks by including them in seed subsidy programmes. As a result, seed companies are growing in revenues, despite problems being faced by farmers. Between 2009-11, growth rate of revenues of major seed companies was remarkable, ranging from a low of 8 percent to a high of 75 percent. According to International Seed Federation, Indian seed market is valued at Rs.10,800 crores in 2011.

 Despite negative experiences in seed sector, after the entry of private sector, especially proprietary seeds, government has failed to do a honest assessment of the situation and bring in relevant changes to help the farmers. There is no detailed discussion of the same in the Parliament. Even though government keeps emphasizing on competition, ‘monopolisation’ of Indian seed sector through proprietary seeds and licensing has defeated such purpose. Withdrawal of public sector and with lesser and lesser public seed varieties in the markets, private seed sector has been acting as syndicate in turning uncertainties and anxieties into profits.

 Seed bill is pending in Parliament, merely because farmers have been asking for wider scope for regulation and decentralized regulatory system.

 Seed statistics are as distorted, based on the objective of the particular data, leaving a serious researcher aghast. For example, a serious research paper puts out total seed production as 280 lakh quintals in 2009-10. However, government assessment in kharif 2013 puts total seed availability as 154 lakh quintals. Does this mean there is a reduction in production? There are many such example, where the variation in quantities and information is very wide. If government policies are based on such unreliable statistical estimates, no doubt government leaders would continue to believe that the problem is with the farmers and not with their policies and procedures.

 Budget:  National government has spent Rs.292 crores on different schemes on seed in 2011-12. However, the allocation has decreased to Rs.217 crores in 2013-14. In 2012-13, there was allocation of Rs.316 crores, but it was revised down to a mere Rs.211 crores. In 2011-12 and in subsequent years, allocations for National Mission on Seeds are nil, indicating that government is reluctant to invest in seed production and infrastructure. In Andhra Pradesh, in 2011-11, expenditure on seeds was Rs.167 crores. Yet the allocation was decreased to Rs.161 crores in 2012-13. In 2013-14, it increased to Rs.192 crores. Despite this increase, there is negative change in direct seed subsidies, from an expenditure of Rs.150 crores in 2011-12 to an allocation of Rs.124 crores in 2013-14.

Government investments are decreasing in seed infrastructure, research and production, if not completely zero. Most of the funds are being directed to subsidies on seeds. However, farmers do not benefit from these subsidies, as these schemes are tied up with procurements, tenders, specific ‘proprietary seeds’ and corruption. Seeds supplied under these schemes are usually low quality, and/or highly priced.

Conclusion: A recent report by Centre for Food Safety and Save our Seeds, Seed Giants Vs US farmers, 2013, says, “in the last few decades, the U.S. has led a radical shift toward commercialization, consolidation, and control of seed ownership. Three agrichemical firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—now control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. The top ten seed firms, with a majority stake owned by U.S. corporations, account for 73 percent.  This shift has fundamentally changed farming in the U.S. Instead of continuing the historical tradition of farmers having full access to seeds that they have cultivated over centuries, agrichemical corporations now own the sine qua non of farming - indeed, the irreplaceable element of all food - seeds.”

 Indian farming is also changing the same way, with active support of Indian government. There seems to be lot of distortion, fudging and deliberate misinformation being spread by the seed companies, primarily to increase the anxiety among farmers and mint profits out of such anxiety. Unfortunately, government seems to be a ‘knowingly’ silent spectator, if not a partner-in-arms. There is no independent agency, which can fix responsibilities, punish the guilty and correct this faulty system. No political leader, worth his salt, has cared to bring succor to the farmers. No ‘conscientious’ official has stood up to the machinations of the seed companies. Hard, toiling farmers are increasingly becoming victims of a powerful combine of politicians, traders and companies.

 Fundamentally, the problem with seeds is not about lack of good seeds, but lack of access to good seeds because of a shared perspective between a few multinational seed companies and a few Indian decision makers.

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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.