PepsiCo is suing four Indian farmers who allegedly grew a patented strain of potatoes used in its Lays crisps brand without the company’s permission.

The US-based food-and-beverage company is seeking about $150,000 (£116,000) in damages from each of the farmers, arguing they broke the law by sourcing and dealing the potatoes without participating in the company’s programme.

The case, due in court in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on Friday, has sparked outrage from farmers and others concerned Pepsi was using its clout to interfere with the country’s food supply. The role of foreign companies in producing and selling food in India is a hotly contested issue, particularly when it comes to the use of genetically modified (GM) crops.

“It’s a question of India’s seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and country sovereignty,” said Kapil Shah, an activist who is defending the farmers. “It’s spreading panic among the farmers.”

A number of farmer groups in India have banded together to protest against the court action. They are lobbying the government to weigh in in the accused farmers’ favour and want the government to punish the “harassment” of farmers, said Ambubhai Patel, the vice-president of the farmers’ association Bharatiya Kisan Sangh.

Patel’s group is linked with prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which has increased its scrutiny of foreign companies in the run-up to national elections ending in late May.

“Potato-growing farmers have nothing to worry and we can’t allow such intimidation,” Patel told local media. “We will fight against it in court as well as on the streets if needed.”

Pepsi said the farmers who grew its strain of potatoes without permission were hurting the interests of the many working with the company to produce them for its Lays crisps. It supplies those farmers with seeds and subsequently buys back the potatoes.

“PepsiCo is India’s largest process grade potato buyer and amongst the first companies to work with thousands of local farmers to grow a specific protected variety of potatoes for it,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“In this instance, we took judicial recourse against people who were illegally dealing in our registered variety. This was done to protect our rights and safeguard the larger interest of farmers that are engaged with us and who are using and benefiting from seeds of our registered variety.”

Companies such as Pepsi have previously faced criticism for their use of natural resources, facing a boycott in one drought-hit Indian state in 2017 for allegedly using excessive amounts of water to manufacture soft drinks.

Memories of the shortage were high on the minds of some commentators this week. “Let us hope PepsiCo won’t sue people for using the same ground water used in Pepsi,” the journalist Ravi Nair wrote on Twitter.

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