The Compound Eye

Policy Focus

PPFVR Act, 2001: 

The Protection Of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act came into effect in 2001. It has been in recent news as under the aegis of the this Act, PepsiCo filed a case against potato farmers in Gujarat for allegedly infringing their patent for its FC 5 potato. While PepsiCo subsequently has announced its intention to withdraw their case against the farmers, let us study if the Act endows PepsiCo with the rights it has claimed. 

The PPVFR came in force in the background of India's ratifying the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. Sub-para (b) of para 3 of article 27 of the agreement required India to provide protection to plant and varieties. There was concern that India may stand to lose its rich biodiversity if plant varieties would be protected and only registered varieties could be grown with the breeder's permission. 

Therefore, given India’s dependence on agriculture, traditional farming practices in exchanging and re-sowing seeds and to protect India’s biodiversity, a compromise was struck in the form of the PPVFR Act. The Act protected rights of both farmers and breeders, allowing farmers to sow, exchange and sell any seeds protected by the act, while ensuring breeders got benefit sharing rights. Many breeders in response developed seeds whose produce does not result in any further seeds, enforcing farmers to continue buying from the breeder every year. In this way the breeder can ensure making money and the choice of buying seeds that produce crops only once or produce seed yielding crops is left to the farmer. If the seeds produce more seeds, the farmer can now sell these seeds in an unbranded manner to other buyers. All breeders and famers understand this arrangement and this is why PepsiCo might not really have a case.

With the amendment of Section 3(c) and incorporation of 3(j) in the Patents Act in 2002, the plant, varieties and seeds including transgenics have gone out of the purview of the Patents Act. They get IPR protection only under the PPVFR Act. However, the patentee, who contributed for development of a transgenic trait, is protected under the PPVFR Act and the patentee can make his claim for benefit sharing from all the breeders whose varieties express the trait. 

By providing this unique form of legislation, the PPFVR ensures traditional agricultural practices are maintained in India while allowing bigger seed companies to enter the market and ensure they get fair benefits for their R and D. 

It's Controversial

Nutritional Supplements 

In a study published in Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology, authors describe the liver failure and death of an Indian woman after taking nutritional supplements from the American company, Herbalife. In further research, they present data revealing heavy metal contamination, toxic compounds, psychotropic substances, and pathogenic bacterial contamination in similar Herbalife® products in India. 

While this is the first published case of liver failure following nutritional supplements in India, similar cases have been known to occur in other parts of the world. Herbalife- associated liver injury was initially reported from Israel, followed by Spain, Switzerland, Iceland, Argentina and the United States. And the observed liver toxicity is not limited to Herbalife products, but extends to many other brands in this market. 

India presents a growing market for such nutritional supplements and sales revenues for Herbalife in India have been increasing. Since these products are marketed as supplements, they have escaped scrutiny usually made of other comparable drugs. Indeed, these products can be procured without prescription and even medical advice. Pre-clinical and clinical trials may also not be needed for their approval into new markets. 

This definitely needs to change as more cases of liver toxicity become apparent from across the world. These cases are already under-reported because generally people taking these supplements are of a weaker constitution and associate these naturally derived supplements as healthy. But particularly in India, with our diverse genetic populations, a thorough clinical trial needs to be done before simply accepting nutritional supplements as a safe product. 


Science in India

The Wills Factor

Today's Science in India will talk about science performed by a British scientist in India nearly a century ago. As a tribute to Lucy Wills, we explore the scientific work of this inspirational woman scientist. 

Born in England, Lucy Wills came to India in 1928 working at various times at the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, the Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor and the Caste and Gosha Hospital in Chennai. 

In Mumbai she observed pregnant women were suffering from anaemia. Anaemia during pregnancy could cause fatigue, potential heart problems, and diarrhoea, and can be fatal. First Lucy tried to establish if an infection was a cause for the anaemia, by testing the feces from these women. But no pathogen was found ruling out the possibility. 

Upon further scrutiny she observed that the anaemia was prevalent in women of poorer background suggestion poor nutrition could be a cause. The kind of anaemia was different to the already known pernicious anaemia which was caused by the lack of Vitamin B12. Lucy could show that patients responded to crude liver extracts, they did not respond to the ‘pure’ liver extracts (vitamin B12) suggesting that another factor was involved. 

She then started experiments in rats fed the same diet as the women. The rats also developed anaemia, but the anaemia could be remedied with liver extracts or Marmite. Clinical trials were started with women and this type of anaemia could be both prevented and cured by yeast extracts, of which the cheapest source was Marmite. 

While she could not identify the factor responsible, the secret component was called the Wills Factor till 1941. It was in 1941, that the component was isolated from spinach and renamed as the now commonly known folic acid. 

The importance of folic acid in pregnancy and fetal development is now widely recognised. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that every woman of reproductive age get at least 400 milligrams of folic acid, a B vitamin, every day. But the seminal work associating folic acid to pregnancy was done in India and today. 10th May, marks that inspirational scientist Lucy Wills' 131st birth anniversary. 


Meanwhile, this is getting bizzare

There is no sense in this advisory: In a new advisory, Ministry of AYUSH has said that AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) systems are officially recognized as "integral part of the country's healthcare delivery network" and would not like its image sullied in anyway by unfounded statements by researchers outside the AYUSH stream. The advisory virtually bars non-AYUSH teams from working on AYUSH drugs and treatments and prohibits journals from publishing any AYUSH related research if no AYUSH member is on the authors list. How this can be a confidence-building measure in the benefits of AYUSH is beyond my understanding. 

Meanwhile there may be a yeti in the Himalayas: The Indian army's public information branch tweeted photographic proof of the sighting (of the footsteps) of the mythical beast inviting ridicule and jokes online. Subsequently they said they put the pictures online to invoke scientific temper ending their note with the profound statement: "As they say nature, history and science never write their final story." While we may never know what caused this particular set of footsteps, the most likely explanation is the brown bear. But in the absence of proof, the debate and imaginations can remain fired up. 

Meanwhile there is definitely a problem in North Eastern states of India: The fall armyworm is endemic to the Americas but was first spotted in Karnataka in 2018. Now it has found its way to the north east devastating maize crops in Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Imphal has now sounded alert over the detection of invasive pest which will likely shift to rice plantations in the coming paddy season. The pest is enjoying local weather which is similar to its parent country and the absence of any natural predators in the new climate.

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Shambhavi Naik Research Fellow
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