Snack giant PepsiCo’s Indian subsidiary is suing nine farmers in the state of Gujarat, telling them to lay-off growing a type of spud used in its popular brand of potato chips. Advocacy groups, meanwhile, have vowed to bite back.
The potato farmers, who tend plots averaging 3-4 acres in size, stand accused by the US multinational of infringement of intellectual property rights for the alleged illegal growing and selling of the particular tuber without Pepsi’s consent.
Known as FL 2027, the variety is used in the company’s popular Lay’s brand of potato chips for which it has exclusive rights.
First used commercially in 2009, certain farmers in India’s Punjab region have previously been granted permission by Pepsi to grow the spuds on a buyback scheme.
However, the firm’s temper fizzed over after they discovered that Gujarati farmers were allegedly growing them without a license, therefore violating the firm’s statutory rights. PepsiCo is seeking damages in excess of $1 million from the growers.
However, farmers unions and advocacy groups have slammed the suit as half-baked and nothing more than intimidation of farmers by big business.
“Potato-growing farmers have nothing to worry [about],” Ambubhai Patel, vice president of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, a farmer’s union, told local media. “We can’t allow such intimidation as we will fight against it in court as well as on the streets if needed,” he added.
Calling the case a “very serious issue,” Kapil Shah of the Jatan Trust advocacy group said farmers were being sued “to intimidate them” and could be used by other seed and food corporations to bully others in future.
He added that the farmers may have unwittingly sowed the crops from locally-sourced farm-saved seed and alleged they were victims of a sting operation organized by Pepsi, where hired private investigators posed as potential buyers in order to gain video footage and access to samples for further testing.
“At this point of time, it is not clear if the farmers were aware of what they had grown and even if they did, that is immaterial when it comes to the statutory rights that they have,” he said.
Pepsi India has refused to comment on the legal matter as it is ongoing. The next hearing of the case will be held in the city of Ahmedabad on Friday.