Ahmedabad: Farmer leaders and activists in Gujarat have launched a protest against US food and beverages giant PepsiCo after it sued nine farmers in the state for illegally growing and selling a kind of potato exclusively registered by the company. PepsiCo claims it has sole rights to grow the particular variety of tubers for the manufacture of its Lay's brand of chips.
The nine farmers belong to the Sabarkantha and Aravalli districts of Gujarat, with each holding around three to four acres of land on an average.
Last week, a commercial court in Ahmedabad had directed the farmers — Chabilbhai Patel, Vinod Patel and Haribhai Patel — to stop growing and selling the potatoes till April 26, when it will next hear the case. The court has also sought a response from the three over the company’s claims of infringing on its rights.
On PepsiCo’s request, the commercial court also appointed advocate Paras Sukhwani as court commissioner to conduct an inquiry into the dispute and prepare a report.
Over 190 farmers, scientists, activists and unions from across the country have signed a protest letter in support of the sued individuals. “Potato-growing farmers have nothing to worry and we can’t allow such intimidation as we will fight against it in court as well as on the streets if needed,” said Ambubhai Patel, Vice President of the Bharatiya Kishan Sangh.
PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt Ltd told the court that it uses a registered variety of potatoes called FL 2027, which is a hybrid of FL 1867 and Wischip varieties, to manufacture chips for its brand. The company is the registered breeder of FL 2027 under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001 (PPV&FR Act).
This variety was first commercially used in India in 2009 and is under the trademark FC5. The company has granted licence to a few farmers in Punjab to grow the variety on the buyback system. By growing these potatoes without licence, the farmers in Gujarat are violating its statutory right, the company claimed.
PepsiCo told the court that it found out about the farmers growing this variety in January this year. The company collected samples and sent them for verification to its in-house laboratory as well as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Shimla-based Central Potato Research Institute for DNA analysis. The results confirmed that the respondents were growing the registered variety.
The court has appointed Sukhwani to prepare an inventory, take samples and send them to the government laboratory and the Potato Research Centre for further analysis. It has also ordered police authorities to provide protection to Sukhwani, who will conduct videography and photography of the proceedings.
“We have come to know that around nine such potato-growing farmers from north Gujarat region have been sued by the multinational giant in the last two years, but we only came to know about it last week,” said Kapil Shah of the Vadodara-based Jatan Trust. “This is a very serious issue as farmers are being sued to intimidate them.”
Shah said it was a matter of great concern as others could be “similarly bullied by seed and food corporations through vexatious litigation in the assertion of plant breeder rights”.
“The cases are specifically with regard to a particular potato variety with a denomination of FL-2027, reportedly known as FC-5 potato, for which the company claims to have obtained exclusive PVP (Plant Variety Protection) rights in India in 2016 (valid till 2031) from the authority,” he said.
Shah said that the nine farmers had grown a potato crop from farm-saved seed after they accessed it locally last year. “At this point of time, it is not clear if the farmers were aware of what they had grown and even if they did, that is immaterial when it comes to the statutory rights that they have,” he said.
Soon, PepsiCo was tipped off that the farmers were growing “its registered variety” of potatoes. “It then hired a private detective agency, in a completely unacceptable manner, to pose as potential buyers in front of the sued farmers, to take secret video footage and collect samples from farmers’ fields sans disclosing its real intent,” Shah added.
Later, PepsiCo India got the samples tested in its own laboratory and also sent them to the two institutes. After confirmation, the company presented an estimated damage of more than Rs 1 crore against each farmer and filed legal suits against four of them earlier this month.
“We came to know later that similar cases were filed against five other farmers in another district in Gujarat last year and there could be more and the company even obtained injunction orders from the court,” Shah said.
Farmers’ leaders say the PPV&FR Act has always been projected as a law to protect farmers’ rights.
“We believe that the intimidation and legal harassment of farmers is happening because farmers are not fully aware of the rights contained in this statute,” said the farmers’ body in a letter to the chairperson of the Delhi-based Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority. “Plant Breeders Rights granted in India are meant to be unique and different from those granted anywhere else due to the farmers’ rights orientation and provisions of the law. It is in this context that we urge the authority to protect the rights of farmers.”