Dr C. R. Elsy: ‘More farmers are now aware of the benefits of having crops with GI status’
‘With GI status, farmers do get better prices’
Civil Society News, New Delhi
WHEN Dr C.R. Elsy did her Ph.D. it was in breeding rice plant varieties. But when she retired this month as a professor of the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), her legacy will be her unique initiative spanning a decade or so to get farmers their intellectual property rights over their crops.
Thanks to her sense of mission, a host of crops in Kerala have received Geographical Indication or GI status which means they are unique in the world. To achieve this Dr Elsy has worked with farmers in their fields, hand-held them through the legal process and also helped them create brand identities for their produce.
From her home in Thrissur, Dr Elsy spoke to Civil Society on crops which have received GI status and what it has meant to farmers:
How many crops have you succeeded in getting GI status and how many are in the pipeline?
We got the first GI status in 2007. Till date we have succeeded in getting GI status for 10 products and we are working with another 10. They are at different stages.
We have submitted the application to the GI Registry for four products and for two products the formalities are over. We still have to conduct meetings with farmers for two products. Due to the COVID pandemic our meetings got delayed. For six products, we are doing the characterization, documentation, quality analysis, testing and interviews with the farmers.
Can you tell us about these six products?
One is a mango variety from North Kerala called Kuttiattoor, a place in Kannur. Its specialty is its medium sweetness, beautiful colour and it is also fully embryonic. It is specifically available in two or three panchayats in Kannur district.
The second is an Edayoor green chilli variety from Malappuram district. When I presented this chilli to the GI Registry they said five chillis have got the GI status, what is the specialty of your chilli? I told them this is the chilli with the least pungency. People always consider high pungency to be a unique characteristic. But our chilli has the least pungency or hotness. So people consume it as a vegetable, as a fried chilli or as a curd-chilli. This chilli is available in a panchayat in Malappuram district.
Another two products we have submitted are from Attappadi, a tribal area in Palakkad district. It is infamous for malnutrition and poverty. We worked with the tribal community to identify a few products eligible for GI status.
One is a red gram locally known as Thuvara or in general as Cajanus cajan. It is widely cultivated in Attappadi. When we compared the specialty of that red gram with other red gram available in other parts of our country, we found it was totally different. It is a wide seeded variety, and its size is different from the normal red gram variety. It is less bitter in taste. The tribal community also uses it as a vegetable. It has less thiamine content.
Another crop is the Dolichos Bean, also called Lablab or Amara. It is used as a vegetable and is specifically available only in Attappadi. There is also Snap Melon or Pottu Vellari. When the fruit matures it breaks open and it can then be scooped out or used as a drink.
We are currently tracking a garlic variety from Vattavada and Kanthalloor panchayats near Munnar. This garlic, a traditional variety, is smoky white in colour and somewhat smaller in size to the North Indian variety. Its pungency and flavour are different and it has more medicinal qualities.
I visited the garlic market in Vadugapatti. It has 46 shops which sell only garlic. The preference is for the traditional variety. People ask for the Vattavada or Kanthalloor garlic. It sells for around Rs 350 per kg. The North Indian variety sells for some Rs 250. Traders also buy the traditional garlic to sell in other places.
And, recently, we’ve started a project on Alpinia galanga, a new crop in Kerala. Farmers in Pathanamthitta district in southern Kerala have been growing this crop. There is a lot of demand for it with enquiries coming in from other countries either for galangal or the oil that is extracted from it.
Our minister suggested we see if it can be registered as a GI product. We collected samples and documented the galangal’s area of cultivation. It’s an ongoing process and may take some more time before we submit it to the GI Registry.
Has GI made a difference to farmers in terms of price?
I have quantified the difference for two crops: the Changalikodan banana and Marayoor jaggery. We did a small market survey.
Changalikodan is a special type of banana available only in Thrissur. During the Onam season demand for bananas goes up. Ten to 15 years ago the price difference between the Changalikodan banana and the ordinary Nendran banana was only Rs 3 to Rs 5.
After getting the GI tag the popularity of Changalikodan gradually increased in the market. In 2019, the price difference was Rs 30 per kg. The total production is valued at Rs 1 crore. People are coming from other districts and sometimes even from other states, including political leaders and VIPs, and asking for the Changalikodan banana. That’s how the price differential has increased to Rs 30.
So you are saying that the GI status gives it a fresh identity and demand goes up?
Yes. Marayoor jaggery followed a similar trajectory. In 2016, when we started documenting Marayoor jaggery, a lot of fake products were being sold under its name. People were adding chemicals to give it a certain colour. Our agriculture minister, Sunil Kumar, requested us to consider it for GI registration. He supported us in every way.
After GI registration, farmers and traders tell us demand for this jaggery has gone up because we told them not to add colour and to let it be dark brown. If colour is added it changes to golden brown, even red, but it’s harmful for health. A company in Munnar selling this jaggery told us that they sell as much as 500 kg per week and pay Rs 100 per kg to farmers. When we started, farmers used to get only Rs 45 per kg. I think the price may reach Rs 150 to Rs 200 per kg. And that, I feel, is due to GI registration.
Is there scope for farmers to start a few agro-industries for such unique varieties?
When the prices of such products increase we find that people from outside that area are keen to come and start a small industry. But farmers are hesitant. They think factories are run by really big fellows, that they will incur losses and that everything will go into the hands of the factory owners.
But there are many others who do think of forming a cooperative society. The government is also thinking of supporting such societies and farmer-producer organizations. The agriculture department also helps farmers start their own units. They can also sell online.
But my request to farmers and producers is, don’t compromise on quality. They must have a quality standard otherwise demand will decline in a year or two.
There are other issues to be resolved for, say, Marayoor jaggery. The sugarcane has a harvesting period of more than 12 months. But when the price of the jaggery goes up the farmers tend to cut the crop by the 10th month. The quality will then be poor.
So we are continuously telling farmers, maintain your quality, harvest at the right time and don’t use colour. Then demand will continue to rise and you will get better prices.
Has the process for getting GI status become simpler over the years?
Frankly, I feel it is becoming more and more difficult. When we started in 2007, it was simpler. They find some problems, they add clauses and legal fines. We have to comply with all that. We have to work hard for getting GI for a product.
It isn’t only because of a problem with the (Geographical Indications) Act. Sometimes a problem will erupt between two states like the West Bengal and Odisha quarrel over GI status for the rasgulla. To avoid such legal fights the GI Registry is telling us to be very careful while putting in our applications.
Even farmers are now more aware of the benefits of having crops with GI. Everybody wants their area to be included in the area of production of the GI product. But we cannot put all the names of the societies in the application. We have to convince them that only one or two groups can be applicants.
Has the idea of having an IPR cell spread to other states?
Most states may already be having an IPR cell because the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) directed them to set up IPR cells in 2003. But they have to know how to work with farmers, proceed with legal formalities and put in applications.
Experience helps you do it in a better way. When I started in 2007 I did not know the legal formalities involved. I’m a plant breeder, basically. Gradually I studied all the legal formalities. It is a marriage between science and law. Many things come together: plant breeder science, farmer rights and GI registration. I tell my colleagues, if we have a mind and a will, we can do it.
Have any states outside the South reached out to you and asked if you can create such a cell for them? Has there been any sharing at a national level?
No, they have never asked me to come and help set up the IPR cell. I think the IPR cell has been implemented in states and universities but their way of working will be different. May not be very active, or it could be that the science part is an issue.
I am a plant breeder and I have studied characterizations of plant varieties and GI registration. People with an economics background may see all this differently.
But I’m happy my university gave me this chance to work with farmers. During the last 10 to 13 years I was able to make an impact in the area of intellectual property rights especially GI registration, farmer rights and the conservation of traditional varieties with the support of this IPR cell. And definitely, the agriculture minister gave us a lot of support. Even the prime minister is now telling people to go for local products.
How do you choose a particular crop for GI registration? Does the approach come from farmers or does it come from you?
It varies from product to product. In the case of Pokkali rice, it was my decision. When the Act was implemented in 2003, I considered what product could be taken up for GI registration in Kerala. I began searching. I found Pokkali was available in a particular area in Kerala and that it had specific qualities. When I visited the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, they told me how important Pokkali is due to its ability to tolerate salinity. The genes for salinity tolerance in plant breeding throughout the world come from the Pokkali variety. That was the first project I attempted and it was chosen by the university itself.
But in the case of Marayoor jaggery the situation is entirely different. I did not know much about it. The minister visited that area and people complained to him about its low demand and low price. He suggested the university take up the project for GI registration.
For Changalikodan, when we visited that area people told us this is a special banana with high demand during the Onam season and asked if there was any way it could be marketed better. We decided to go for it.
And then there are my students who are doing PG and Ph.D. under my guidance. I used to give them projects for characterization, evaluation and to assess plant quality. We use that data in our application.
Apart from genetic characteristics, do you also have to delve into the social aspects or history of the crop?
Yes, definitely. The first question the committee to whom we make our presentation asks is, what is the uniqueness of your product? It is like being the defence in court. We have to answer all questions on how special our product is.
Historical documents are very important. They ask us our product’s history of cultivation in a particular area. We used to go to different libraries, collect maps and other documents and put these in our application. Social work, extension work, everything gets mingled in geographical indication.
You have also been supporting conservation in several ways?
Actually, recently two farmers supported by our IPR cell were given the Innovative Farmer Award by the ICAR in New Delhi. IPR is also a part of farmer rights. But farmers don’t know much about their IP rights. It is our duty to support them.
The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority in New Delhi gives Plant Genome Saviour Awards every year to farmers who are conserving traditional varieties and for the development of new varieties by research institutions.
Till now 22 farmers or farming communities nominated by our IPR cell and by KAU have received this national award. The Changalikodan banana received the community award. They have given Rs 10 lakh to help them enhance their activities. Individual farmers receive Rs 1 or Rs 1.5 lakh. Kerala occupies the top position with the maximum awardee farmers.
The application forms for the awards are either in Hindi or in English. Our farmers cannot put in applications in these two languages. Whatever appreciation or reward is given by the Government of India or state government, we ensure farmers can apply. Our IPR cell helps farmers fill in the application forms and we also do a follow-up.
Our farmers don’t have the mechanism to receive emails so we step in. We inform them and make travel arrangements so that they can receive the award. This year, despite COVID, 20 farmers have applied and we are awaiting the outcome.