Bringing the seed wars to the courtroom: Legal activism and the governance of plant genetic resources in Brazil and India

  • Project Lead: Prof Shalini Randeria
  • Timeline: 36 month
  • Keywords: Legal activism; Plant genetic resources; Intellectual property rights; Brazil, India
  • Funding Organisation: FNS


Since the1980s conflicts over intellectual property rights to plant genetic resources have erupted into what is referred to as the “seed wars”. The project is a critical ethnography of legal activism around plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in Brazil and India, where these conflicts have increasingly taken the form of class action and public interest litigation.
The project pursues two objectives:
  • to document ongoing legal challenges in Brazil and India involving access to, and ownership of, plant genetic resources; and
  • to develop a critical analysis of how contemporary forms of legal activism are influencing the definitions of the public good and of the commons.
The research team will pursue these objectives based on three case studies:
  • a public interest litigation filed by an Indian non-governmental organization (NGO) questioning the use of local varieties of eggplant in the development of Bt brinjal without the required authorization of the National Biodiversity Authority,
  • class actions filed by Brazilian rural unions and farmers’ organizations against Monsanto to question royalties on Roundup Ready soybeans, and
  • a grassroots initiative in India aimed at developing an open source seed system by applying free software principles to plant breeding.

This project engages with a number of important contemporary debates on dispossession, emerging legal regimes of property rights, the redrawing of the boundaries between the public and the private, and the commons. It will also contribute to our understanding of how rapidly evolving intellectual property regimes for plant varieties are impacting agro- biodiversity and farmers’ rights over genetic resources. In the context of climate change, these are pressing concerns, not only for farmers’ communities, but also for society at large.