Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Delhi, wishes its licensees were as honest in their dealings as they are aggressive in propagating the high-yielding wheat and rice seeds it has developed.
The institute which was at the forefront of the Green Revolution has lost steam. Private seed companies and trait developers have overtaken it in entire segments. It has been eclipsed in vegetable seeds, which is a lucrative market. The private sector dominates in cottonseed; a US multinational has a monopoly on embedded genetically-modified insecticidal traits which were approved in 2002 and are very popular with farmers. It is only now that public sector institutes have come out with their own versions; these have not been commercialised yet.
But in wheat and rice, IARI has developed blockbuster varieties that have brought prosperity to farmers and earned the country billions of dollars in export earnings. Lacking marketing acumen and infrastructure and the wherewithal to produce seeds in large quantities, it has engaged the private sector which has extended its reach to many more farmers than it could on its own. But the greed of private seed companies and IARI’s commercial naivete have had unhappy outcomes.
IARI, also known as Pusa Institute after its original location in Bihar, had released Pusa Basmati 1509 for planting in the 2013 monsoon or kharif season. It is a short duration variety which matures in 120 days, or 25 days earlier than Pusa Basmati 1121, which was released for planting in 2003. This means fewer irrigations and less water. It yields 7-8 tonnes per hectare with aromatic grains that elongate to over 20 mm upon cooking.
To ensure good basmati quality, the variety should be planted in late June or early July so it can be harvested in the third week of October or the first week of November. Despite being told not to, private seed companies could not resist demand from wheat farmers in Punjab and Haryana who wanted to squeeze in a third crop before sowing potato. They planted the variety early and harvested it in September when temperature is high. This affected grain setting and the enzymes which synthesise starch. Millers paid a high price the first year, but felt shortchanged when they discovered a year later that the rice was brittle, the percentage of broken grains was high and the aroma had faded. “I blame industry for being a big partner in killing this wonderful product,” says K.V. Prabhu, joint director (research) at IARI.
In another instance it was IARI’s poor understanding of commercial behaviour and the role of incentives that led to unintended adverse consequences. In 2003, it released Pusa Rice Hybrid (PRH) 10. This was the first hybrid to be commercialised by the public sector in India. Incidentally, India has less than 3 million hectares under hybrid rice out of 44 million rice hectares. In contrast, more than half of China’s rice area is under hybrid. Private licensees wanted to market the seed under their trade names. For instance, JK Seeds suggested JK RH-10 with the tag, “licensed by IARI.” But IARI would not agree with the result that seed companies with lesser qualms sold seed or poor quality and gave the hybrid a bad name.
Another sticky issue is royalty payments. In 2011, IARI released the high-yielding wheat variety HD 2967. Private companies procured 1,300 quintals for seed production in the very first year—quite a high quantity by IARI standards. By the third year, the volume had risen to more than 3,000 quintals. In 2016, orders for 3,126 quintals were placed. Except for 97 quintals from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the rest of the demand came from private seed companies for sale in eastern India.
IARI also involved about 16,000 seed farmers as well. They were given 2 kg each of breeder seed with which to produce foundation seed. Because of the personal attention they gave to the crop on their small plots, they were able to produce 500-600 kg of foundation seed from every kg of breeder seed, against the norm of 50-60 kg, Prabhu said. This is because the wheat variety has “fantastic tillering quality.” If plants are spaced right, they can give 35-50 tillers (secondary shoots), against 5-6 when planted densely on a large scale.
The popularity of this seed, raised demand for the variety that followed: HD3086. It attracted 107 licensees in the very first year, compared to 49 for its predecessor. In the second year 102 more seed companies were enlisted. But most of the licensees underpaid royalties taking advantage of a kink in the system of indenting. Apart from procuring seed directly from IARI, seed companies could also place an indent through their seed association on the department of agriculture (DAC). Licensees procured a small quantity from IARI on which they paid royalties and a larger quantity through DAC on which they paid little or none. There were exceptions like the multinational Syngenta and the Tata-owned Metahelix Life Sciences, Prabhu said. This year, IARI has proposed amendments.
Prabhu says IARI is not fixated on royalties, which are quite low. But it ensures traceability and quality assurance.
IARI will also have to learn to trust but verify. It should engage auditors not only to keep tabs on quantity sold by its licensees but also to carry out quality checks. Licensees who stray will not fall in line unless IARI earnestly enforces contractual obligations.
Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagricuture.in, a website devoted to promoting modern practices in agriculture including use of genetically-engineered seeds.
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