Harvest of controversy

Decisions on genetically modified crops cannot be left to experts; technicalities need to be supplemented by answers to people’s anxieties

Published - July 29, 2014 02:12 am IST

A quirky anthropologist once exclaimed: “Biotechnology is sheer drama.” He explained his cryptic headline by saying all great contemporary philosophical and ethical debates intersect around it. He added that the city might be the basis for the 21st century imagination but it is the fate of Indian agriculture that would trigger some of the great dilemmas of the century. The sociologist added that it was time to see science as political, and claimed that our scientists like Madhav Gadgil, M.S. Swaminathan or Pushpa Bhargava were as critical to political theory as Ashis Nandy or Rajni Kothari. Each has mediated the relation between science and democracy, and each of them knows that nothing is more central to the fate of democracy than the debates around biotechnology and genetic engineering. This essay will try to outline the nature of this debate and link it up to the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) decision to field test a range of genetically modified crops.

>Read: GEAC clears field trials for GM crops

Entry of Bt cotton The >public debates on GM began with the unannounced entry of Bt cotton in Gujarat, where the farmers had grown 21,000 acres of Bt cotton. It was an ironic beginning where an act of smuggling inaugurated the transfer of technology. Monsanto had no idea of this development and was as stunned as the government of India. The Bt cotton debate began as a downloaded debate where Indian journalists and movements discovered the implications of such an introduction. The first concern was whether Bt would enter the food chain and the second centred around empowerment. For centuries, farmers had been custodians of seeds but now they had to obtain seeds from multinationals. Expertise which was once located in the farmer was more focused in laboratories, many of which belonged to private firms.

Two other issues entered the first phase of the debate. One was a memorable battle between two champions of agriculture. >Vandana Shiva attacked biotechnology and genetic manipulation claiming that it stunted diversity, disempowered the farmer and skewed intellectual property rights in favour of the multinational. Ms Shiva’s argument centred around alternative forms of farming while Gail Omvedt argued that in this age of liberalisation the farmer needed choice, the freedom to choose the kind of farming he wished to pursue and the seeds he wanted to pick.

The second phase of the debate arose over the >introduction of Bt Brinjal . By the second phase, civil society and farmers’ movements had entered the fray in a more systematic manner and were demanding wider debates. The groups argued that the question was not a mere debate about technology. It was a debate about the nature of decision-making especially when experts’ decisions affected livelihoods, ways of life and the very notion of agency in citizenship. One had to answer whether citizenship was to remain a passive act of consuming science or whether the citizen as scientist was to have a say in technologies modifying life and livelihood. The groups argued that if science was public knowledge devoted to creating public goods, it should be subject to a public debate. This required that transparency and responsibility be built into every stage. NGOs showed that there was an arrogance to Indian science pointing out that science itself had changed, moving from certainty to risk. In the age of risk sciences like genetic engineering, one could not always predict whether a technology was safe. Safety had become a “bracketed” term where consequences were not fully predictable. Such new technologies required prudential rather than promethean behaviour, not the Pollyanna-like attitude of our scientists. The movements had a bit of governmental luck in the presence of Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests.

Mr. Ramesh summoned the various scientific academies to prepare a report, and simultaneously asked the Centre for Environment Education to arrange for a major colloquium on biotechnology inviting all the major stakeholders. The open hearings were a major breakthrough in the relation of science and democracy. A cross between a carnival and a protest meeting, the debates led to a moratorium on Bt Brinjal. A whole Pandora’s box of questions remain to be answered. There were questions of method. How objective is an evaluation, how safe is safe? Does the control of seeds by multinationals create a marked asymmetry in knowledge and power between the scientific multinational and the farmer? Can private science work for public benefit, and who decides? The questions of food chains, seed prices, contamination, certainty, and intellectual property created a new thesaurus of questions around biotechnology.

On July 18, the Genetic Engineering and Evaluation Committee gave a green signal for field trials of a whole range of genetically modified crops. This assembly line of crops included rice, mustard, cotton, chickpeas and brinjal. Two questions were immediately raised. Was such a range of testing required? Second, how objective was GEAC as an institution?

Pushpa Bhargava, former director of CCMB (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology), questioned the permission given to import GM-based soya bean oil and then went on to question the bona fides of GEAC as an independent evaluation committee of experts.

The nature of decisions in such “expert evaluation” committees needs to be discussed. One has to ask how stakeholder sensitive they are in terms of representation. Secondly, one needed an independent agency to evaluate data, especially private. Rituals of evaluation are part of the integrity of expertise. Thirdly, one has to ask about the method of evaluation itself. Can a small group of bureaucrats decide for the future? How do they explain the framework of that analysis? Can a small group like GEAC explain the ethical and political burden of such a decision? One thing is clear: the GEAC carry claim like the father of atom bomb Robert Oppenheimer did, that the bomb was a “technical answer to a technical question.” Bt crops grow beyond technical issues. They cannot be treated as technical fixes to social problems.

In fact, we should treat the protest by the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) as a collective questionnaire of anxieties and expectations. The BKU raised the following doubts. First, any democracy, any nation-state, has to raise issues of not merely territoriality but also seed sovereignty. Once Monsanto patents the seed, in its search for profit, who decides on ownership? Secondly, what is the new ethics they follow? As transgenic seeds can contaminate a food chain, what is the notion of corporate liability? There are laws for Intellectual Property but there seem to be no laws for corporate violations of nature. The idea of corporate social responsibility is too weak to address these questions. Already in nuclear energy, the nuclear liability clause caps corporate liability. The question is: can we afford such an equivalent system or do we need new ideas of law and ethics?

The need of the hour is a new social contract where nature and technology are reworked constitutionally

Food security & sustainability Even technical questions do not sound strictly technical. How do we determine safety? Does safety include livelihood security of farmers or even the question of eco-system damage? Given the current nature of complexity, a responsibility as a simple cause and effect diagram may be difficult to fix. We need concepts which combine food security and food sustainability.

There is also the question of problem solving. C.S. Holling and other ecologists have advocated the idea of Panarchy. Panarchy like hierarchy is sensitive to levels but while a reductive hierarchic solution goes right down, panarchy argues that different levels of a problem require different solutions. Ecological science seems to suggest that genetic modification can no longer be touted as a single solution to agricultural problems.

>Read: GM crops are no way forward

All these questions demand or suggest the necessity of a different framework of debate. Firstly we need a nested series of hearings, debates, academic seminars where data is analysed independently. Secondly, the voice of dissenting scientists needs to be listened to and responded. Thirdly, decisions cannot be expert decisions — technicalities need to be supplemented by answering citizen anxieties.

Finally, the BJP government, instead of rushing into decisions, must set up a framework of debate. Delays while debates and tests are analysed need not be embarrassing. The need for speed is not obvious. In fact what is necessary is a new social contract where nature and technology are reworked constitutionally. As a democracy, we have to adjudicate between different ideas of farming, evaluate different kinds of responsibility, ethics and accountability. Bowdlerising GM crops is the worst thing any government can do. In its urge to satisfy the corporation, it cannot ignore the needs of farmers, the future and the ideals of our civilisation.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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