Citing intellectual property rights (IPR) violation, food & beverages giant, PepsiCo, sued nine farmers from Gujarat‘s Sabarkantha and Aravalli districts. PepsiCo claimed Plant Variety Protection (PVP) rights for growing a variety of potatoes that go into making its popular, packeted crisps, Lays.
The multi-billion dollar conglomerate has sought damages of Rs 1 crore each, from four farmers in its suit at a court in Ahmedabad, and Rs 20 lakh from each of the farmers sued at a district court in Modasa, for allegedly ‘infringing its rights’ and growing the “registered” crop illegally.
The disputed variety is called FL 2027 or FC-5 potato, for which PepsiCo India Holdings claims obtaining “exclusive rights in the country in 2016”. The farmers charged with intellectual property theft hold small 3-4 acres of land on an average; judging by the reports and laws that protect them, they are guiltless.
Spokespersons of the company refused to comment, noting that the case is still sub-judice. The hearing is scheduled in Ahmedabad for Friday, April 26.
Farmers and activists are outraged
Just days after the most recent of the nine lawsuits were filed, farmers groups launched a campaign seeking government intervention. 194 activists refuted the grounds of this lawsuit and sought immediate exoneration.
In their petition to the Ministry of Agriculture, a total of 194 signatories pointed out that the Farmers’ Rights Authority Act (2001) exempts farmers from Protection of Plant Varieties (PPV) rights.
Requesting the union and state governments to step in and ask PepsiCo India to withdraw all “false” cases against Indian farmers, Kapil Shah, who heads Vadodara-based organic farming group Jatan, demanded the protection of farmers’ rights as enshrined in the laws of the country, at a press conference on Wednesday.
“It is for the state government to ensure that farmers are not harassed. The company should immediately withdraw the case, which is untenable,” Sagar Rabari, of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, said at the briefing according to NDTV.
“These are among the first cases of alleged IPR infringement against farmers in India in a post-WTO world. Wrongly decided, these could set a wrong precedent, impacting farmers’ livelihoods quite adversely,” another spokesperson of GKS, Badribhai Joshi, told The Hindu.
The case has no legal standing
The company has said that the registration of a potato variety denominated as FL-2027, also known by the trade name of FC-5, in India’s Plant Varieties Registry in February 2016, entitles it to an exclusive right over the registered variety. It has also said that farmers are not authorised to grow this variety.
PepsiCo, in their complaints through 2018-19, invoked Section 64 of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001 to claim infringement of its rights. According to Jatan’s Kapil Shah, the company’s annual purchase of potato is 60,000 tonnes.
However, Section 39 of the same Act, specifically states that a farmer is allowed “to save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seed of a variety protected under this Act” so long as he does not sell “branded seed”.
Farmers groups have resorted to this protective clause that allows them to grow and sell the disputed variety of potato, as long as they don’t sell branded seeds. They have also submitted evidence to prove that the nine farmers acquired the farm-saved seeds locally in 2018.
On April 9, an Ahmedabad commercial court judge granted an ex-parte interim injunction against the farmers. It appointed a commissioner to prepare an inventory, take samples, and send them to a government lab for analysis. The Gujarat High Court, on Thursday, April 25, once again ordered for an inventory of FC-5 potatoes in cold storage.
What’s PepsiCo up to?
According to their petition, PepsiCo allegedly conducted a sting operation to document the farmers and build a case around the alleged IP theft. The company hired a private detective agency to pose as potential buyers and take secret video footage, and collect samples from farmers’ fields without disclosing its real intent. PepsiCo then filed a suit, charging nine farmers in three districts since 2018 at the very least.
The farmers warned that the case could set a precedent for other crops. A ruling favouring PepsiCo could could embolden foreign companies and industries to further exploit those already staggering under heavy debt, losses, and drought.
Not to mention, the health and environmental risks their production and products pose.
Although PPV&FRA registrar TK Nagarathna promises to look into the matter, there is reasonable doubt that farmers will likely get the financial aid to fund legal costs they have sought from the National Gene Fund.
In their letter, farmers have also demanded that the Food Rights Authority make a submission in court on their behalf besides extending the protection of their rights under the umbrella of PVP and FRA. Once again, therefore, the government has a chance to prove it is a true friend and ally to the tillers of soil.
US-based pesticide and genetically modified seeds company Monsanto, now purchased by Bayer, used to own the world’s food supply at one point; it is currently battling seed companies and farmers in several countries over royalty on Monsanto’s GM seeds. Monsanto’s Bt cotton in particular has a highly fraught legal history in India.
With eminent citizens and heavyweights like national vice president of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Ambubhai Patel, joining the campaign defending the farmers, the pressure on PepsiCo also mounts. Hashtags like #BoycottPepsicoProducts have already begun to trend on Twitter, while rights groups are vociferously demanding that the Centre do right by the farmers this time. Will this prove to be a hot potato for the company or will it prudently withdraw the lawsuits? Farmers can surely hope for the best.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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