By Bipul Chatterjee and Suresh P Singh
The signing of a protocol on high yielding varieties (HYV) of rice seeds on October 18, 2014 in Kathmandu, Nepal, by the agriculture secretaries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal is a much awaited event. It opens up the scope and potential for agricultural cooperation, which can lead to formal trade and knowledge-sharing in HYV rice seeds among the three countries.
It is an extension of a similar protocol signed by the agriculture secretaries of the three countries on February 17, 2013. Facilitated by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), it seeks to enhance cooperation in HYV rice seeds research, particularly among public institutions and IRRI.
For Bangladesh and India, trade and knowledge sharing in HYV rice seeds has been constrained for several reasons. This is despite the fact that in 1983 the two premier agricultural research and development institutes of Bangladesh and India – Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – had entered into an agreement to foster joint research and cooperation in the field of agriculture.
Some of the major areas included were: (a) cross-hosting or exchange of visiting scientists, trainees, graduate scholars and other professionals between ICAR and BARC; (b)exchange of germ plasm and other materials for breeding, testing and propagation of improved lines and varieties of crops; (c) free exchange of scientific information that is of value to research and training; and (d) joint sponsorship of, and participation in research, training seminars/workshops and technology transfer programmes/ projects.
A CUTS (Consumer Utility and Trust Services) study has found that while trade in hybrid rice seeds is allowed, that in HYV seeds is restricted to trial and testing of adaptability. Several reasons are cited for this lack of trade and knowledge sharing. One reason is the lack of mutual recognition of varieties released in India and Bangladesh. In addition, apprehensions regarding external dependence and market capture by other countries and intellectual property rights related issues work as barriers.
Because of such barriers and apprehensions, no serious effort was made in the recent past either by the governments or by other stakeholders towards the promotion of trade and knowledge sharing in HYV rice seeds through harmonisation of seed laws and regulations. Even initiatives such as the SAARC Seed Bank are yet to have any impact on this subject.
In the study, it has found that there is the urgent need for cooperation through trade and knowledge sharing in view of the have high demand for HYV seeds and a widening of demand-supply gap. Seed supplies, in general, through formal sources constitute about one-fifth of the total requirements in Bangladesh. The situation is relatively better in case of rice seeds, where supply is over 40 per cent. In case of India, even though the supply is relatively better, farmers suffer from lack of availability and accessibility to quality HYV rice seeds.
Because of lack of trade and knowledge sharing and increasing demand-supply gap (and also less than expected performance of hybrid rice seeds) farmers are availing informal channels to meet their seed requirements. One estimate by IRRI shows that more than one-fifth of the rice producing area in Bangladesh uses Indian varieties such as Swarna, Parijat, and others. To be more specific, it has been found in the study that in one particular district in Bangladesh (ChapaiNababgunj), out of 48,000 hectares under rice cultivation, 33,000 hectares are covered by Indian varieties.
Similarly, Bangladeshi varieties such as BR 11, BRRI 28, BRRI 29 are used in many Indian states, particularly Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. They are either accessed through informal channels, exchange between farmers across the border, or produced locally.
The resultant impact of the barriers to promote formal trade and knowledge sharing is low seed replacement rates, causing low yields. Many rice producing states in eastern India are experiencing very low seed replacement rates; for example, 17 per cent in Jharkhand, 22 per cent in Odisha, 33 per cent in West Bengal and 38 per cent in Bihar. Bangladesh performs relatively better on this count but there exists huge scope for improvement.
This situation of food security and livelihood of small farmers is expected to change with this protocol coming into force. It will encourage mutual recognition of HYV seeds released in the three countries. It will also provide joint evaluation of varieties and acceptance of the research and evaluation data generated in one country for release in similar agro-climatic conditions in other countries.
Besides, the protocol could be effective in addressing issues relating to intellectual property rights too. In case a particular variety is desired by farmers and if it is found adaptable to a particular location/country beyond the national boundary, the breeder/owner of the variety can license its production. Issues such as royalties could be addressed between the licensee and the one receiving the licence for local production.
Other provisions in the protocol include germ plasm exchange, simplification of the process of evaluation of varieties through the use of technology, allowing pre-release seed multiplication and demonstration of promising varieties which are in advance stages of release and adoption of programmes for collaboration.
Overall, this protocol is a step forward towards the integration of rice seed markets of Bangladesh, India and Nepal – the three adjoining countries in eastern South Asia where rice is a key staple. If effectively implemented, it can significantly improve the availability and accessibility of better variety rice seeds and can also lead to faster release of adaptable varieties in these countries.
With this historical development, governments of the three countries should come forward with a clear roadmap to facilitate trade and knowledge sharing in HYV rice seeds. As a first step, major stakeholders, especially seed producers, traders and farmers are to be made aware of this path-breaking development. Agriculture extension service is a key to make this happen. This should be a stepping stone for trade and knowledge sharing in other areas of agricultural cooperation among these countries including Bhutan and Myanmar.
The writers are respectably Deputy Executive Director and Policy Analyst at CUTS (Consumer Utility and Trust Services) International, a research organisation based in Jaipur, India.
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