Patent prejudice

  • 14/05/1994

Patent prejudice LANGUAGE, in any campaign, is as potent a force as logic. In Patent Pending: Indian Farmers Fight to Retain Seed Freedom, a beautifully and cleverly made campaign film by Meera Dewan and Vandana Shiva, the language is so loaded as to render impossible any rational debate on the subject.

Even before India affixed its signature to GATT on April 15, Doordarshan carried clarifications in bland question-and-answer style, asserting that farmers will not lose rights over seeds because of GATT. The film, however, shrilly assumes that they will.

The central motif of Patent Sunanda, an organic farmer in Karnataka with one acre who preserves her seeds carefully with ash and neem leaves. She asserts that her seeds never fail. Sunanda now believes that it is time for her to protect her crops and seeds from large corporate predators. She has been told that just as an American firm is seeking to patent a neem biopesticide, big corporations will seek to intervene in the pact that she has with her little patch of earth. They will take away her right to reuse her own seeds.

Reclaiming space
In a talk after the screening of this film at Delhi's India International Centre, Vandana Shiva said that reclaiming space for the smallest is what this film is all about. The question is: have they actually lost that space? Or are they about to lose it? Through the language used in the commentary, two rather distinct effects are achieved: one is an over-romanticisation of the marginal organic farmer in India -- the man who has traditionally used "the created seed" as against "the commodity seed". However holistic the farmer's approach to farming may be, it is difficult to argue that there is no need to increase a small holding's output.

Sunanda is raising 6 children on her single acre; they "will carry forward the pact with nature". This sounds like an Utopian dream of self-sufficiency come to life, but it is difficult to imagine that this little plot will meet all the future needs of this already large family.

The film is simultaneously a glorification of organic farming. But, you wonder: can today's self-sufficiency suffice for tomorrow, both in terms of the country and of individual large families?

The second effect that language achieves is an overt anti-technology bias. We are informed that biotechnology breaks "the unity of the seed" and "colonises life".

The footage of mechanised processes (including the mass production of fluffy yellow chicks) is juxtaposed with traditional methods. There is no denying that urgent ethical issues have surfaced with the advent of biotechnology; but a country that has to feed armies of people cannot afford to reject technological innovations outright -- particularly those that maximise food production and increase resistance to pests. As for patents going against the interests of Indian farmers, there is already a lobby of scientists in India which argues that patents are now imperative to protect India's genetic diversity and related research.

The film moves on to the villainy of the multinational seed giant, USA's Cargill, which pranced in with tall claims about the output of its seeds, wooed farmers and then dropped them like hot bricks when the output proved to be nowhere near what was promised. The film covers what it disingenuously calls "the second Quit India Movement" -- the ryots' agitation against Cargill. And, using the case of the American neem-stealer, it iterates the impassioned theory that Western interests are out to co-opt and colonise our traditional biodiversity and agricultural practices.

In purely visual terms, the film is very evocative. Meera Dewan wields the camera sensitively. In fact, she says that the documentary was intended as a mobilisation film to sensitise people about the dangers of patenting. That, finally, explains the hectoring tone of the film.

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