MNCs taking over vegetable seed production. So what if child labor shows declining trend?

Representational Image. Photo courtesy to UNICEF

Rosamma Thomas

The unprecedented crisis brought on by the suddenly imposed lockdown of March 25 showed that many of India’s workers have no savings at all; many are in debt. Speaking at a webinar on the crisis, lawyer Usha Ramanathan said it was remarkable that we take for granted that people who work – workers – should be poor. That this should be the case as multinational corporations begin to dominate sectors like hybrid vegetable seed production in India should give us pause.  

June 12 was World Day Against Child Labour. It is a criminal offense in India for children below 14 to be engaged in work (a 2016 amendment allows work in family-run businesses after school hours, though). Netherlands-based Arisa Foundation commissioned a report to study trends in child labor and wages in hybrid seed production, mainly cottonseed and vegetable seed, across six states.

Netherlands is an importer of vegetable seeds from India. Researcher DavuluriVenkateswarlufound that while the number of children at work in cottonseed and vegetable seed –tomato, hot pepper, and okra — production shows a declining trend in the past five years, wages of adults was still about 20% less than minimum wages set by the states. About 18% of workers in cottonseed farms were children below 14. About 10% of vegetable seed farms were kids. Hybrid seeds are produced through cross-pollination, which is done manually; the result of the selective breeding is that these seeds can be used only for one crop.

While the results of this survey might seem promising, farmer activists in India say the takeover of seed production by large multinational corporations is itself the elephant in the room. To consider only the level of child labor or wages within production farms is to preserve the bathwater and hurl the baby away.

SeemaKulkarni of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management said, “We have seen how dependence on multinational seed producers disempowers women farmers, whose traditional skills and knowledge are sidelined. The choice of crop is no longer an autonomous decision when these large corporations are involved.” In Telangana, for instance, there are now calls to force farmers to sow only crops the government wants them to.

Ecologist Vandana Shiva’s outfit Navadanya has been preserving seeds for decades and making them available to farmers in a bid to reduce indebtedness and distress. Navadanya now has about 40 seed banks across the country. Among communities where suicide by farmers is high, and to women who head families and also take on farming, seeds are distributed free of cost. The indigenous seeds also offer better yield with fewer inputs.

The multinational-produced hybrid seeds are modified in such a way as to make them dependent excessively on chemical use, and the consumption of expensive chemical pesticides has increased wherever they have been sown. Input cost for farmers is a huge source of distress.

Soil and groundwater health are adversely affected by such excessive chemicals in farming. Over time, yield drops. According to Census 2011, 2,000 farmers gave up farming each day in India as income from farming shrank as a percentage of total household income.

In parts of Odisha, farmers are encouraged by NGO Agragamee to return to practices they had earlier abandoned. “A recent grassroots level assessment shows that small farmers who have their own seed, practice chemical-free, ecological agriculture, and shape fair-trade markets are earning 5 times more than their counterparts who are dependent on costly corporate seeds, chemicals from the same companies and forced dependence on exploitative commodity markets. Farmers shifted from monoculture to growing diverse crops throughout the year which increased their net incomes two to three-fold.”

Arisa’schild labor survey was undertaken in 613 seed farms producing seeds both for Indian and multinational firms, in 123 villages in six states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. The highest incidence of child labor was found in Rajasthan, at over 20%. Girls significantly outnumber boys in all states, and over 50% of the total workforce was either Scheduled Caste or Adivasi.

 “The proportion of child labor to the total workforce in tomato, hot pepper, and okra crops showed a significant decline of 37.6% in Maharashtra and 39.8% in Karnataka during 2015-2019,” the report states. However, there is pressure on schoolchildren: “The pressure on farmers to reduce the labor costs is leading to the adoption of new strategies to find cheap labor. In Telangana and parts of Karnataka and Gujarat, it is observed that farmers are encouraging school going children to take up cottonseed work as a part-time activity.”

The most significant decline in engaging children for work was seen in farms where authorities have acted to prevent child labor; campaigns by Unicef and local NGOs have helped too, the report states.

“Compared to other companies, the incidence of child labor was found quite low on farms producing for Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, HM.CLAUSE, East-West Seed, Advanta, Namdhari Seeds, Kalash Seeds, Tierra Agrotech, and Sakata. These companies have been working on the issue of child labor for quite some time and implemented some systematic measures,” the report, ‘Sowing Hope’, said.  

These interventions, though, are far from adequate as the absolute number of children at work in farms is still quite high. “In 2018-19, a total of around 151,000 children below 14 years were employed in cottonseed farms in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Rajasthan which account for more than 85% of the total production area in the country.”

The legal minimum wage is not granted to workers, and women are especially likely to be underpaid. This, when even minimum wages are often not adequate living wages; in the period that the study was undertaken, minimum wages in the states studied varied from Rs210 per day to over Rs400. Seed companies and other actors have not paid much attention to this lacuna, the report finds, adding that with current procurement prices, farmers cannot really pay the minimum wage to workers. Cottonseed prices, for instance, have been capped by the government, though there are no restrictions on the prices of vegetable seeds.

Seed production is done through contract farming, with companies entering into agreements with farmers that involve buy-back arrangements. MNCs have a high presence in vegetable seed production, controlling about two-thirds of the production, according to this report.

The Indian seed industry has been growing at a rapid pace, and grew at over 15% in 2011-2018; it was estimated to be worth US dollars 4.1 billion according to market research firm IMARC Group, in 2018. This is a huge cause of concern for proponents of organic farming in India, who have been struggling to keep chemicals and patented seeds out. In the last budget, Finance Minister NirmalaSitaraman spoke of promoting natural farming.

“The land area and production rates indicate that multinationals control more than 50% of the market share in vegetable seeds. Syngenta has a leading position in tomato seed production followed by BASF, Bayer, East-West Seed, Advanta (UPL), and Namdhari Seeds. Mahyco, BASF, Kalash Seeds, Syngenta, and Bayer are the leading companies in hot pepper seed production. Advanta (UPL), BASF, Mahyco, Syngenta, and Bioseed are leaders in okra hybrid seed production,” the report finds.

“The area directly controlled by MNCs and its partners has been consistently growing in vegetable seeds in recent years. The production area controlled by MNCs increased from 59% in 2014-15 to 64% in 2018- 19.” In cottonseed production, however, with Monsanto having been taken over by Bayer, a Hyderabad-based firm had acquired the cottonseed business of both Monsanto and DuPont. The share of MNCs in cottonseed production, therefore, had fallen from 32% in 2014-15 to 20%. While almost all the cottonseed produced in India is used within the country, there is a large export market for the vegetable seeds.

To save on wages, seed production companies were also moving to remote tribal pockets of Gujarat and Telangana and shifting from large farms to small family-owned ones. This might cause detrimental changes in the traditional farming practices and food security of these communities, activists fear.

Large growers also demand higher procurement prices, while the small family-run ones have less bargaining power. The smaller farms are also more likely to use the labor of children, so any decline in child labor now might soon be undone again.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have aligned closely with the imperialist model, given recent changes in agriculture policy. Economist Prabhat Patnaik explains how removing stock holding limits on traders, doing away with the law that agricultural marketing can only occur at specific locations, and granting permission for contract farming could spell ruin for India’s food security. “All these ordinances add up to nothing short of the complete opening of agriculture to global trade,” he writes.

Rosamma Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Pune, Maharashtra