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OPINION: Farmers’ rights over seeds: The unsung song in Bangladesh

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - Bangladeshi farmers, over the last decade, are enjoying high yields, especially in rice production, yet they find themselves in a situation compelling them to burn down their own crops! 

For the last few months, farmers in Bangladesh have been burning down the crops in the field. Electronic, print and social media have been flooded with the stories and images of their despair. People are wondering what exactly is happening? Bangladeshi farmers, over the last decade, are enjoying high yields, especially in rice production, yet they find themselves in a situation compelling them to burn down their own crops! In present-day Bangladesh, the agricultural inputs and labour costs are staggering, but the farmers are not offered a fair price for the yield in the market. As a result, they are facing a continuous loss of capital.

All the problems started when the corporate sector took its first leap in agriculture practice in the 1960s. The corporates brought genetically modified improved seed varieties to the country and lured the farmers to accept those by giving the hope of high yield. Corporates also started lobbying the government to device laws and policies so that their influence and control over the seed varieties and distribution gradually grows and sustains; the control which belonged to the farmers of this country from the time immemorial. Farmers enthusiasticly started using these new seeds, achieved the high yeild, and kept engaging in the business with the corporates. Even the government started supporting this trend, and to favour it, started making new seed laws so that the corporate grip over farming becomes tighter. As the farmers were no longer using the traditional seed varieties, they were gradually disappearing from the farming practice.

Even though the balance in farming was tipping, the agriculture and legal researchers were a skeptical in probing this ongoing corporatisation of the farming sector. For thousands of years, farmers in the country practised the traditional seed saving and exchanging culture. They were the traditional owners of those seeds. By using the corporate brought modern seed varieties, the intellectual property of which belonged to those companies, farmers turned themselves into their pawns, and the governments and policy makers in the country chose to remain blindfolded as if there is no consequence to this to follow! Finding themselves in the situation of the corporates’ mercy, many farmers in Bangladesh are now leaving their ancestral profession, coming to the large cities and are turning into either day labourers or rickshaw pullers.

On the other hand, using the corporate brought seed varieties are affecting the soil quality. In poor quality soil, farmers find themselves unable to use the traditional seeds. As a result of lack of use, these traditional seeds are gradually disappearing from the market. The traditional farming innovation lessened, contributing further to the framers’ crippling situation. Moreover, the overwhelming production using modified seeds has failed to attract an adequate market price - worsening the current agony of the farmers.

Farmers’ across the globe are challenging this corporate agricultural model, which brings in such anti-farmers laws, and Bangladesh is not the exception. Bangladesh is a member of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) which provides for the protection of traditional knowledge in the field of agriculture.

So, what is the solution? University of Newcastle Australia researcher Professor Christoph Antons sheds light on this. He recommends that developing countries like Bangladesh, with smallholders and traditional agriculture should use the considerable freedom granted by Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) with creativity to develop a system suitable for their economies and local conditions.

Bangladesh, as a member of WTO, can enjoy the freedom granted by TRIPS Bangladesh can develop a unique plant variety system to protect the farmer’s rights over seeds by limiting the ecological footprints. The initial optimism is Bangladesh drafted a law titled ‘Plant Variety and Farmers’ Rights Protection Act 2016. Although the recognition of the farmers’ rights ignites hope, the law neither properly acknowledges farmers’ as breeders nor allows seeds to be registered as farmers’ varieties. To keep farmers in the agriculture, Bangladesh should make its local legislation using the TRIPS flexibilities compatible with the ITPGRFA and CBD.

The writer is Research Assistant, University of Newcastle, Australia.

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