The future of agriculture in the world will be dominated by modern biological science and biotechnology, most of which will come from the private sector who invest billions of dollars for the commercialization of such cutting edge technologies.
It is not surprising that private companies want to recoup their investments by way of protecting their technological inventions via sound Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). India adopted TRIPS related IPR regime with some caveats that is not going down very well by the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the meanwhile, the present government in India is excited about foreign direct investment (FDI). If international agri-businesses have to invest in India, they will need a firm protection for their inventions. Not only direct investments, but also for partnership with domestic agri-businesses.
Need for IPR…
Even Indian public sector institutions that have invested in modern science need IPR protection. Time has come for protecting public inventions through IPR that will be necessary for entering into public-private partnerships and other forms of technology transfer. Not only modern science, even conventional technology products will need some sort of protection to recoup investments.
However, the idea of IPR is anathema to a number of organizations that have been prodding India to not yield to any kind of strict IPR regime in agriculture. Opponents of IPR argue that all life forms have evolved over the millennia, and as such no human being has the right to establish any monopoly over them. At present, India does not allow seed patents. The Kolkata High Court has granted a patent for a laboratory-bred mouse, setting a precedent to cover other organisms. Private sector has a big pipeline of seed embedded technologies to bring them to the market place, but cannot do it in India as they cannot protect their inventions embedded in seed. There is a misunderstanding among many that any seed can be patented. That is not the case. What one can protect is technological invention (trait) built into the seed using any science and technology. As such, the same seed bereft of any invention can still be used by anyone without the fear running afoul of its IPR.
A win-win for both public and private players
Public sector institutions too can enjoy IPR. The Indian Council Agricultural Research (ICAR) has a separate IPR cell and has obtained patent protections on some of its biotech seeds, and has licensed them out to private seed companies. This is a win-win situation for both public sector and private sector, and makes it that much easier to do public-private partnerships. As much as we can all patriotically promote public sector institutions to develop modern seed varieties and gift them away to the farmers’ a la green revolution, it is no longer possible to freely gift away as the cost of R&D is becoming very steep.
In addition to R&D cost, there are the ever increasing regulatory costs that need to be factored into costing the price of modern biotech seed. Public sector institutions lag behind decades from delivering any modern biotech seeds for want of capacity and access to IPR protected genes and traits. When private biotech majors are investing billions of dollars in modern biotech R&D, ICAR and the Department of Biotechnology‘s (DBT) investments at less than fifty million dollars is a drop in the ocean.
At this rate, it is foolish to expect the public sector to bring products with modern biotechnology into the market place by competing with private sector giants in agri-biotech. Public sector must focus on training the critically needed manpower in biotechnology, and the private sector can do R&D to commercialize the products. Public sector can also be good at innovations, which it can license them out. IPR regimen can infuse competitive spirit in public sector institutions. Critics of IPR must realize that it is only through human intervention that all scientific and technological progress has come and if modern agriculture is where it is today, it is because of innovations, and not just evolution.