Dividing Lines: Does GM food pass scientific muster?

The debate on genetically modified (GM) mustard has acquired an epic and urgent quality. It is a story that needs a wider elaboration.

If science is public knowledge, then scientific research has to be open to public debate and scrutiny. For this, the public has to be defined not in terms of shareholders but stakeholders — citizens whose immediate connectivity to the event might be difficult to establish.
One has to remember that connectivity is not merely economic, but related to health, ecology, science, to cultural notions of the body and to ethical frames. So the joke, “Does GM pass mustard?” is more complex than one thought.

What enters into the GM debate and alters its complexion completely is the democratisation of science and decision-making regarding science.

The debate, in fact, is more important than the fate of any commodity because by democratising science, one is creating a new world of sensitivity.

The debates, I must admit, are raucous, pluralistic and uncontrollable. When Jairam Ramesh was the minister for environment and forest, he had a debate on Bt cotton which verged on a tamasha. The GM debate on mustard has been equally dramatic.

Poised on one side is a distinguished scientist with a distinguished genealogy — Deepak Pental — and cast on the other side are formidable critics like Vandana Shiva, Devinder Sharma and Aruna Rodrigues.

All are old hands at this Punch and Judy battle and all realise the responsibility for the future that goes with it. Both groups realise that this is not a short-term debate and it is not merely about mustard, but about the future of agriculture, the ethical and evolutionary responsibility of science.

Dr Pental complains that his critics are tarring him with stereotypes. GM mustard, he holds, is not anti-farmer. Dr Shiva and others point out that science is often turned into a con game under expert pretensions.

At the Energy and Resources Institute, Dr Pental’s group first discovered that Indian mustard when crossed with east European types produced hybrids that were more productive than any of the local line.

As a crop developer, Dr Pental attempted to commercialise it by applying to Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in 2015. Backing him was a powerful multi-national from Belgium, Pro-Agro. Dr Pental also had the approval of the European Commission.Dr Pental’s group claims it followed the right procedures.

Ms Rodrigues, in her petition against the environment and forest ministry’s attempt to release GM mustard, sought action against the GEAC chairman for contempt of court.

The petition claimed that the Supreme Court had issued a restraining order against both large- and small-scale field trials as a prelude to commercial release.

Ms Rodrigues’ lawyer Prashant Bhushan argued that the field trials had violated fundamental biosafety protocols. He suggested that such trials virtually jump the gun, preempting the elaborate and cautionary rituals of decision-making that precede the release of a new species or hybrid.

The very act of seed-setting sets the stage for high-risk contamination. In fact, the very conduct of such trials was seen literally as a surreptious approval for commercialisation.

Dr Pental plays down these comments seeing them as irrational anxieties. He points to the international use of GM mustard. Eighty per cent of rapeseed, a sister crop, is already under this technology.

He points out the irony that while the Japanese refuse to have anything transgenic in their own country, they are feeding their chicken with rapeseed meals from Canada.

He points to the deregulation of mustard in Europe after a long and tedious debate. He condemns a lot of the critique of GM mustard as anxiety-driven rhetoric.

Dr Pental, of course, locates his argument within the structure of a wider rhetorical debate. He talks of the great contributions of science to the health debate in increasing lifespan and then asks rhetorically, what if agriculture had stayed frozen at 1900 levels? What if there was no mechanisation, no chemical fertilisers, no systematic plant breeding?

Incidentally, both sides seem to use an almost apocalyptic rhetoric to make their argument. The critique of GM is often unfairly presented as a critique of scientific progress.

Many scientists have jumped from the objectivity of their facts to making personal, almost libellous attacks on critics. What we see is a full-blooded politics of anxiety.

But two caveats must be raised. The critics of GMO are scholars and activists of integrity. Many of them are as professional as any establishment scientist.

In fact, the debate which often blurs at the edges has to recognise two things clearly. Firstly, it was dissenting scientists who brought many issues to the forefront of debate.

Secondly, the debate has extended beyond the standard provincialism of experts and now includes citizens who are no longer passive consumers but active, in fact, activist citizens, engaging in scientific debates that critically affect their future.

Unlike old-fashioned experts, the new generation of experts cannot be wished away. One must add that both democracy and science has changed. The citizen is no longer a passive consumer of scientific knowledge and scientifically produced commodities.

Also, science is no longer the expert-driven enterprise masked by total certainty. The emergence of risk sciences ensures that science has to be more cautious in certifying its products.

Ms Rodrigues’ petition has been considered by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court which has asked attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi to respond.

The petition will be heard after two weeks but it is now clear that mustard, an everyday crop used for food, for body massages and fodder has raised a network of questions that science and democracy have to answer carefully.

The old Manichean battles are irrelevant and mustard has become food for scientific thought.

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