Thoughts on economics and liberty

A 2010 article that expresses huge concern at the politicisation of science in India

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The Anger of Aubergines

– Shantu Shantaram and Shanthu Shanthararn, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1 (SUMMER 2010),

India will go down in the history of modern biotechnology as the first country in the world to have politically vetoed a proven safe and useful biotech product, the Bt. brinjal a Genetically Modified (GM) crop. Bt. stands for a gene that codes for an insecticidal toxin-protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.), an ubiquitous soil bacterium that is specifically toxic to a large group of highly ravaging lepidopteron insect pests known to agriculture. A gene coding for this toxin (not a poison or a venom) protein has been spliced into the genome of brinjals in India to protect them from a devastating pest called the Fruit and Shoot borer (FSB), for which there is no natural resistance in the entire brinjal germplasm. Conventional approaches to breeding FSB resistance are impossible, and the only option is to spray copious amounts of poisonous pesticides. FSB has developed considerable resistance to these chemicals, and therefore, farmers have to spray higher doses of pesticides to control the dreaded pest. Organic farmers and others have been using Bt. as a spray bio-pesticide for decades without any harm. Bt. is proven to be non-toxic to higher animals and humans as their guts are acidic in nature, and the toxin is effective only in the alkaline guts of insect larvae that also have specific receptors to which the toxin binds. This is a proven scientific fact for over 100 years of Bacillus thuringiensis research. A recent report of the National Research Council of the United States released in May 2010, clearly attests to the safety of Bt. crops and more. And, another four-year study just published in May 2010, by David Andow of the University of Minnesota and Gunether Stotzky of SUNY, affirms that Bt. toxin are non-toxic to beneficial earthworms, a fact that is well known, but had to be repeated to convince the doubting thomases.

However, a whole group of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have waged a war against this technology based on the belief that modern GMOs are unsafe to humans and animals, to the environment, to biodiversity, and socially, culturally and economically, an anathema to most agricultural systems of the old world. They believe that using modern biotechnology is another tool to subjugate the poor farmers of the developing world, and are a form of techno-imperialism. Most environmental activists see modern science as a problem and believe that all the problems of the world are due to an over exploitation of environmental resources using modern science and technology. They hold that GM crops, a product of such exploitative technologies, should not be allowed to be deployed in a large scale. For them, reducing consumption and leading a ‘simple’ life is more sustainable in the long term, rather than scientific and technological innovations that will find new ways to exploit nature. This is a fundamental philosophical difference of opinion that divides protagonists and antagonists of modern biotechnology. Many also believe that modern science and technology creates social injustice by widening the chasm between the haves and have nots. In many respects, the present-day anti-biotech the activists are like the Luddites of the eighteenth century who opposed the industrial revolution for similar reasons. It is hard to fathom as to why these anti-technology activists cannot see how this planet can carry billions of lives only due to modern science and technology, and, but for them, our living standard would not have been where it is today.

If one understands some basic facts of Bt. brinjal, then there can be a hope for reasonable resolution to the questions and anxieties of deploying GM crops in Indian agriculture. First, the choice of brinjal for developing it into Bt. brinjal was dictated by certain inadequacies of the scientific power. For some still poorly understood reasons the members of the Solanacea family, to which brinjal belongs, are most amenable to modern gene splicing (genetic transformation) techniques and easier to tackle certain egregious problems. Secondly, they regenerate very fast, and thirdly, members of this family of plants contain the largest number of vegetables that people consume. Brinjals recieve thirty to forty pesticide sprays, which can be reduced to just a few in case of Bt. brinjal. Lastly, brinjal defies any conventional solution to FSB control problem. Brinjals come as hybrids and open-pollinated varieties. The seed industry usually develops hybrids that are more vigorous due to hybrid vigour (a basic genetic character), and farmers will have to buy planting seeds every planting season if they are interested in a consistent high quality and quantity yield, and they already do. Farmers using open pollinated varieties need not buy seeds every year, but can plant saved seeds from the previous year. In India, brinjal is cultivated over 55,000 hectares of land round the year. Out of this, seventy per cent are hybrids and thirty per cent are open-pollinated varieties. Most farmers who choose to grow hybrids understand why they need to buy hybrid seeds every year. Surely, farmers should have a choice of what they want to grow. Growing hybrids is at least a forty-year-old habit cultivated since green revolution days.

Bt. brinjals have been developed both in hybrids and open pollinated varieties by private sector and public sector institutions, respectively. So Indian farmers have a choice of Bt. brinjal hybrids and Bt. brinjal varieties as in the past. Both Bt. brinjal hybrids and Bt. brinjal varieties have undergone extensive laboratory tests for the safety and stability of its genetic makeup, and field tests for environmental risk assessment and agronomic performance for over six years, and have been certified to be safe by two expert committees appointed by the apex regulatory body Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Contrary to the wild allegations, almost ninety per cent of all tests have been carried out by either central government laboratories or accredited private testing labs, and very little by the developers of Bt. brinjal. It is mandatory for GM crops that the Indian Council of Agricultral Research (ICAR) conduct two years of field studies to affirm its agronomic performance. The Indian Vegetable Research Institute (IVRI) at Varanasi did it for two years and has been one of the public sector partners in developing Bt. brinjal. An ex-ante, socio-economic analysis carried out by Cornell University clearly shows that Bt. brinjal farmers have enormous economic gains to be had by reducing insecticide sprays and increased yield. This point needs to be proved to farmers as it was done in case of India’s first GM crop, namely, Bt. cotton. Unless large-scale cultivation is allowed, this point cannot be proved.

All the above reviews and assessments gave a clean bill of health to GEAC for granting its approval for large-scale cultivation. Ever since, the Bt. brinjal application was being reviewed by GEAC, environmental activists and anti-technology activists have been protesting that the members of GEAC are neither qualified nor competent. In fact, they allege that many of them have conflict of interest, and are thus biased. The protests started getting louder by the day, culminating in a flood of faxes and emails to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on the penultimate day of the GEAC’s final decision-making day. At this juncture, the Union Minister of Environment stepped in to take charge, and decided to hold nation-wide consultations to gauge the pulse of the people before taking a final decision on Bt. brinjal. He solicited professional and personal opinions from scientists and technologists, both from within and outside the country. Then, he went on a road show around seven major cities to hear what the public had to say. Each and every public meeting turned out to be an unmanageable circus completely overrun by anti-Bt. brinjal activists. The feeble voices of the scientific community were muzzled by the highly vocal brigades. Thus, Bt. brinjal stands completely politicized leaving no hope for a reasonable resolution of this political controversy. In the cacophony of such public debates, the minister realized that the ‘scientific’ opinion was divided and that a large majority of the public was ranged against Bt. brinjal. As expected, the safest option for the government was to postpone the implementation of the GEAC’s decision by clamping a moratorium pending further review of safety tests. This was hailed by the activists as the successful culmination of `democratization’ of science and technology, a phrase coined by the Institute of Developmental Studies at the University of Sussex. What happened in reality was the complete `mobocratization’ of GM crops technology, resulting in an intractable political deadlock.

Some of the major charges against Bt. brinjal are: It has not been properly tested; it is unsafe for human consumption; it erodes biodiversity of brinjals; Indian farmers will be slaves to a foreign company’s technology seed; and, that since the demand for Bt. brinjal did not come from farmers, why bother? None of this stands scientific or logical scrutiny.

The fact is that Bt. brinjal has undergone more than six years of field testing for agronomic performance, including the mandatory testing done by ICAR. All food safety studies, such as toxicity and allergenicity tests, have been done according CODEX Alimentarius recommendations, using international standard protocols. Chronic toxicity studies are not indicated by the preliminary sub-chronic studies. Moreover, the Bt. gene in Bt. brinjal has been extensively characterized and tested globally for over two decades, supported by voluminous scientific literature and use for decades. Based on the principle of familiarity alone, the Bt. gene in Bt. brinjal can be declared safe. Bt. brinjal hybrids have been developed indigenously by the Indian seed company, Mahyco, and Bt. brinjal varieties have been developed by the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, as well as by the Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. They have been tested by the Indian Vegetable Research Institute, Varanasi, and an organ of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Only the Bt. gene construct was donated by Monsanto, royalty-free to Mahyco and Indian public sector institutions. More than 95 per cent of the laboratory tests were conducted either by national laboratories or Indian testing labs accredited by the Government of India. Therefore, Bt. brinjal is neither a foreign product nor owned by any foreign company. All hybrid and open-pollinating brinjal varieties are Indian, and not imported. By introducing a non-existing Bt. gene into brinjal, one only enhances genetic biodiversity. If new and improved crop varieties, which is what Bt. brinjal is adopted widely by growers, because of its obvious advantages and benefits, the older varieties go out of cultivation. But, it does not mean that the old varieties vanish from the surface of the planet. That is what has happened all throughout the history of crop variety introduction. To argue that poor farmers of the country must be the custodians of old and inferior germplasm to satisy the whims of some urban NGOs and carry on non-benefical agriculture is wrong. Thus, it is scientifically fallacious to argue that brinjal biodiversity will be eroded. ICAR has a national germplasm bank that routinely collects, characterizes germplasm of all cultivated crops in India and maintains them for posterity. They try to maintain such collections both in-situ and ex-situ. Therefore, there is no scientific basis for fearing the loss any kind of biodiversity by introducing GM crops any more than when other crops are introduced into agriculture. In fact, the insect-protecting Bt. gene has been introduced into almost ten different varieties of brinjal and hybrids, which does not constitute erosion of any brinjal. Larger natural biodiversity is never at stake here at all as the Bt. brinjal hybrids and varieties are being introduced into cultivation in cultivable lands. India is not the centre of origin of brinjals as is widely believed, but a secondary centre of diversity. Vegetable brinjal, normally sold in markets is not used in any medicine either. Therefore, it will not hamper any Indian system of medicine that uses other Solanums as an ingredient.

In the history of agricultural improvement in the world, farmers have seldom asked for a particular variety or a crop. Many innovations in modern agriculture have been brought about by the ingenuity of scientists, technologists, and even farmers whose understanding of the day-to-day problems of agriculture demanding solutions is well known. That is how green revolution technologies came to the fore, and no one asked for it either. No farmer asked for insecticides and pesticides or fertilizers as they did not have any knowledge of them. Most farmers in India may not be aware of frontline technology developments, and would not even think of asking for genetically engineered seeds. It is really nobody’s case to argue that no farmer asked for it. The point is that creativity and ingenuity, combined with hard work, are the hallmarks of scientific and technological progress that will not be stopped. Implementation of modern technologies in agriculture, or any other walk of life, can only be stopped by agitation and campaigning by vested interests with an ideological agenda. In a democratic country such as ours, everyone has a right to express his/her opinion, but it does not follow that he/she is entitled to propagate falsehoods that harm genuine progress. The truth is that, in a democracy, everyone should fight for more options or choices, and biotech happens to be one such new option, and not a silver bullet, perhaps. To deny a safe technological option to a poor farmer of the country because a bunch of activists do not happen to like it, is not democracy. Instead, it can be a sort of tyranny of the vocal minority.

The acceptance of a new seed variety must be left to real growers and farmers who will quickly decide its fate in just one growing season. The solemn duty of the government is to ensure the safety and utility of the technology rigorously. All other considerations will just lead to political manipulations that will only harm the nation’s progress. India’s agricultural productivity is one the lowest in the world, and it needs and deserves all the science and technology that it can get. Public referendums on larger political, social and cultural issues may be an acceptable public policy practice, but polling a largely technologically ignorant public on matters of science and technology sets a dangerous precedent.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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