Indian Agriculture: Some Basic Facts and Food for Thought

by | Jul 7, 2011 | Agriculture | 0 comments



This blog is partially an excerpt from a recently published article of mine, titled “India’s Plant Variety Protection Law: Historical and Implementation Perspectives.

India today is self-sufficient in most of its food requirements. However, it suffered from major famines and severe shortage of food until the mid 1960s.(1) In the decades following the Green Revolution, (coupled, to a smaller extent with increase in cropped and irrigated areas) India became increasingly self-sufficient in agricultural produce. Today, Indian agricultural produce, particularly in relation to important staple foods, is sufficient to feed the entire population of India, while also contributing 15 to 20% of the total value of India’s exports. (2) India was (and is) also an active participant and contributor to international agricultural R&D efforts, including international research efforts in wheat, maize and rice. (For example, Indian scientists have recently created a drought resistant variety of rice called Sahbhagi Dhan that can survive 12 days without rain)(3)

India has witnessed an increase in its agricultural production by >350% from 50.82 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 230.67 million tonnes in 2007-08. (4) While the increase in the land area under cultivation was mere 27.87%, (5) the increase in yield per hectare of land was 255%; from 522Kg/hectare in 1950-51, to 1854 Kg/hectare in 2007-08. (6) This increase in production is largely attributed to improved production technologies, particularly high yielding varieties (HYV) of seeds introduced under the Green Revolution.

In a world that considers intellectual property rights as inevitable and indespensible, Lost Clauses fondly reminds itself and its readers that these HYV seeds and the related technology were acquired and successfully disseminated in India in the absence of an intellectual property protection regime: Green revolution in India resulted from an initial transfer of large quantities of high yielding varieties of rice and wheat seeds from Mexico under the initiative of Norman E Borlaugh. (7) Thereafter, the appropriate technology and know-how, including the best manner of cultivating, the quantity of pesticides and fertilizers to be used etc. was innovated and recommended by the Indian National Agricultural Research System (NARS). (8) Once the dissemination of HYV seeds to Indian farmers commenced, the Green Revolution spread rapidly to most farming communities because of the traditional practice of saving, resowing and exchanging seeds, and because of the absence of IP laws preventing these practices. Experts opine that in the absence of this tradition, such a rapid spread would not be possible.(9)

Recently, Lost Clauses read an interesting article by Christine Godt titled “Regulatory Paradoxes – The Case of Agricultural Innovation.” Ms. Godt notes:

[blockquote align=”none” author=”Ms. Godt”]Traditionally, ‘access’ was conceived as the central component of agricultural innovation, as distinct from industrial patent driven innovation. It rested on two pillars: the former plant breeders’ rights system provided privileges for both farmers and breeders: Complementarily, public agricultural research institutions granted open access to its collections.” (10)[/blockquote]

She further notes:

[blockquote align=”none” author=”Ms. Godt”]Historically, the agricultural innovation system was firmly rooted in open access to genetic resources as public domain…. The inherent reason being self-replication. This feature does not only limit proprietary control along distribution lines. The improvement of seeds is necessarily built on the stock of already existing ones.” (11)[/blockquote]

If the above are facts, which indeed they are, I wonder about 2 things:

1. What prompted and sustained robust private sector participation in seed production and distribution in India (and elsewhere) during the absence of a strong IP protection regime for seeds?

2. Why is a need felt now for strong(er) IP protection in the seed sector despite the glowing growth rates of agricultural productivity around the globe witnessed in 2nd half of the 20th century without such protection?

We invite thoughts on these from our readers and promise to provide our own inputs on them soon!

Sources and Citations
(1) For E.g. the great famines in Bengal 1943-44, in Orissa in 1866 and Bihar in 1873. Greenough, Paul R., Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-1944, (New York, Oxford University Press), I982.
(2) Sahay BR and Shrivastava MP, National Agricultural Policy in the New Millennium, (Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi), 2001, p. 31.
(3) According to news reports, “Sahbhagi Dhan, which means rice developed through collaboration, is the result of 15 years of joint effort by scientists at the Manila-based IRRI and Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station (CRURRS) in Hazaribag town [Jharkhand, India].” Pandey Geeta, India’s drought resistant rice, BBC News, 5 August 2009.
(4) Agricultural Statistics at a Glance, (Government of India) 2008, (20 February 2011). See also Ray Shovan, Economic Policy and Agriculture, In Handbook of India Agriculture, edited by Shovan Ray (Oxford University Press, New Delhi), 2007, p. 37.
(5) Agricultural Statistics at a Glance, (Government of India) 2008.
(6) Agricultural Statistics at a Glance, (Government of India) 2008. The total food-grain stocks of the government have shot up from 20.8 million tones in 1995-96, to 42.3 million tons in 2000-2001. However, this increase may be a result of the Minimum Support Price Scheme of the government of India whereunder, the government guarantees that it will buy all the quantities of grain that the farmer offers to sell. Ray Shovan, Economic Policy and Agriculture, In Handbook of India Agriculture, edited by Shovan Ray (Oxford University Press, New Delhi), 2007, p. 40
(7) The recommended seed replacement rate for self-pollinating crops is 25%. National Seed Plan of India(Government of India), 2005. Also see, Lesser William H, An Economic Approach to Identifying an ‘Effective Sui Generis System’ for Plant Variety Protection Under TRIPs, In Transitions in Agbiotech: Economics of Strategy and Policy, (Proceedings of NE-165 Conference, Washington DC), June 24-25 1999, p. 324.
(8) Inputs provided by Dr. Sudhir Kochhar during the review of the article by this LCD.
(9) Experts also opine however that India’s agricultural policies have catered more to the large landowners and has neglected the needs of the poorer and small farmers. Demangue Sabine, Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable System for India (Herbert Utz Verlag Publishers, Munich), 2005, p. 243 and 257.
(10) Godt, Christine (2009) Regulatory Paradoxes – The case of agricultural innovation, in: J. Drexl, C. Godt, R. Hilty, B. Remiche & L. Boy (Eds.), Technology and Competition – Technologie et Concurrence, Brussels: Larcier (De Boek), 99-118, at 78.
(11) Godt, Christine (2009), ibid., at 82.