The current debate on GM crops in India is fragmented
With a recent statement in the Lok Sabha on the success of genetically modified crops,Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar further polarised the ongoing debate on such crops in India. Though this was not the first time he has aired his views,the platform he chose further confused those trying to understand the eventual policy of the government. The regulation of GM crops is actually with the ministry of environment and forests,which appears dismissive of them. It does not seem to have made an effort to bring the regulatory apparatus (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee,GEAC) back on track,which was thrown into disarray in 2010 when a moratorium on Bt Brinjal was announced by the current ministers predecessor,even though it had been approved by the GEAC. Moreover,the statement has come at a time when all eyes are on the Supreme Court,whose technical expert committee has submitted its report on whether field trials of GM crops can continue.
The current debate on GM crops in India is highly fragmented. Those of us that have been watching the GM debate for the last two decades-plus across different countries are no longer amused. It is quite possible to have different perspectives and ideas about new technologies. Some may oppose them due to apprehensions or reservations,while some may promote them with an eye towards the commercial opportunities they offer.
In his statement,Pawar left no stone unturned to establish the necessity and success of genetic modification. He articulated the Bt cotton success story and called for a sensible approach on GM crops. The very next day,certain civil society actors came up with counter-arguments. This is not so different from the debates on nuclear power plants and nano-materials,which only goes to show how urgently India needs to work on establishing a science-society dialogue,so we can rationally respond to technological solutions before the debates take the shape of an anti-technology movement.
It is high time that we,as a society,developed institutional mechanisms for technological assessments where,along with the safety aspects,knowledge streams from the social sciences are brought in to assess social and economic implications. There is the need to explore the social determinants of policymaking in terms of public perceptions of risk and benefit. Basically,this means we ought to explore the ways in which the public influences the policymaking process,so that science and technology policymaking is more ethical and appropriate for society as a whole. This can largely be done through a three-step exercise,that is,cognition,expression and consultation. Cognition enables the public to collect information and identify risks and benefits,and provides the opportunity to consider the ethical concerns related to new technologies. The idea of expression is to create the right platforms for the public to express opinions on new technology. Finally,consultation enables the public to participate in the decision-making phase of policymaking. In this context,it is important to pose certain issues of key significance. What institutions and channels are there to enable or facilitate the publics cognition,expression and consultation? How does public trust in science,and the public perception and literacy of science and technology influence this?
For instance,the agriculture minister mentioned that only a few states like Andhra Pradesh,Gujarat and Karnataka are open to field trials,and the rest have closed their doors. This requires the three-stage process to reflect on the social context of each region,how local value systems may influence eventual policymaking,and how the social challenges are being faced in different states. This information would have to be complemented with carefully planned public perception surveys,but in some cases,the role of institutions or channels to facilitate the publics cognition by,for example,informing the public about the benefits and risks of technology,is also significant.
In the absence of such mechanisms,we will continue to be vulnerable to sudden outcries on specific products and technologies based on hysteria and ill-informed perceptions. Recently,the Indo-Swiss programme for developing millet crops has made a positive beginning by getting sociologists and economists to work with scientists to explore models that would be the most efficacious. Projects like this may present new models for Indian science and technology policymaking.
The writer is editor,Asian Biotechnology and Development Review and senior fellow,Research and Information System for Developing Countries,Delhi. Views are personal