The Punjab government has refused to agree to US agrichemical giant Monsanto’s demands for intellectual property rights protection for its BT cotton seeds and has accused the company of a “monopolistic” plan to take over agriculture in Punjab.
The problem lies in Monsanto’s demand that farmers not be allowed to share its seeds and that the Punjab government pay a fine to the company if farmers in the province are found doing so. The company argues that it spends millions of dollars each year in developing those seeds and deserves to have its intellectual property protected and paid for and illegal to transfer without payment, much like the copying of movies and songs is illegal.
The Punjab government, however, is up in arms at this proposal, effectively calling it a conspiracy to make Punjab’s agricultural sector dependent on Monsanto. Government officials are so incensed at the proposal that they have gone to the extent of exaggerating Monsanto’s demands.
For instance, while Monsanto admits to wanting Lahore to pay a fine if its seeds are passed on between farmers without payment to the company, government officials claim that the company wants a complete ban on the sale of any other variety of seeds in the province.
Monsanto officials denied that allegation, stating that their only aim was to protect their own intellectual property rights. They said the company is not against the use of other seeds, just against the illegal transfers of its own seeds. “We are against the illegal commerce of our own seeds in Pakistan,” said the company spokesperson.
The provincial government, however, seems inclined to think that farmers sharing seeds should not be illegal. Pakistan uses about 40,000 tons of cotton seeds every year, about 25% of which comes from the 770 seed companies operating in Pakistan. The remaining three-quarters of seeds are those that farmers share with each other. The government views Monsanto’s opposition to this trade of its own seeds as a monopolistic practise.
The primary advantage of BT cotton is that it produces a disease and parasite-resistant crop, which requires less usage of pesticides and is thus more environmentally friendly. Federal government officials, however, dispute this.
“The number of pesticide sprays in Pakistan and even India have not been reduced after sowing BT cotton varieties,” said Khalid Abdullah, the cotton commissioner and the textile ministry. “The use of BT cotton varieties had not caused increase in production. The production increase in India has not been due to the usage of BT cotton but other factors like an increase in irrigated areas and agriculture sector reforms, etc.”
The federal ministry for food, agriculture and livestock signed a letter of intent with Monsanto on May 13, 2008 to expand cotton production by using its Bollgard variety. Pakistan signed a memorandum of understanding with Monsanto for introducing Bollgard-II technology on April 10, 2010.
The main threat to Pakistani cotton comes from parasites like spotted bollworms, American bollworms, pink bollworms, army worms etc, which dramatically reduce Pakistani cotton yields, since most farmers either do not use pesticides or not enough of the right combinations pesticides. Monsanto’s BT cotton would render the crop immune to these parasites.
Government officials said that there are several other parasites to which the BT cotton would still be vulnerable, such as the red cotton bug, the mealy bug and the dusky cotton bug.
Farmers do not seem happy with Monsanto’s proposals either. Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of Agriforum Pakistan, a farmer’s lobby, said that “Monsanto would destroy Pakistan. If we want a free economy in Pakistan, then Monsanto must not be allowed to market its seeds in Pakistan.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2012.