Save our onions from seed predators

Dinesh C. Sharma  | August 11, 2011 

An internationally reputed entomologist, Petr Svacha, was arrested and put behind bars in a Darjeeling jail a couple of years ago for allegedly violating the Biodiversity Protection Act 2002. His crime: he was found collecting some moths and insects in forest areas. None of them were endangered species nor was Svacha in a protected forest.

Now contrast this with another case of biopiracy. A multinational seed firm is accused of ‘accessing’ nine local varieties of eggplant and using this plant material to develop a genetically modified brinjal variety – popularly known as bt brinjal.

One of the state biodiversity boards finds prima facie violation of the Act and forwards the complaint to the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) for further action. NBA not only sits on the complaint for over a year, but also processes a fresh application by the same company to ‘access’ indigenous germlines of onions. In one case, a scientist is summarily jailed allegedly for being a biopirate, while in the other no action is taken even after evidence of biopiracy is found against a powerful commercial entity.

These two incidents demonstrate how India has made a sham of its biodiversity regulation.

NBA had to be set up to fulfill obligations after India signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. It took a long time for the authority and state boards to become functional.

Once NBA was set up, it was promptly converted into a convenient parking lot for bureaucrats from agriculture and environment ministries. All its chairmen since 2003 have been serving or retired babus, and members are all joint secretary level officers from different ministries.

One can call it a committee of joint secretaries rather than NBA. Even so-called nonofficial members are also drawn from the same pool. In fact, for the first time NBA will have a Chairman from outside the babudom this week. The problem with these people is that they consider the authority as an extension of the government, and have reduced it to a clearing house of applications from multinationals for accessing India’s biodiversity.

While applications from commercial firms for accessing biological material are processed with alacrity, complaints against them are not handled with the same level of efficiency. The time taken by NBA in dealing with the complaint of biopiracy against Monsanto, which now wants to access onion parental lines, is a case in point.

The Monsanto application for the use of onion plant material for developing commercial grade onion hybrid seeds also raises some fundamental issues.

How do you arrive at value of plant material and who decides this? The company is going to pay Rupees ten lakh to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research for 25 grams each of Male sterile (A line) and Maintener (B line) of MS 48 and MS 65 as ‘onetime license fee’. Is this the right price for a plant material which would perhaps spin a multi-billion dollar hybrid onion business for Monsanto? Should it be Rs 10 lakh or Rs 100 crore? (the export market alone of Indian onions is in excess of Rs 1000 crore a year).

When hybrids are already being developed in state-funded Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research, should a predatory seed firm be allowed entry at all? All these questions need convincing answers. Onion prices can bring tears in the eyes of politicians at the time of elections and bring down governments.

Hope the issue of biodiversity of onion will be dealt with the same level of gravity.






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