Harvested wheat being weighed and packed | Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Harvested wheat being weighed and packed | Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Growing up in Pakistan, one knew what real fruit looked like, and how good it tasted. It was only when one travelled to countries like the US that one encountered the other kind of fruit, which looked big, appealing and picture-perfect, but felt tasteless and sad inside. Now, as Pakistanis are increasingly noticing, something has happened to our fruits and many no longer seem to have the same wonderful flavours that they once did in childhood.

The story of our fruit is connected to the changing policy landscape of seed, food, and agriculture in Pakistan. The subcontinent is home to hundreds and thousands of varieties of seed, which have been meticulously cultivated and bred by farmers according to the soil and climactic conditions of different locations. Through their practices of seed-saving and seed-sharing, farmers — especially women farmers — have been stewards of the land, protecting biological diversity and ensuring healthy and tasty food for all through their traditional knowledge practices.

The “Green Revolution” of the 1950s and 1960s, however, radically altered this framework as well as the relationship between the small farmer and seed. Claiming to multiply yields for solving world hunger, it spread new kinds of hybrid seeds all over Asia and other parts of the world. These seeds were developed by intentionally cross-pollinating two varieties of a plant, and were mostly grown and tested for use in the U.S. while also monetarily benefiting the US seed companies.

Behind its rhetoric of modernising agriculture, what got eclipsed was the political dimension: the new agricultural advancements were given the name “Green Revolution” in 1968 by the director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the hopes of pre-empting the spread of “red,” or socialist revolutions. The Green Revolution thus increased the dependency of newly decolonised countries on the US, and heightened its imperial power in the age of the Cold War.

The story of our fruit is connected to the changing policy landscape of seed, food, and agriculture in Pakistan.

While it did lead to high yields in some contexts, the overall impact of the so-called Green Revolution was actually a drastic impoverishment of the farmer and the land alike due to its promotion of costly inputs, mono-cropping, and chemically-intense fertilisers and pesticides that proved immensely harmful for the soil and environment. Its most dire consequence was that seed was no longer seen as part of the “commons”, a gift of nature that could be saved from year to year, shared and free for all and owned by none. This shared local and global heritage was now reduced to a commodity that had to be bought as part of a larger package of “technology”, which in practice translated into heightened debt and dependency for the farmer and reduced productivity and diversity for the land.

Alongside, whole generations in Pakistan and other Third World countries were taught to see the rural farmer as a backward, illiterate worker who impedes the development of the country, instead of as a knowledgeable grower and caretaker on whose wisdom and labour the country actually stands.

Now, Pakistan is on the cusp of another purported “Gene Revolution”, which claims to promise food security through the promotion of genetically modified (GM) seeds. These experimental seeds change the very DNA of a crop, and are developed by seed companies who then claim intellectual property rights over them. The resistance to GM seeds exists across the world, for reasons including health and environmental risks, threatened food sovereignty, reduction of biological diversity, and ethical concerns regarding the patenting of life forms.

Over the last 15 years, new kinds of hybrid and GM seeds have already spread extensively in Pakistan through informal means, as well as the active manipulation of farmers by seed organisations that offer free sample seeds with productivity promises — without telling farmers that these seeds are genetically modified and can potentially contaminate neighbouring fields as well. Coupled with the Green Revolution earlier, these recent practices have reduced desi crop varieties to such an extent that, according to Dr Azra Saeed (executive director of Roots for Equity), indigenous seed has been “reduced to a handful.” In such a context, why is Pakistan hastily passing laws to promote the further spread of commercial and GM seed?

Last year, Pakistan passed the Seed (Amendment) Act 2015 and recently at the end of November, both houses of parliament cleared the Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Bill for the President’s assent, so it too shall soon pass into law. Both laws prioritise the interests of corporatised, high-cost, seed businesses at the expense of the land, the farmer, and the citizen in general.

The Seed (Amendment) Act bars the use of unbranded seeds, which means that the small, subsistence farmer will be forced to grow only seed that has been officially registered after a series of costly and complicated requirements have been fulfilled. This raises the cost of agriculture for small and subsistence farmers, potentially heightening their dependency on rich farmers who will be able to afford the newly protected and registered varieties. The Act further imposes excessive financial penalties and imprisonment for those growing “misbranded seeds,” where misbranded seeds are defined in a wide-ranging manner thus opening the path for victimising the small farmer for growing her or his own seed.

While labeling and quality control of seed is critical, the laws are framed such that their vision of quality can only ever be ensured by already powerful seed companies. The monopolisation of “true” seed and normalisation of “branded” seeds promoted by these laws compounds the commodification of seed, going against millennia of agricultural practice whereby farmers have sowed, saved, reused, exchanged and innovated on seeds.

A rice paddy on the outskirts of Lahore | Tariq Mahmood, White Star
A rice paddy on the outskirts of Lahore | Tariq Mahmood, White Star

It is a duty and moral imperative for the government to represent and protect the needs of farming communities, who represent the majority of this country and already constitute the most vulnerable segment of the population. The notion of farmers’ rights is simply absent in these laws, alongside any concern for protecting our desi biological heritage through seed banks and related policies.

Compared to plant breeders’ rights, protecting farmers’ rights needs to be a higher priority of the government. At the same time, it is important to note that this prioritisation does not mean that the needs of private companies are completely unattended. As the legal frameworks of contexts such as India and Ecuador have shown, the rights of nature, seed, and small farmers can be effectively balanced with those of private, seed-selling companies.

The Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill 2016 does not even aim for such a balance. It seeks to facilitate the entry of GM seeds in the market without having set up the proper mechanisms for their safe examination and testing. Most shockingly, there is no documentary evidence that the bill as well as the Seed (Amendment) Act of 2015 have provincial approval as agriculture is now a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. As such, both these new federal laws not only infringe on farmers’ rights, but are also effectively unconstitutional in terms of procedure and jurisdiction.

While labeling and quality control of seed is critical, the laws are framed such that their vision of quality can only ever be ensured by already powerful seed companies.

When both the Seed (Amendment) Act of 2015 and Plant Breeder’s Rights Bill 2016 come into full effect together, their inclination towards corporate-controlled agriculture coupled with Pakistan’s lack of pro-farmer policies and seed market regulatory systems will not only grossly undermine farmers’ rights but also adversely affect national sovereignty. A renewed neoliberal-imperial colonisation is not implausible, if the stakes of the multinational corporations in Pakistan’s seed industry remain unchecked and the land-grabbing activities of foreign entities continue on Pakistani soil, with the facilitation of our government.

Additionally, the patents regulated under the Plant Breeder’s Rights bill may allow bio-piracy to occur, whereby corporations can exploit the weak regulatory and registry systems in Third World countries by securing protection for seed varieties that already exist. Foreign companies may obtain patents for local plants or their derivatives, exemplified by the European Patent Office (EPO) granting a patent for an Indian Neem derivative to the US Department of Agriculture and the multinational WR Grace in 1995. The patent was granted despite Neem being an indigenous Indian plant and several already existing traditional Neem derivatives, passed down by families and communities. It took India a ten-year legal battle to get this patent overturned.

With the regulation of GM seeds under both Seed (Amendment) Act and Plant Breeder’s Rights law, the personal tradition of saving and re-using of seeds by local farmers will be severely impacted as well. Even if farm-saved seed that others have not patented (yet) can be reused restricting it to one's own land as mentioned in Plant Breeder’s Rights legislation, GM influx will lead to widespread contamination which will eliminate seed choice by the annihilation of local farm-saved seed, like in the case of Pakistani cotton, with local cotton all but replaced by Monsanto’s BT cotton.

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Two months ago, a global civil society initiative led to a public tribunal being held against Monsanto at the Hague, in which Monsanto was charged with “crimes against nature and humanity.” The world’s most powerful agribusiness firm is actively spreading its reach in Pakistan, even as neighboring India is trying to put a halt on its activities given its destructive impact against the land and farmers, and culpability in the rise of farmers’ suicides.

Due to such exploitative practices of multinationals in the name of agricultural innovation, the new legal regimes of agricultural policies in Pakistan have the potential to lead to the monopolisation of Pakistan’s seed market by multinational seed corporations, causing unchecked hikes in seed and input prices which will be severely debilitating for farmers. Further, by prescribing the payment of royalties by farmers to multinational companies on usage of protected seeds, limits will be placed on the farmers’ rights to choose and buy seeds. They will be forced to repeatedly buy expensive seeds and inputs, adversely impacting their quality of life and livelihoods, while their liberty to economize through seed-saving and trading will be taken away.

Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

As corporate control over Pakistan’s food system will increase, the right of its people to food sovereignty will decline, as will their ability to source food that is justly grown and culturally suitable. Furthermore, by giving precedence to the rights of corporate plant breeders and the protection of foreign or genetically modified varieties, and by failing to recognise the role of farmers in developing and conserving genetic material and contributing to valuable traditional farming knowledge, a detrimental power dynamic will be created in which the socio-economic and political status of farmers will be further weakened.

As citizens and dwellers of the land, it is important to challenge the very logic of allowing intellectual property rights on seed and crop varieties. Any variation on a plant can be seen at best as a modification, not an “invention” that can be patented, protected, and sold as if it was a mechanical device. This is because such an “invention” will always be based on the biological diversity of seed which is a common global inheritance and any attempt to patent it amounts to appropriating and commodifying this shared heritage as an exclusive product of one company. Indeed, this biological diversity has been developed and preserved by the very farmers whom the new legal and property regimes of agri-tech companies combined with governments now seek to displace.

A greater awareness of the rights of consumers and farmers is in order, along with organised resistance to corporatised agriculture led by civil society organisations, the media, academics, farmers’ associations and the wider public. To alter Pakistan’s seed narrative, the current legal regime needs to be replaced with legislation that is pro-farmer and pro-people, and the focus needs to be on strengthening from the inside out through equitable land distribution, community seed-saving, organic farming education and biodiversity conservation.

Amna Tanweer Yazdani is an anthropologist, and senior social scientist at Aga Khan University.

Nosheen Ali is a sociologist and founder at Karti Dharti, a public interest research space that promotes the study of land, culture, and community in South Asia.

The writers have co-authored the newly released report "Seed Inc: Food Sovereignty, Farmers’ Rights and New Legal Regimes in Pakistan".