We’re pleased to bring to you the second post in the blog post series on The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project that we had launched last week. In this post, the research team of the project provides insight into the background of the project.
The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project : Background
SSI 2.0 Research Team
This is the impact-acceleration stage of a project led by PI Professor Gregory Radick, Centre for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds Co-I Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai, and in collaboration with Rugmani Prabhakar and Dr. Prabhakar Rao from the Art of Living (AoL) Foundation. Post-doctoral research associate Dr. Natalie Kopytko and research assistant Julia Koeninger provide further support.
Background of Phase 1
How can government policy in India – in particular, around intellectual property (IP) rights – incentivise innovation with indigenous varieties of seeds and other propagating materials? That was the question investigated in 2017 by a 9-month UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) project.
The project combined two seemingly dissimilar research agendas.
- Kochupillai’s study of how conventional IP combined with policies both implicitly and explicitly supporting formal seed innovations erode the traditional culture of seed saving and exchange on which sustainable seed innovation.
- Radick’s study of how innovation in the sciences generally involves interactions between intellectual property-narrow (example: patent claims) and intellectual property-broad. IP-broad includes priority claims – credit of first discovery or invention, and productivity claims – recognition for revealing the usefulness of a body of knowledge.
Thus, Phase 1 of the project had two research goals:
- Examining incentives for farmer-level seed innovations from indigenous varieties in India.
- Investigating the role of public recognition for farmers’ seed innovation in creating incentives.
Through Kopytko’s interviews with farmers from across India, and the Sustainable Seed Innovation Round-table, phase 1 generated a set of new proposals for maximising public credit for farmers and farmer groups/communities who innovate with indigenous seeds.
The roundtable event organised by the Art of Living Foundation at its headquarters in Bangalore involved 36 experts including academics, lawyers, NGOs, government and farmer groups from various parts of India. Participants highlighted current challenges, and contributed recommendations on means of promoting sustainable seed innovations, including amendments to systems, structures, and research needs.
Beyond agro-biodiversity conservation, indigenous varieties have been adapted for growth in local soils, climates, and human skill sets. As such, their promotion also has the potential to give struggling farming communities a distinctive commercial niche and a renewed sense of dignity. Acknowledging the relevance, Mr. Sanjay Khattal, a representative from the government of India, recommended the compilation of a position paper detailing recommendations for the government.
Introducing Phase 2
At the time of Phase 1, there was no notion that such a credit-tracking/publicising system might be monetised. Successful marketing would be the only means by which innovators would receive financial reward. There was also no link to the productivity-claim part of Radick’s IP-broad proposal. However, new work by members of the Research Team has led to breakthroughs on these fronts.
From Kochupillai has come an exciting vision for how digital ledger technology (DLT) can be used to (i) track and publicise innovation with indigenous seeds, (ii) ensure that profits from the sale of those seeds go to the small farmer-innovators and community-innovators, and (iii) incentivise research related to traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous seeds, small farmers’ seed and soil health.
DLT ensures that these monetary benefits can accrue while following a differentiated sales system that supports, rather than undermines, the culture of seed saving and exchange. In addition, DLT would facilitate ease of use to systems established under international instruments such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the Convention on Biological Diversity. These instruments support an IP-broad productivity claim by mandating benefit-sharing with local and indigenous communities that grant access to Plant Genetic Resources. While the number of patents and plant breeders’ rights certificates issued for new varieties of seeds has been increasing rapidly within India and globally, there are only a few instances of benefit-sharing with the farming communities – the original custodians of Plant Genetic Resources.
Prabhakar Rao (Art of Living’s) work with traditional and farmers’ varieties, particularly Sona Moti, will illustrate the functioning of the recommended DLT solution. The name Sona Moti, given by The Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, translates to Golden Pearl describing the round-shape and golden appearance of a 2,000-year-old Indian Emmer wheat with three times more folic acid than any existing variety. The story of Sona Moti provides a clear example of a productivity claim within IP-broad.
The relevance of productivity claims going beyond intellectual property protection regimes is further enhanced and finds concrete expression when communities and farmers practice Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Indeed, several of the roundtable participants shared experiences where the inherent productivity of traditional varieties enhances the self-respect and worth of the entire community preserving the variety.
In line with the experience of farmers, from Radick comes a new way of teaching genetics. Rather than Mendelian rules applied in labs, his teaching approach highlights the importance of genetic backgrounds and gene-environment interactions. This can help farmers understand why local indigenous seeds grown using traditional methods can be more productive as well as ecologically sustainable. Thereby, scientifically validating farmer experiences.
These new insights along with the research findings and phase 1 round-table discussions will inform the recommendations included in the position paper.
Thus, the project has 3 outputs:
- The writing and publicizing of a research-based position paper for the Government of India, co-authored by the Research Team, with supporting comments and contributions from SSI 1.0 and SSI 2.0 round-table event participants;
- The web-based dissemination of the stories of innovative farmers as an example of IP-broad;
- The unveiling of a preliminary (non-technical) outline of a DLT/Blockchain and AI facilitated framework to promote research and in situ innovation with agrobiodiversity and associated agricultural best practices, by and for all stakeholders.
Prior to the second round-table, participants will have an opportunity to contribute feedback on the position paper presented to the Government of India. The round-table discussions will then provide a chance for stakeholders to discuss next steps in supporting sustainable seed innovations and future research needs. These discussions will centre around the 3-prong approach introduced by Kochupillai and Radick in their recent Op-Ed in The Hindu “A wake-up call on proprietary seeds”. Importantly, some of the solutions recommended in this position paper can be implemented immediately for the benefit of farmers. Other solutions require additional research before implementation can be meaningfully accomplished.