PepsiCo India Holdings (PIH) announced it is withdrawing lawsuits against nine farmers in north Gujarat, after having sued 11 farmers for “illegally” growing and selling” a potato variety registered in the company’s name. What were these cases about?

The patent is for the potato plant variety FL-2027 (commercial name FC-5). Pepsi’s North America subsidiary Frito-Lay has the patent until October 2023. For India, PIH has patented FC-5 until January 2031 under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001.

PIH, which has a buyback agreement with Gujarat farmers, accused the 11 farmers — three of whom earlier had contracts with the company — of illegally growing, producing and selling the variety “without permission of PIH”.

Speaking to The Indian Express before the cases were withdrawn, one of the accused farmers had said the agreement was that PIH would collect potatoes of diameter greater than 45 mm, and that farmers had been storing smaller potatoes for sowing next year. Four other farmers, who were slapped with Rs 1.05 crore lawsuits, said they got registered seeds from known groups and farmer communities and had been sowing these for the last four years or so, and had no contractual agreement with anyone. They said they learnt they were growing a registered variety only when they got a court notice on April 11.

Activists’ view
In the days that followed the lawsuits, activists, farmer unions and other organisations cited Section 39(1)(iv) of the PPV&FR Act in defence of the farmers. The section states: “Notwithstanding Anything contained in this Act — a farmer shall be deemed to be entitled to save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seed of a variety protected under this Act in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into the force of this Act, provided that the farmer shall not be entitled to sell branded seed of a variety protected under this Act.”

Organisations said the Act was tailored to give farmers free access to seeds. Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a nationwide network of more than 400 organisations, said the rights on a patented seed differ from country to country. “In the US, if someone has patented a seed, no other farmer can grow it. If PepsiCo is looking at enjoying similar rights in this country, it does not hold,” she said (this was before the PIH announcement on Thursday).

Cases & announcement
A court in Deesa, Banaskantha, had appointed court commissioners to investigate the premises of two farmers as well as two cold storages. In Aravalli, a court had issued a summons notice to five farmers. In Ahmedabad, the commercial court had extended an ex-parte ad-interim injunction on four Sabarkantha farmers until June 12, barring them from growing or selling FC-5.

The Gujarat government, meanwhile, announced it would become a party to all the suits and back the farmers. On Wednesday, the government reportedly held out-of-court settlement talks with the company, which eventually announced the withdrawal of cases. It has withdrawn six cases against nine of the farmers, and its officials will meet state government authorities Friday to discuss an arrangement.

(Adapted from The Indian Express)