GMOs Need More Open De­bate

India Today - - UPFRONT - ESHA SHAH Esha Shah teaches at Wa­genin­gen Uni­ver­sity in the Nether­lands. Her book on the ‘af­fec­tive history of the gene’ is due to be pub­lished this year by Rout­ledge

The ap­proval by the Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing Ap­praisal Committee (GEAC) of GM mus­tard de­vel­oped at the Uni­ver­sity of Delhi has yet again started a turf war, with ac­cu­sa­tions and counter-ac­cu­sa­tions fly­ing be­tween the two sides. Those who op­pose the ap­proval are of­ten char­ac­terised as spread­ing false pro­pa­ganda and those who sup­port it are ac­cused of bas­ing their claims on stud­ies that are un­sci­en­tific or pseu­do­sci­en­tific. This, un­for­tu­nately, turns into a shout­ing match in­stead of a real de­bate cen­tred on more fun­da­men­tal ques­tions the GM con­tro­versy raises.

Firstly, and most im­por­tantly, not just in In­dia but the world over, even the most rig­or­ous and strin­gently peer­re­viewed science has failed to pro­vide con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of the po­ten­tial health and en­vi­ron­men­tal risks of GMOs (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms). It’s not just that science’s le­git­i­macy has come un­der ques­tion, th­ese con­tro­ver­sies have made it clear that the in­ter­play be­tween sci­en­tific au­thor­ity and demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions is sen­si­tive and tricky. Sci­en­tific au­thor­ity is no longer the tech­no­cratic monar­chy it was a hun­dred years ago when science could speak in one voice. Today, soft (in­con­clu­sive and con­tra­dic­tory) sci­en­tific ev­i­dence has to meet with hard po­lit­i­cal and demo­cratic de­mands. To be ef­fec­tive, sci­en­tific ex­per­tise has not only to learn to work with demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion, but first and fore­most, it has to be aware of its own lim­i­ta­tions and even po­ten­tially haz­ardous ef­fects on so­ci­ety and the en­vi­ron­ment. This will help sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions truly par­tic­i­pate in a gen­uinely demo­cratic de­bate on GMOs.

Se­condly, it is highly prob­lem­atic that the fi­nal GM prod­uct be­comes the cen­tre of con­tro­versy, not the so­ci­etal, sci­en­tific and de­vel­op­men­tal pro­cesses that lead to it. Fo­cus­ing the de­bate en­tirely on the po­ten­tial haz­ard of the prod­uct re­sults in dis­pro­por­tional im­por­tance be­ing as­signed to the science of risk assess­ment in the reg­u­la­tory process. It is im­por­tant to note that what is con­sid­ered a

‘sci­en­tif­i­cally rig­or­ous ap­proach’ in reg­u­la­tory pro­cesses is ac­tu­ally just a sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tion of the prob­a­bil­ity of risk oc­cur­rence. The con­tro­ver­sies over risk assess­ment of­ten be­come a con­fronta­tion be­tween two sets of sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tions—each sub­jec­tively equally plau­si­ble or im­plau­si­ble. The reg­u­la­tory process needs to broaden its frame of assess­ment of GMOs from cal­cu­lat­ing sta­tis­ti­cal prob­a­bil­ity to eval­u­at­ing how risks are man­u­fac­tured and how to frame our so­ci­etal ob­jec­tives to re­duce them.

The true chal­lenge GEAC faces is to cre­ate a model of ap­praisal of GMOs that lo­cates them in the broader history of agrar­ian devel­op­ment in In­dia. The reg­u­la­tory process needs to recog­nise that GMOs are en­gi­neered to counter the risks cre­ated by the agrar­ian par­a­digm of green revolution in the first place. It is a well-known fact in agrar­ian stud­ies that the in­crease in newer and more po­tent forms of pests and weeds and the con­se­quent re­duc­tion in yield is due to an the in­ten­sive use of chem­i­cals. The green revolution fo­cus on pro­duc­ing higher yields also pro­duced highly po­tent and harm­ful pes­ti­cides. GM mus­tard uses two sep­a­rate sys­tems of gene in­ser­tion. The bar­nase-barstar com­plex is in­tended to pro­duce high-yield­ing hy­brid va­ri­eties. A third gene is in­serted to make the plant re­sis­tant to the her­bi­cide called glu­fos­i­nate. This high-yield­ing mus­tard will, un­like Bt cot­ton—the only GM crop ap­proved so far—pro­mote the use of pes­ti­cides, not re­duce it. The de­bate on GMOs needs to tran­scend the turf war over whose ev­i­dence on risk assess­ment counts and ask larger ques­tions on how GMOs help cre­ate (or not) the de­sired agrar­ian fu­ture, food se­cu­rity and, most im­por­tantly, bet­ter qual­ity food.

The only way for­ward should be the ap­pli­ca­tion of the Pre­cau­tion­ary Prin­ci­ple at the mo­ment while our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions broaden their base of ap­praisal of GMOs to in­clude wider pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion to con­tinue the process that be­gan in 2010 in re­la­tion to the con­tro­versy on Bt Brin­jal.

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