It’s time for a debate on GM crops

Time for a more open debate where science and democracy in India will be under close scrutiny.

Two recent events have emphasised the urgency of introducing GM crops on a large scale. The first was a letter by 107 Nobel laureates chiding Greenpeace for criticising the introduction of GM crops. The Nobel laureates saw Greenpeace’s action not as a Cassandra cry but an irrational defiance of a scientifically progressive product. The laureates’ list was impressive and interesting. Almost all were physicists and chemists. One wondered where the ecologists were and one sensed in this age of reductionism, their chances getting a prize were remote. The second event was a well-publicised article by world food laureate Gurdev Khush.

Dr Khush is a legendary scientist with a copybook career at University of California at Davis and the International Rice Research Institute in Manila. His IRRI-64 is a legendary rice variety, hailed as the most widely grown crop in the world.
The article published in an Indian newspaper is down to earth, quietly argued and impressive. The title is a pun: “Don’t narrow the field”. His article begins with a Malthusian anxiety, a demographic trend, which recognises that not only will India be the most populous country by 2030, but also one where most of the population will be engaged in agriculture. Dr Khush says that while agricultural policy has catered to issues like soil, rural connectivity and irrigation, the question of doubling farmers’ income by introducing more productive varieties has not been considered adequately. His dream is of “low input-high output” agriculture. It is difficult to question his goal. What one wants to challenge is the logic of his argument.

Dr Khush is obsessed with productivity and he sees GM crops as the solution. The question to ask is this: Is it the only solution or the best solution? He sees scientific data as an immaculate conception. The question is: should agriculture be so monolithic, or are there alternatives to posing the question around issues of resilience, diversity, sustainability and the matter of intellectual property, words which rarely enter his thesaurus or argument?

The question critics like Kavitha Kuruganti are asking is whether GM is the only solution, or are alternatives like systems of mustard intensification more adequate as they show better yields than GM mustard. Cost is a consideration as the farmer does not have to depend on others for seeds. He doesn’t have to buy seeds from outside, can reduce water usage to a minimum and yet get high output.

Dr Khush, by being mono-paradigmatic, ignores agro-ecological approaches that outstanding scientists like Madhav Gadgil, Raymond Dasmann or Gordon Convay have suggested, one to emphasise that the critique of GM isn’t merely from social movements but from dissenting scientists. Dr Khush is silent on them, but considering such arguments is important, otherwise the pat he gives work like Delhi University’s research group Paintal sounds like empty paternalism.

He warns against narrowing the field, but if anyone narrows the field literally it is the legendary Dr Khush. He has to realise that the Green Revolution is not just about productivity and technology, and these aren’t magic bullets for problem-solving. By minimising social science wisdom, his Green Revolution portrait as a miracle of productivity becomes naïve and even dated. The social and ecological cost of the Green Revolution is read as noise by Dr Khush. He sees problem-solving purely in terms of technological improvements in yield potential, farm productivity and integrated pest management, but underplays the social realities of agriculture. He accuses anti-GM activists of “filibustering” without realising that even science has to respond to issues of dialogue and democracy. Sustainability has to be seen as more than yield management. It’s the absence of plurality and democracy in his work that is distressing. He seems to think that every crisis merely needs a technical response to a technical question.

Dr Khush is unfair to GM’s opponents and fails to recognise that they too are providing counter-expertise, carefully collecting data, marshalling arguments without indulging in rhetoric or imputing motives. He accuses anti-GE activists of filibustering the proceedings of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). There is a slight one-sidedness here in tactics. First, GM advocates pick on Greenpeace as the major disrupter. There are two problems here: It ignores the fact that the Government of India has stalled debate by equating environmentalists with seditionists. Second, there is an assumption that the GEAC is correct in its handling of trials. Activist groups have shown that GEAC needs to be scrutinised. Social movements prove that it is GM advocates who are responsible for bad science and bad management. When Jairam Ramesh requested India’s academics to produce an assessment of GM, all they could do was to copy a corporate publicity handout. In democracies, when citizens and social movements reply with good science, the scientific establishment must respond with openness. Utilising Dr Khush or 109 Nobel laureates as a public hoarding is not quite the answer to the question.

What the movements are offering is twofold — a critique of regulatory science and the outline of an alternative paradigm. First, they argue the use of existing diversity could achieve a full and multiple diet than a “ silver bullet” reliance on Golden Rice. Second, what they are offering is not a centralised solution, but a panarchic response that varies at the household and population level, and in terms of time. In confronting two modes of problem-solving we must examine the paradigmatic basis of two approaches. One should be sensitive to what sociologist Robert Merton called the Mathew effect, where papers by established scientists get more attention than those by ordinary workers.

One has to think of the work of scientists beyond Dr Khush. One needs a paradigm of ecological prudence, not just technological productivity. The ecological and biotechnological have to debate on open ground and the ethics of choices, the logic of problem-solving, and the nature of a risk society with solutions no longer predictable, certainly have to be highlighted. One must also remember that social is not an addendum in these debates but a critical part of decision-making. Third, one has to ask scientists like Suman Sahai (Gene Campaign) whether the so-called best practices are foolproof. We have to respect the data raised by dissenting groups that have repeatedly shown this is not so. Testimonials on the good conduct of GM crops, whether by scientific legends or Nobel laureates, is just publicity. It is time for a more open debate where science and democracy in India will be under close scrutiny.

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