GM crops debate: consensual versus adversarial approaches

D. Balasubramanian
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Unlike the adversarial approach, both sides of an argument are looked at impartially in consensual approach

Quite different: Unlike the public, scientists are not trained to hold placards, shout slogans or mobilize crowds. — Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Quite different: Unlike the public, scientists are not trained to hold placards, shout slogans or mobilize crowds. — Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

In general, there are two ways to resolve differences in viewpoints and opinions between individuals or groups. One is the adversarial approach, as adopted in wars between nations, in courts of law between opposite parties, and in democracies, between Government and the opposition. For every winner here, there is also a loser hence making it a zero-sum game. Sport is also adversarial, but in an enjoyable way for participants and spectators alike.

On the other hand, the establishment of viewpoints in science occurs not adversarial approach but consensual. A quintessential feature of scientific research activity, which every academic scientist takes for granted, but largely unknown to the general public, is that of peer review. Peer review represents the epitome of a consensual approach in scientific discourse.

Because science is human endeavour at the boundaries or frontiers of the unknown, scientists recognize that any new knowledge that is generated can only be assessed and evaluated by other practitioners at these boundaries, namely, their peers. Thus, in addition to undertaking their own research, scientists are under an unwritten moral obligation to accept the task of reviewing the work of their peers. The reviewers are critics but not adversaries, and it is only when they reach consensus with the proponents of the research can a scientific advance be published and made known to the world. Peer review does have its share of minor shortcomings in its actual practice.

Unlike the zero-sum game of an adversarial approach, everyone is a winner here when scientific advances occur in this manner.

Whereas adversarial arguments begin from an assumption of mistrust between the parties, consensual approach rests on an assumption of trust and all the parties are expected to self-declare conflicts of interest. Scientists, therefore, are most comfortable when they participate in consensual discussions. Consensus amongst experts is not unanimity, but at the very least it is an agreement on why they have chosen to disagree.

Given this background, it is indeed a pity that several aspects of debate in this country on genetically modified (GM) crops and foods have adopted the adversarial approach rather than a consensual one. Furthermore, academic scientists have been drawn into the discussions on unfamiliar terms and territory that have been dictated by activists and the lay public; this is the experience which has emerged from the consultations on GM brinjal that were held around the country by Minister Jairam Ramesh last year.

Scientists are not trained to hold placards, shout slogans, mobilize crowds, or denigrate their so-called opponents, and hence have been unable to match the activists in their strategies and actions. Indeed, the scientists of this country are being exposed for the first time to practices previously encountered by their counterparts in the developed world, for example on issues such as the debate on creationism versus Darwinism.

Then again, while consensual approach calls for each party to see and to assess both sides of an argument impartially, in the adversarial approach one party may deliberately attempt to shut itself to, or deny, the viewpoints of the other. So it is that even in the legal system (whose primary purpose, as with science, is to unravel the truth), it is arguable whether adversarialism is the best approach, since one party may fail to state its case properly leading to a decision that is not consonant with the truth. The amicus curiae system, and court-appointed expert committees represent forays of the legal systems away from the classical adversarial approach.

Black and white

As a corollary, whereas an activist perceives the arguments for and against GM crops in black and white, the academic scientist is unable to do so. Thus, even if a scientist, after balanced consideration, favours industrial exploitation or environmental release of a GM organism, he will not categorically state that it is absolutely safe. The best that he would say is that there is no evidence of it being unsafe.

There certainly is reason in the scientist's caution. If there is one word that evokes the horror, in all its dimensions, of unforeseen adverse events arising from scientific research, it is not Frankenstein; it is thalidomide.

Use of this drug in the mid-twentieth century for treatment of nausea of the first trimester of pregnancy led to the birth around the world of thousands of unfortunate children with grossly deformed limbs. No scientific advance is guaranteed to be totally free from risk.

And yet it is the balanced approach that permits a scientist to see the other side of the coin as well. The discovery of the technology for creating GM organisms in the 1970's, and its exploitation since, have resulted in manufacture and use of a variety of pharmaceutical products for cancer, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, as well as of vaccines such as those against hepatitis and diarrhea. These advances have resulted in the saving of millions of lives, without any harm. Adversarialism also thrives to some extent on the deliberate muddling of issues involved, for example by confusing the health and environmental risks of GM crops with arguments on exploitation of farmers, enrichment of multinational companies, and the like.

When it is pointed out that America has adopted GM foods for over two decades without adverse health consequences, that country is decried as the haven of crony capitalism and profit-greedy corporations. It is hard to imagine that the regulatory authorities of the country would have an agenda other than that of the health of its citizens in taking their decisions. Indeed, it was the caution exercised by these authorities that protected the USA from the thalidomide disaster fifty years ago.

Finally, academic scientists are often exhorted to step out of their ivory towers to engage in social discourse in their capacity as experts of their domain. However, this can best be achieved only if the consensual approach is adopted in topics of controversy such as the debate on GM crops. Ivory towers exist not because scientists are callous or oblivious of their societal obligations, but because their task of pursuing knowledge at the frontiers is so intense that any diversion comes at the cost of the pursuit itself. Thus, most scientists would rather that they continue their own research instead of indulging in activities that they may perceive as frustrating or less pleasant. The consensual approach would be expected to provide the more favourable milieu for their engagement.

I would therefore urge everyone involved to return to the consensual path in resolving the scientific issues in this debate. Above all else, it is also the more civilized one.

( For this column, I have taken the permission of my colleague and friend Dr J. Gowrishankar, Director, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad to reproduce his erudite and lucid analysis).

D. Balasubramanian

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