GMOs Need More Open Debate
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.