India-Bangladesh Need To Harmonise Rice-Seed Trade – Analysis

Eurasia Review, July 21, 2014

By Suresh P.Singh

India and Bangladesh need to harmonise their processes for seed certification – a move that can help galvanize bilateral trade and cooperation, boost the production of quality seeds of high-yielding rice varieties in both countries and lay a firm foundation to achieve food security and end hunger, says a paper by CUTS International.

Rice is the staple in large parts of India and all of Bangladesh, and an increase in productivity will be the key to poverty alleviation efforts. Already, there is widespread informal exchange and smuggling of seeds, which is widely used by farmers of both countries.
CUTS research shows that in Chapai Nababgunj district of Bangladesh alone, out of 48,000 hectares under rice cultivation, Indian Swarna variety is used on 33,000 hectares. Similarly, on the Indian side of the border – for example Dakshin Dinajpur district bordering Bangladesh – HYV rice seeds from Bangladesh are used by Indian farmers.

Formalising this trade holds major economic benefits for the two countries but this has been held back by a number of factors, most importantly the absence of harmonization of the seed certification processes in India and Bangladesh. At the same time, formalisation of the rice seed trade between India and Bangladesh can raise rice productivity by 10 to 15 percent.

Evidence published in a report by CUTS, a Jaipur-based international think tank on trade issues, suggests that both India and Bangladesh suffer from technical and resource constraints in production, marketing and distribution of adequate quantity of seeds. Excessive involvement of public bodies and applied subsidies in the seeds sector are often argued to be the two important reasons for inadequate market capacities, restricting private investment and participation in the seeds sector.

In a situation of scarcity and market inefficiency (farmers’ inability to access seeds at right price and right time), trade is the tool for optimising domestic availability. With respect to bilateral cooperation between India and Bangladesh, it has for long been observed that mutual cooperation and bilateral trade have proven beneficial for both the countries in many sectors like textiles, automobiles etc. However, the cooperation is still limited in seeds.

Efforts by India and Bangladesh to address the issues of food security and climate change in future will need to be underpinned by a sustainable agricultural system. Considering the role and potential of seeds as a tool for raising crop yields and production, it needs to be given a place of prominence in the public and private initiatives towards developing seed sector into a progressing and inclusive industry needs to be developed. However, for the seed sector to transform itself into an industry there is need for bringing in private investments. This can be facilitated by increasing market opportunities for private players, both within and across borders.

For cooperation at cross-border level, it needs to be first ascertained that compatibility of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) seeds produced in one country exists in another country. HYV seeds were largely responsible for the first wave of agricultural green revolution in India and other parts of South Asia.

Seed certification is a proof of standards embedded in a seed. These seed standards set by different countries vary from one another depending on local agro-climatic conditions and other requirements. Many regions have harmonised their seed certification processes or have taken initiatives towards harmonization. These include the 27-country European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMWA), the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Eastern and Central Africa (ECA). However, the South Asian region has no such agreement in place.

Once agreed and implemented, countries of a region can formally trade their seeds with each other in an unfettered manner. Fortunately, India and Bangladesh at the moment have very similar standards for non-HYV varieties of rice seeds with only marginal differences. This might make the process of harmonisation easier.

Considering the importance of the matter, the governments of Bangladesh and India have already taken some initiatives towards harmonisation of seeds laws and regulations. In this respect, a meeting of government officials of the two countries was held in February 2013 as a part of the STRASA (Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia) project of International Rice Research Institute. The primary objective of this meeting was to discuss ways to share rice germplasm and improved production technology for mutual benefit. One can recall, an official from Bangladesh has gone to the extent of proposing harmonisation of seed laws, legislation, and protocols to make the collaboration in the seed sector more effective and to facilitate trade in variety seeds.

The lack of availability of quality seeds and farmers’ lack of access to these seeds are two of the most important deterrents to attempts to increase yields, and therefore need to be addressed on an urgent basis. This is, of course, not to deny the importance of other inputs, such as soil conditions, fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation infrastructures and others.

Another potential way to increase cooperation in rice seeds is to regionalise the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, to which both India and Bangladesh are parties. It could also yield beneficial results for both the countries. What is now required is that the initiatives taken so far should be strengthened. A time bound approach could be more useful and effective in fostering cooperation.

(Suresh P. Singh is a Policy Analyst, CUTS International. He can be reached )

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