Two years after PepsiCo India provoked outrage by suing nine Gujarati farmers for allegedly infringing patent rights by growing its registered potato variety, the company’s registration has been revoked by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights’ Authority (PPV&FRA) .
“This judgement is a historic victory for the farmers of India. It should also prevent any other seed or food corporation from transgressing legally granted farmers’ seed freedoms in India,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture , who had filed the petition to revoke the food giant’s registration.
PepsiCo said it was reviewing Friday’s order, but refused to offer further comments.
The PPV&FRA questioned the documentation produced by PepsiCo claiming it was the owner of the variety, and thus could be considered the Registered Breeder under the law. The Authority accepted Ms. Kuruganti’s contention that “several farmers have been put to hardship including the looming possibility of having to pay huge penalty on the purported infringement they were supposed to have been committing... This violates public interest,” added the order from PPV&FRA chairperson K.V. Prabhu
The FL-2027 variety of potatoes, used in Lays potato chips, came to the limelight in April 2019, when it became the centrepiece for a David vs Goliath fight in the potato belt of northern Gujarat. Introduced to India in 2009, the potato was grown by about 12,000 farmers with whom the company had an exclusive contract to sell seeds and buy back their produce. In 2016, the company registered the variety under the PPV&FR Act, 2001.
Alleging that farmers who were not part of its “collaborative farming programme” were also growing and selling this variety in Gujarat, PepsiCo filed rights infringement cases under the Act against nine farmers in the state, including a ₹4.2 crore lawsuit against four small farmers.
In the midst of a crucial election season, widespread protests and boycott threats by farmers groups and political parties across the ideological spectrum forced the Gujarat government to step in, pushing the company to withdraw all cases in May 2019 . Ms. Kuruganti then filed an application to revoke PepsiCo’s registration in June 2019.
“The Authority’s acceptance of the Revocation Application, including on grounds of being against public interest, sends an important signal that farmers’ rights cannot be taken lightly by IPR-holders in the country. This should prevent further intimidation of farmers through vexatious IP lawsuits,” said legal researcher and agriculture IPR expert Shalini Bhutani, hailing the judgement as a precedent.
"We believe that the Authority and the Government have a responsibility to let every applicant and registrant under the PPV&FR Act know that their rights do not supersede farmers' rights,” added Kapil Shah of the Kisan Beej Adhikar Manch, one of the Gujarat activists who spearheaded the initial protests.
“The registrants’ rights are limited to only production of a variety, and not production from a variety. Even when it comes to production of a variety, farmers have rights to produce seed and even sell seed of a protected variety provided it is unbranded,” he added.