New Delhi: PepsiCo might have never anticipated that its FC5 potato variety could turn out to be a hot potato one day.
On 25 April, the Indian subsidiary of the American giant sued nine Indian farmers for cultivating a potato variety that the snack food and drinks maker claims infringes its patent, the company’s rights and the growers’ interests. The multinational corporation has accused the farmers of cultivating the FC5 potato variety, grown exclusively for its popular Lay’s potato chips.
The company seeks over Rs 1 crore each from the farmers for alleged patent infringement under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001. The sued farmers grow potatoes in Gujarat, a leading producer of India’s most consumed vegetable.
The tussle acquired political angle after the farmers’ group Rashtriya Kisan Parishad, led by former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia, called for strict action against the company on 28 April and sought the government’s intervention.
To avoid any voter backlash amid the Lok Sabha elections, the Gujarat government was forced to support the farmers — on Sunday, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said “the government had decided to join as a party in the lawsuits filed by the company”.
With the political controversy around PepsiCo’s lawsuit snowballing, ThePrint looks at the potato that’s in the middle of the legal tangle.
What’s so special about this potato variety?
North Gujarat, home to four farmers among those sued, represents India’s potato bowl, producing more than 33 lakh tonnes from 1.21 lakh hectare, said an IANS report.
The FC5 variety, registered in the US as FL2027, has a lower moisture content (80 per cent, compared with 85 per cent for other varieties), which is ideal to make snacks such as potato chips and for processing.
This variety of potato was cultivated for the first time by American Dr Robert W. Hoopes, according to the Potato Association of America, a professional society for advancement of the potato industry. Hoopes was hired in 1987 by the Frito Lay Company (an American subsidiary of PepsiCo) as a Principle Scientist / Potato Breeder at the Research Center, US.
Hoopes worked at developing superior potato varieties in flavour and colour that are disease-resistant through a hybridisation breeding programme. His breeding concepts laid the foundation for multiple potato varieties making their way to commercial use across North America as well as PepsiCo’s international regions across the world.
His varieties are grown all over the world for PepsiCo’s potato chips. Hoopes holds more potato patents and potato variety protections than anyone in the world.
The FL2027 crop was registered at the United States Patent Application in 2005. According to patent documents, the breed confers traits, including resistance to herbicides, and insect, bacterial, fungal or viral diseases. It also boasts of uniformity and an increase in the concentration of starch and other carbohydrates which decrease the tendency of tubers to bruise.
The genetic engineering technique used to develop FL2027 also leads to a decrease in the rate of conversion of starch to sugars, vital in the production of quintessential chips and fries.
In India, this variety was first put to commercial use in 2009 and is traded under the trademark FC5.
PepsiCo India has granted the license to grow FC5 on the buyback system — wherein the company buys all the produce from farmers at pre-decided prices — to some farmers in Punjab, said a Quartz report.
How PepsiCo deals with potato growers
PepsiCo, which set up its first potato chips plant in India in 1989, supplies the FC5 potato variety to a group of farmers who, in turn, sell their products to the company at a fixed price, said a Reuters report.
In its settlement offer to the farmers it has sued for patent infringement, PepsiCo said the farmers could join the group of growers who exclusively grow the FC5 variety for its Lay’s potato chips or must stop producing the variety.