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29 Apr, 2019 11:31

‘We will not bow to the giant’: Indian farmers sued by PepsiCo reject any settlement

‘We will not bow to the giant’: Indian farmers sued by PepsiCo reject any settlement

Farmers in India, who were sued by PepsiCo for planting patented potatoes, have rejected an out-of-court settlement. Supported by officials and fellow farmers, they have the national law on their side, activists say.

The food giant targeted nine farmers in the western Indian state of Gujarat with lawsuits demanding they pay damages for using a variety of potatoes protected by copyright. The court action, PepsiCo said, is meant to protect other farmers, who buy the seeds directly from the company and sell the produce back at a price determined by the company. One of the lawsuits filed by the multinational against four farmers was heard in the city of Ahmedabad on Friday.

The company offered two options to settle the dispute out of court. One would be to sign an agreement to stop planting the seed variety. The other one would be to come into the fold and sign a standard farming contract with the giant. The latter would give the defendants “access to higher yields, enhanced quality, training in best-in-class practices and better prices,” the company stated.

But the four farmers rejected the proposed settlement.

“Accepting the offer would mean that we have made a mistake. We hope that we get justice and we will not bow to the pressure of the multinational company,” said Vindo Kumar Ishwar Bhai, one of the four farmers.

The farmers are correct in believing that they did nothing wrong, said Kavitha Kurungati, an activist from the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an Indian advocacy group for farmers' rights. When India acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2001, it opted for strong protection of the traditional seed-breeding practices of its farmers, she told RT.

We have tens of thousands of [seed] varieties in this country because the farmers themselves have been excellent breeders. They knew how to create seeds and conserve them. India's lawmakers recognized that farmers have to be kept on par or even higher than modern-day corporate breeders.

Farmers are even allowed to sell patented seeds like the one at the focus of the PepsiCo lawsuits as long as they don't infringe on the brand, Kurungati explained.

The Gujarat potato growers enjoyed massive support from fellow farmers, Indian authorities and common Indians in their dispute with PepsiCo. The claim of damage, which amounts to about $1 million for all nine defendants combined, is widely perceived as absurdly high and the entire situation as an attempt to bully them into becoming part of PepsiCo's corporate scheme. Some Indians even called to boycott all PepsiCo products in protest.

Kurungati said the out-of-court settlement proposal indicates that the company realize that the amount of bad publicity it is gaining for its actions far outweighs whatever it hoped to win.

I think Pepsi has been extremely foolish in underestimating the fact that citizens will stand on the side of these farmers and did something that is against our law. It should not have harassed farmers in this manner.

The case reviewed on Friday is expected to get a final ruling on June 12. Kurungati believes PepsiCo may find itself blown on its own petard, since the farmers may petition the court to award them compensation for harassment.

“It is very important that farmer seed sovereignty is upheld. They should have the freedom to choose what they want to grow, as they always had,” she said. “We are putting pressure on the government, saying they have the duty to implement the law. There is a spirit behind that law, which has to be upheld.”

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