NGO alleges ‘bio-piracy’ by Monsanto’s Indian subsidiary & its collaborators: True or false?

 Environmental Support Group (ESG), a NGO headquartered at Bangalore has levelled serious charges of violation of India’s Biological Diversity Act (BD Act), against Mahyco, (26% of which is owned by Monsanto) and its collaborators – the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS) & Sathguru Management Consultants (P) Ltd., which was acting as a co-ordinator on behalf of USAID and Cornell University. The ESG website accessible over here has done an admirable job of making sure that all the necessary documents used as the basis of their complaint are freely accessible to everybody.

Image from here.
The target of criticism is a tripartite research and collaboration agreement, dated 23rd April, 2005 between Mahyco, UAS and Sathguru Pvt. Ltd (available over here and here) aimed at the development of pro-poor varieties of eggplant that are insect tolerant, a.k.a. genetically modified Bt. Brinjal which in itself has been the subject of considerable controversy over safety fears. Protests against the genetically modified Bt Brinjal were so vociferous that the then Minister for Environment Mr. Jairam Ramesh announced a moratorium on any further testing of Bt. Brinjal until there was public consensus on the safety issues. While the safety and regulatory aspect is dealt with by committees constituted under the Ministry of Environment and the Department of Biotechnology, the aspect of accessing biological resources are dealt with under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 which is also administered by the Ministry of Environment and a statutory body which is the National Biological Authority.

As per S. 3 of the BD Act, foreign companies or citizens seeking to access biological resources in India are required to take the prior approval of the National Biological Authority while Indian citizens and companies are only required to intimate, not seek approval, of the State Biological Authorities’ for carrying out similar functions. As per Section 5(1) no approvals are required in the case of collaborative research between Indian and foreign parties provided that such collaborative research projects are approved by the Central Government and conform to guidelines issued by the Central Government. In the present case the guidelines were published by the Ministry of Environment in the Official Gazette only on the 8th of November, 2006. (These guidelines are available over here.)

In its complaint to the Karnataka Biodiversity Board, ESG has alleged the following violations by the three parties:

(i) That when the Central Government formulated and issued guidelines on the 8th of November, 2006 the three parties failed to approach the NBA, under S. 18, for approval and clarification on the guidelines. ESG also states that the three parties should have intimated the Karnataka Biodiversity Board, under S. 7 of the Act, of their intent to access biological resources within its jurisdiction. Under the BD Act, 2002 accessing biological resources in the country in violation of the Act can attract penal sanctions.

(ii) The second allegation pertains to the alleged violation of S. 41(2) of the BD Act, 2002. ESG states in its complaint that S. 41(2) requires the permission of not only the NBA and the State Board but also local biodiversity authorities and since such permission was not taken, the local communities who developed the biological resources were deprived of their right to benefit from the commercial gains that would be made by the three parties.

On the basis of the above allegations, ESG ‘demanded’ that the Karnataka State Board conduct a full-fledged inquiry and initiate criminal proceedings against all the above parties. ESG also provides a link to the Minutes of the NBA meeting on the 20th of June, 2011 which states that the NBA is going to initiate legal action against Mahyco and it collaborators for using local brinjal strains to develop the Bt Brinjal without prior approval of the NBA.

A. The counterpoint from Mahyco & its collaborators: ESG has also provided on its website scanned copies of the replies received by the Karnataka State Board from Mahyco and its collaborators on the issues raised by ESG. These replies are available over here.

The replies by these three parties are rather vague and don’t really rebut strongly any of the issues raised by ESG. At the most they provide a detailed factual background to the tripartite agreement and the Government of India’s involvement in the project. Both UAS and Sathguru have clarified that the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project – II, managed by the Cornell University to transfer technical know-how to India, has the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India as one of its partners. The implication therefore being that the Government of India had complete knowledge of the program from the beginning. This is further confirmed by the website of Cornell University over here.

B. The possible legal roadblocks to ESG’s allegations: The weakness of both the allegations is explained below:

(i) The first allegation pertaining to the violation of the Central Govt.’s guidelines published under S. 5(3)(a) appears to be rather weak since the collaboration agreement under dispute was entered into with blessings of the Department of Biotechnology therefore implying that the Central Government approved of the project thus fulfilling the conditions of S. 5(3)(b). Since the conditions of S. 5(3)(b) are fulfilled, the conditions of the BD Act, 2002 are fulfilled and there is no violation of the law. Further, projects such as this are now officially a part of the Central Government’s agricultural policy especially in the context of the Indo-U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture which kicked off in 2006.

(ii) The second part of the first allegation pertaining to violation of S. 7 i.e. non-intimation to the Karnataka Biodiversity Board also may not stand in a Court of law since S. 7 clearance is required only in cases pertaining to ‘commercial utilization’ and the present tripartite agreement under dispute does not state that it has commercial goals. The focus of the agreement seems to be centred on technology transfer to the Indian partner. However I will concede that more information is required to decide this point.

(iii) The third allegation on the violation of S. 41(2) of the BD Act, 2002 is quite weak, since that provision requires the NBA and the State Boards, and not the applicant, to consult with local biodiversity management committees while taking any decision relating to the use of biological resources and knowledge associated with such resources. Therefore only the NBA can violate S. 41(2) and not UAS, Mahyco and Sathguru.

Heat on Monsanto over brinjal piracy

American seed giant Monsanto and its Indian collaborator, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) are to be prosecuted for allegedly ‘stealing’ indigenous plant material for developing genetically modified brinjal variety known as Bt brinjal.

The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), a statutory body set up under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, has decided to initiate legal proceedings against the two companies and their collaborators for using indigenous brinjal germplasm without necessary permission.
Taking plant material without any permission and using it for commercial purposes is considered an act of biopiracy.

“The authority has decided to proceed legally against Mahyco and Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion”, NBA secretary C Achalender Reddy said. The decision on the complaint filed by the Bangalore- based Environment Support Group (ESG) was taken in June by the authority and it was formally confirmed during its meeting held in New Delhi this week.

Any violation of the Biodiversity Act is a non- bailable, cognizable offence and the authority plans to initiate criminal proceedings against the offenders. It took almost one year for the authority to prepare a case against the two companies.

This is going to be a test case of biopiracy because for the first time a commercial entity will be booked under the Biodiversity Act.

ESG had accused the two seed companies and their Indian collaborators including UAS of using germplasm of six local varieties of brinjal for the development of Bt brinjal.

While Monsanto and Mahyco are trying to blame the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, for supplying the local brinjal varieties, this may not weaken the case against them as the law makes no such distinction. Even USAID which facilitated agreements between Mahyco and Indian universities will have to share the blame.

“This is an unprecedented development in the conservation history of India”, said Leo Saldanha of ESG who had filed the complaint against the seed companies along with Bhargavi Rao. “While we are happy that action is finally being initiated, it is also a sad indicator that NBA acted only on the basis of our complaint and our persistence that some action was taken”. When contacted Monsanto tried to distance itself from the case by saying that it had not developed Bt brinjal, but it had been ‘developed by Mahyco, with the Cry1Ac gene accessed from Monsanto, in collaboration with multiple public sector institutions’. This is a halftruth because Monsanto owns 26 percent of Mahyco, and also has a separate joint venture Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited which handles its business related to Bt.

Interestingly Mahyco also denied any violation of the Biodiversity Act and said the Karnataka Biodiversity Board had informed it in April that “there has been a violation by UAS, Dharwad in using six local varieties of brinjal. Information was sought pertaining to the objectives of the agreements between UAS, Dharwad and the same is under consideration by the authorities”.

The world’s biggest Baingan Bharta -click to add a baingan

Dear friend,

Click here to keep your food safe
Are you ready to make a World Record to save your food from genetic modification? The government is gearing up to table the suspicious Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill.[1]

If created, BRAI will become an absolute authority, easing the approval of genetically modified (GM) crops in our country. Then we will not be able to stop them. We need to persuade the Prime Minister to protect our food and to do that we need to make the demand against GM food more visible.

We can do this by making the World’s Biggest GM Free Baingan Bharta.[2] The size of this Bharta depends on the number of signatures on the petition asking the PM to stop the bill. One lakh signatures on the petition will help make this World Record.

You should ask Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to stop this bill because it is not transparent and is against our right to safe food.

Thousands of people across the country came out to protest against GM crops on Quit India day, yesterday. Public opposition saved the brinjal from genetic modification.[3]Now we need to save all our vegetables from this threat.

The last known version of the bill leaked by the media allowed BRAI to escape the purview of the Right to Information act.[4] The bill will create an autocratic body which will mess with our food.
Ask the PM to stop this bill now!

Thanks a billion!


A law unto itself,, March 8, 2010
What is Baingan Bharta?
India says no to Bt brinjal, for now,, February 9, 2010
Biotech Bill: Sweeping powers, glaring omissions,, March 11, 2010

Non-pesticide cultivation also a reason for moratorium on BT Brinjal: Ramesh

BS Reporter / Hyderabad August 07, 2011, 0:30 IST

Union minister for rural development Jairam Ramesh said that one of the reasons behind his decision to put a moratorium on commercialisation of BT Brinjal was the ongoing experiment of “non-pesticide” cultivation in Andhra Pradesh.

Ramesh told reporters here on Saturday that currently 10 per cent of the cropped area in Andhra Pradesh was under non-pesticide cultivation. “The proportion of this area would be doubled in the next five years,” he said, adding that the state accounted for 40 per cent of the total pesticides consumption in the country.

Under non-pesticide cultivation, farmers will use fertilsers but not pesticides for growing crops. It is not organic farming as there is utilisation of fertilisers. Sanctioning Rs 240 crore under the “Mahila Kisan Swashakti” scheme in AP for the promotion of non-pesticide cultivation during the next five years, Ramesh said that “one of the reasons for putting a moratorium on BT Brinjal is the Andhra experiment on non-pesticide cultivation”.

Should we encourage biopirates to expand their business in India?

An appeal for your URGENT support
Should we encourage biopirates to expand their business in India?
06 August 2011
Dear Friends,
As you are aware, the environmental release of the first ever Genetically Modified Food (Bt Brinjal – eggplant) in India, promoted by M/s Mahyco (an Indian subsidiary of US TNC Monsanto), was stayed by a February 2011 decision by then Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who ordered a moratorium on the product’s environmental and commercial release. This decision was the outcome of public opinion gathered in a series of nation-wide public consultations that he held and based also on a variety of scientific evidence and legal analysis. Fundamentally, Mr. Ramesh held that per the Precautionary Principle not enough was known of the environmental, public health, economic and social consequences of GMO foods. Therefore it was prudent to postpone the decision until there was absolute certainty that GMOs subserved the common good.
Moratorium decision on Bt Brinjal sidestepped biopiracy issue:
In addition to concerns over the public health and environmental implications of GMOs, Environment Support Group raised a serious concern that in promoting Bt Brinjal, Mahyco/Monsanto, along with it collaborators (University of Agricultural Sciences -Dharwad, Sathguru Consultants, Cornell University and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University; collaborators under the ABSP-II project funded by USAID) had fundamentally flouted laws protecting biodiversity in India. The specific charge made was that these agencies had accessed at least 9 local varieties of brinjal in developing the Bt Brinjal product and all this was done without any prior permission from the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), State Biodiversity Board, Local Biodiversity Management Committees, as required per the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992 and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Therefore, the action of bringing the Bt Brinjal product to a final decision of commercial release constituted an act of biopiracy: a very serious crime that is cognisable, non-bailable and additionally involves large fines. It was also submitted to the Minister that such actions seriously compromised and denied economic and social benefits to local communities under the Access and Benefit Sharing Regime.
Mr. Ramesh chose to sidestep this critical issue while ordergin moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal.
ESG complaint against biopiracy:
Environment Support Group, however, pursued the case, and filed a complaint before the statutory Karnataka Biodiversity Board on 15 February 2011 (copy attached). The Board took cognisance of this complaint, proceeded to investigate it thoroughly, issued notices on all agencies involved in promoting Bt Brinjal and also held hearings. In their defence, Bt Brinjal promoters Mahyco/Monsanto have absolutely denied violation of biodiversity protection laws while others, such as University of Agricultural Sciences – Dharwar have claimed that these laws do not at all apply to them. Based on this evidence, the Board has repeatedly requested the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) to take appropriate action in accordance with law. NBA, however, has dithered on taking a decision on this critical complaint – for over a year now.
Monsanto now wants India’s onions:
Perhaps encouraged by weak regulation by NBA, Monsanto Holdings has now applied for accessing a variety of onions grown in India for potential hybridisation, commodification and commercial release. A copy of the application made by Monsanto is enclosed. As we understand, NBA has forwarded Monsanto’s application to relevant State regulatory authorities and applicable Biodiversity Management Committees (at Panchayat/Nagarpalika levels) with the demand that the application be cleared no later than 27 August 2011.
It is a matter of very serious worry that NBA which has failed to demonstrate urgency in dealing with complaint of biopiracy against Mahyco/Monsanto, has wasted no time at all in processing Monsanto’s application to access onions.
It is imperative for NBA to enforce India’s biodiversity protection laws and also act in conformance with the Public Trust Doctrine, Precautionary Principle, Principle of Intergenerational Equity and the Polluter Pays Principle and other applicable laws. We fear that such lax behaviour on the part of a key regulatory agency encourages businesses to continue their business-as-usual approach, untrammelled by any fear of punitive action for violating India’s biodiversity protection laws and for compromising India’s sovereign control over its biological resources.
Demand decisions in NBA meeting on 9th August 2011:
With this in view, we wish to demand that NBA in its meeting scheduled on 9th August 2011 must take a categorical decision on the charge of biopiracy against those promoting Bt Brinjal product based on comprehensive investigation and reporting by the Karnataka Biodiversity BoardPending adjudication of this matter, no fresh application for accessing India’s biological resources must be entertained from any agency being investigated for biopiracy. Such a norm is critical to safeguard ongoing investigations and protecting biological wealth of India, and is an approach that is in consonance with various Supreme Court decisions, most recently evidenced by banning mining by all in light of widespread illegal mining in Bellary.
If you wish to support this demand, kindly sign on the petition (enclosed) by providing your name, full address, and organisational affiliation (if any), no later than 11 pm on 8th August 2011. Kindly leave the subject as is to help us to process your endorsement.
To further assist you in endorsing this petition we have also made it accessible online at:
We seek this support from you so that India’s biological resources are protected and conserved to ensure ecological, food, economic and social security of present and future generations.
Thank you for your cooperation and support.
Yours sincerely,
Leo F. Saldanha
Bhargavi S. Rao

Environment Support Group

[Environment, Social Justice and Governance Initiatives]
1572, 36th Cross,
Banashankari II Stage,
Bangalore 560070. INDIA
Tel: 91-80-26713559-61
Voice/Fax: 91-80-26713316
Petition to National Biodiversity Authority:
Shri M.F.Farooqui, IAS.,
National Biodiversity Authority,
(Full Addl. Charge)
Additional Secretary,
Ministry of Environment and Forests,
Government of India,
5th Floor, TICEL Bio Park,
Taramani, Chennai – 600 113
Tel: 91-044-2254 1805
Fax: 91-044-2254 1073
8th August 2011
Dear Shri. Farooqui,
As you are aware, Environment Support Group has filed a complaint against M/s Mahyco/Monsanto and their collaborators in promoting Bt Brinjal in violation of India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992. This complaint has been pending adjudication by the National Biodiversity Authority for over a year now, notwithstanding comprehensive investigations that have been undertaken by Karnataka State Biodiversity Board.
The Authority which has not found the necessary time and resource to adjudicate the matter with due dispatch, has now proceeded to process an application from Monsanto Holdings to access onions in India for hybridisation and possible commercial release. Such double standards is not an healthy indicator that the Authority is independently and rigorously implementing Biological Diversity Act in order to protect our biological resources for the benefit of present and future generations.
When the Authority meets on 9th August 2011, it is imperative that it takes a decision on the pending complaint of biopiracy against M/s Mahyco/Monsanto and its collaborators. Such action is imperative on the part of the regulatory Authority and will build public confidence that it is not dithering in taking a correct decision due to extraneous pressures.
We also demand that pending adjudication of this matter, no application must be processed for accessing biological resources of India from any of the agencies being investigated on grounds of biopiracy. Such a policy is consistent with best practices employed by the Government of India and also with various Supreme Court decisions – most recently in banning mining by all as a measure of taking action against widespread illegal mining in Bellary district of Karnataka.
We hope that the Authority will take appropriate decisions with due dispatch to safeguard India’s biodiversity and the wider public interest.

Sticky: Bt gene harms GM plant: New answers to old questions on biosafety of GM crops

Issue: Jun 30, 2011

G V Ramanjaneyulu
Entomopathogenic bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and its toxins have been extensively used for pest control in agriculture and forestry and in public health programmes since the 1930s. At the core of such application are protein crystals that get synthesised when Bt cells develop spores. The proteins called Cry (from Crystal) are inimical to certain insect groups.

Transgenic plants containing Bt genes, commercially available since the 1990s, are developed by transferring genes to produce specific Cry proteins like CryIAc and Cry2AB. It is presumed the genes perform the same function of producing the toxin in the plant as they were doing in the bacterium and hence are safe for the environment.

However, field experiences show various problems: allergenicity, toxicity to non-target organisms and effects on soil fertility. Industry and pro-GM scientists dismiss such problems, asserting that Bt toxins have no unintended effects and claiming that GM and non-GM crops are substantially equivalent. Latest studies have raised questions about such claims. In an article in the June 2011 issue of Journal of Biosciences, Delhi University scientists reported that the expression of the Cry1Ac endotoxin has detrimental effects on the development of transgenic plants. The plants that showed appreciable CryIAc expression were phenotypically abnormal: they were malformed. This suggests preferential selection is at work while transgenic plants mature: those that express low level of Cry1Ac have better chances of coming through compared with ones expressing appreciable levels of the gene.

Deepak Pental, one of the authors of the paper, is a member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and was the chairperson of the Expert Committee-I on Bt Brinjal.

Several researchers, including Kesavraj Kranti, director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research and member of GEAC, have observed that the expression of the Cry1Ac gene is not uniform during the life cycle of the Bt cotton. Kranti has also observed that the expression of Cry1Ac protein is highly variable in different parts of eight Bt cotton Bollgard hybrids and—more importantly—the expression declined progressively over the plant’s life cycle. He observed the lowest expression in the ovary of flowers and rind of the young green bolls—the sites most preferred by the bollworm—implying the crop could be most vulnerable to insect attack during flowering. This could hugely reduce crop yield.

Low expression of the Cry1AC gene will also negate the Insect Resistance Management strategy, which dictates the toxin level be several-fold higher than that required to kill all target insects. The low expression militates against development of plants bearing high levels of the toxin. Bt cotton in Gujarat and other areas in the country where the pink bollworm has become Bt-resistant are most likely plants with low levels of CryIAc expression. Bt Brinjal is likely to meet the same fate because the brinjal and fruit shoot borer it targets is a monophagous pest like the pink bollworm—it feeds only on brinjal.

The reason for the detrimental effects of Cry1Ac on plant growth and development is not known. However, the finding gives leads to understanding several problems about Bt genes.

Phenotypical abnormality in plants with high levels of CryIAc expression could be a result of a metabolic aberration during the process of gene transfer or gene itself. Such metabolic abnormality can also cause allergies and produce toxins detrimental to non-target organisms like friendly insects, soil microbes, cattle or other mammals, including humans, feeding on the plants or its products. Earlier reports on toxicity to monarch butterflies, reduced soil fertility and the controversial phenomenon of animal morbidity/mortality could be explained with more research along these lines.

The authors suggest that targeting of Cry1Ac into chloroplasts rather than nuclei can lead to plants expressing higher levels of Cry1Ac and better insect resistance. However, the finding that expression of a Bt toxin per se is detrimental to plants is significant since the toxin was thought to harm only certain insects. The findings reveal large knowledge gaps and actual problems associated with Bt crops. Bt crops should be banned till further research shows the technology can be precise, predictable and controllable in addition to being safe.

The author is a scientist with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad

The Bt. Brinjal goes politicking

The Bt. Brinjal goes politicking

MORATORIUMS are a kind of stop-time one needs to get used to. They reflect a decision to accept the liminal, to state that truth is difficult to decide. One then isolates the issues discussed and creates a middle world, a betwixt and between, where the subject waits for acceptance or rejection. Moratoriums freeze the rituals of acceptance halfway, preventing a catharsis for any side. The waiting period is not a period of inertia. It becomes a period of intense agitation, a Brownian movement where ideas collide in happy anarchy.

Waiting is not an easy prelude in life or politics. But waiting, like prison life, often produces an intensity of reflection, including passionate arguments for and against, where the battle is replayed for new acts of reflection. One such piece is C. Kameswara Rao’s essay, ‘The Moratorium on Bt. Brinjal’.1 In reviewing Jairam Ramesh’s decision to impose the moratorium, Rao produces a powerful text that needs to be read and reread.

One could condemn and cast it aside as a one-sided argument for Bt. Brinjal, but that would be unfair. It needs to be confronted and recognized for the wonderful ethnography of Brinjal it produces. It is both an ethnography of the Brinjal and an ethnography of the decisions around Bt. Brinjal. It also goes beyond thick descriptions of Brinjal to produce a powerful critique of MOEF’s decision. To dismiss it as a biased document or to merely protest against its defiance of the moratorium will not do. As a text, it is important both as a contribution to the scientific imagination and its understanding of democracy. It is a mindset that needs to be understood and confronted. In that sense, it is a public good and needs to be deciphered as one.

By keeping open the public debate, it becomes a powerful lens to the nature and complexity of decision making in modern society. The document has deep biases, but these are biases we must acknowledge, appreciate and understand. A critique in that sense is an acknowledgement of the gift of the adversary. It is not just a salute to a worthy opponent but an understanding that truths today may be many-sided. It is not a mere question of the variety of interests which transforms into that many ideologies, but a reflection of the diversity of interpretations, the complexity that science allows for.

This essay seeks to explain why each position must be open-ended and provide a nuanced complexity, which does not allow for the earlier simplistic drama of protest and ideology. With these preliminary remarks, one must now proceed to the elaboration of arguments. Maybe one should add one more caveat. Rao’s essay is not an exercise in table manners. It often has a delicacy of detail but rarely a delicacy of attitudes. It is accusatory, combative, and often pre-emptive in its suspicions but it creates a canvas whose texture and colours demand respect, including the courtesy of rebuttal. It is a worthy act of hermeneutics, a reading of the moratorium, as text of nineteen pages and an annexure of five hundred thirty two pages.

It begins with an admission. It reminds one of a statement made by James G. March, co-author of the monumental work, Organizations.2March claimed he might have been the only one to have read the entire book, convinced that most people would only sample or mine it for what was personally useful.

Rao begins with a similar observation about his Herculean labour by noting that, ‘Except for a few who are compelled by the force of responsibility to scan through the material, the massiveness of the document is forbidding.’ His analysis in that sense is a summary, an exercise in accessibility, and a commentary on the text. He confesses the text is a bit tedious, often repetitive and adds almost tiredly, ‘often different issues are dealt with in the same paragraph.’ His reading is an attempt to bring order to the text. The effort is almost a disciplinary exercise.

Rao’s essay begins by examining the decision itself. He sees it as a pre-emptive act of appropriation, instigated partly by the weakness of the GEAC. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is a statutory body authorized to grant approval for large-scale trials and the environmental release of genetically modified organisms. It can be a law unto itself. Rao claims that in a moment of weakness, it forwarded its recommendations to the government for a final view of the matter. It was a moment of vacillation that opened the floodgates. The GEAC could have passed the order and closed the issue. However, under the pretext or proviso of national interest, it sent its recommendations to the MOEF. For Rao, one committee’s weakness becomes another minister’s opportunism. He laments the fact that when statutory power lay with the GEAC, it ceded its decision to the minister. He notes that given the statutory nature of the GEAC, the moratorium on Bt. Brinjal may not be legally binding. Protocol dictated that minister could have given his comments and returned it to the committee. The review adds the minister’s decision was not couched in the format of a government order, thereby suggesting that it may not be legally binding. It argues that national decisions should be taken by the Cabinet and adds that the, ‘MOEF is not a cabinet minister.’ All this makes Rao wonder a bit loudly that there was ‘a good case for aggrieved parties’ to take it court and adds, ‘but no one wanted to complicate the issue further.’

The biases of the review are clear. It is a clarion call to delegitimate the MOEF decision, which the document sees as a blatant attempt ‘to insult the scientific and technical expertise of the GEAC.’ It sees the minister’s act as political and populist gesture, a symbolic statement that ‘the Bt. Brinjal’s regulatory process is not above board’, demanding that it be scrapped.

There is a politics of suspicion and a suspicion of politics that we must separate and confront. The document sees the MOEF as a Houdini full of pre-emptive acts who helps foil more correct but sedate processes. It notes that the minister had declared that ‘his decision…will be announced at 12.30 pm on February 10th’ but he surprisingly advanced it to 4.30 pm on February 9th. It cites the Indian Express as stating that he did so on hearing about an application in the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the government from announcing the decision. Ramesh almost appears like a wise pig in the old story, ‘The three little pigs’ who kept the wolf at bay by arriving earlier than expected. He is portrayed as a skilful opportunist, the trickster understanding the politics of the fait accompli.

To the document, the sins of the MOEF, however, go beyond such tactics. The review states that he opened the floodgates of activism by embarking on a seven city consultation between 13 January and 6 February 2010. It sniffs suspiciously at such a consultative process, observing that the choice of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) is ‘a little odd’ as it has no track record of credentials in crop genetic engineering or in handling public consultations on science issues.3 It admits somewhat reluctantly that CEE was correct in its conduct but still asks why ICAR or agricultural experts were not summoned instead for the task. It seems to suggest that the minister is bypassing experts in his rush to populism, that he is committing the double sin of bypassing expertise and also sadly the farmer, the real stakeholder in the game. It sees the consequences of this public debate as an act of bias, an accumulation of ‘negative information on GE crops, extrapolating it to cast Bt. Brinjal in bad light.’ By this time, you almost feel that if the Bt. Brinjal had feelings, it might have sued the MOEF for libel.

The document then laments ‘the regulatory uncertainty’ the moratorium has created. The tactics are clear. It creates a spirit of countervailing suspicion to match what it considers the minister’s attempt to belittle or de-legitimize the GEAC. The complaints are predictable. It warns against the slowing of research and development of GE crops, a withering of the investment climate. Even advanced projects get condemned to the backburner. With no research projects and zero investment, the cornucopia of ‘employment, education and training in GE technology’ stands doomed.

To this Cassandra cry in a realist garb, it adds that the decision was not quite democratic. In a constitutional sense, agriculture in federal India is a state subject. The document observes that the Indian Union has twenty-eight states and seven union territories. The document challenges the MOEF contention that ‘all states which have written to me expressed apprehension on Bt. Brinjal.’ The document points out that only nine states had objected and four conveyed no decision. The document argues that the pre-emptive politics of Jairam Ramesh was accomplished or made possible by the indifference or default of states, anchored on illiteracy about the rituals of bio-security evaluation. The states have been indifferent to the mandatory provisions of the EPA. It adds that GEAC has reminded the state government of the lapse but with little effect. It points to a failure of the federal imagination here. While the decision to commercialize Bt. Brinjal is the prerogative of the Union government, the decision to approve it in the respective states is the responsibility of state governments.

What one sees in the document is a critique of the politics of pre-emption and the politics of default. But it moves a step further into a suspicion of politics itself where objection to Bt. Brinjal is seen as a populist attempt to capture vote banks. There is split-level mind operating here, a preferred dualism between the world of expertise and the domain of politics. The former is cognitively defined, ritualized and possesses the integrity of professional skill, while the latter is seen as anarchic, populist, subject to the vagaries of populism and emotionalism. When science as a club faces the worlds of politics, it retreats claiming that expertise as the domain of the few is unable to cope with politics as the world of many.

The scepticism about politics extends to the scientific claims of the activists and the minister. There is a core, or at least a grain of truth, in some of them. For example, the document contends that non-pesticide management is a digression from the main issue. It is the ritual of dismissal that is interesting. NPM, it argues, is another name for organic farming and holds that both are cultivation practices, not technologies. They are classified as local practice, as recipes not yet initiated and legitimized in the Valhalla of science. For the document, practices do not quite smell of science. By recommending them, the document argues, the MOEF is playing into the hands of the organic lobby, the arch agent of the anti-GM tirade. It holds such practices are basically local and have not acquired the replicability of scale.

To be fair, advocates of NPM realize the issue of scalability and Julia Quartz’s study of NPM shows that the practitioners and advocates of NPM are less sanguine about it than the MOEF. But the hierarchies the document upholds are clear. Ethnoscience and practice are not quite science and entry into this club is not feasible for populist gatecrashers. The dualism of expert science and lay knowledge underlies the document and fossilizes its perception of politics. The acts of NGOs challenging science are seen as a form of illiteracy, or bad manners in politics. It also suggests that dissenting scientists produce bad science or mere populism. What they and the ministry need is a lecture on the technical and scientific aspects of the Bt. Brinjal, which it proceeds to provide.

The scientific elaborations of toxicity are fascinating. The Brinjal in its traditional and Bt. form almost becomes the hero of the story. Its evolution and diversity becomes a master narrative of a science which stands imperially aloof from the science and politics that NGOs might nurture. One wishes that its forays into policy were as enlightened as its asides into science.

The review challenges the alleged toxicity of Bt. Brinjal as ‘borrowed wisdom from The Gene Campaign’, which it sees as a smear campaign to perpetuate the toxicity of the Bt. Brinjal. The new temptation of state science is the susceptibility to NGO view of science. There is a tacit longing for a perspective where NGOs are mere extension counters of science, rather than forms of counter-expertise.

The document then proceeds to argue that ‘allegations of toxicity and allegenicity of Bt. Brinjal have no scientific basis.’ It contends that every plant family that includes commonly used foods also contains some toxic species. This, however, does not make the commonly used vegetables dangerous. It appeals to the wisdom of the cook and the farmer arguing that the potato, brinjals, tomato, bell pepper and chilies all belong to the solanaceae family. In none of these do we use the green vegetative parts. These contain large concentrations of anti-nutritional alkaloids. In that sense, it is the concentration and dosage that makes substances safe or toxic. The wisdom of cooking recognizes that. It possesses and demands this knowledge and the sense of discrimination.

The review adds that there are enough toxicity tests in the regulatory regime to ensure safety of GE foods. What is clear is that safety is a word that experts pronounce on. Safety is accessible only to expertise. The ordinary person’s ideas of safety, his or her questions of anxiety, are only met with an experts answer. The expert here is the immaculate conception. Safety becomes a technical answer to a technical question. All it seems to say is that when substantial equivalence was established between isogenic and transgenic, there is no need for any further concern. Examine the last four words. Why should the ordinary person, the layman rest easy merely because the experts say so? Why are his fears irrational or his questions intrusive? It is this insistence that democracy cede to expertise issues and questions within its domain that one finds irritating about the text. It smacks of a complete dismissal of common sense as defining a layperson’s concern or responsibility that one objects to. For the document, a layman venturing into the stables of expertise is treated as congenitally suspect.

Yet evidence shows that tests on Brinjal were not conducted in independent laboratories. The text bristles with anger at the prospect of this credibility crisis. It finds provocative the simple contention that the scientist may represent particular interests, that there is nothing to guarantee the purity of science in today’s commercialized structure. The scientist could represent a private interest or have a personalized stake in the development of a technology. Let us not forget that even a scientist as formidable as James Watson, one of the discoverers of the DNA, was forced to resign his job at NIH out of conflict of interest. A healthy scepticism about science might be a healthy part of democracy. To scream that such a view implies a state of perpetual guilt is to show contempt or ignorance of democratic processes.

To bell the cat, one must state that some issues are too precious to be left to experts alone. The hysteria of some scientists before public questions is a trifle disturbing. A ritual of expert committees is not the only guarantee of truth. To say this does not make one unscientific. It is to apply one of the norms of science ‘organized skepticism’ back to science itself. What makes this document valuable is not only its arguments about Bt. Brinjal but a mindset about science and democracy that must be flushed into the open and challenged. Democracy needs its pedagogic exercises and thought experiments as much as science.

Let me admit some of its clarifications are heartening. Its warning that often populism can threaten both democracy and science is welcome. One such exercise is about the origin of Bt. Brinjal. Is India the home of Brinjal, the Vavilov zone for it? The essay first reveals that the great Russian scientist himself believed so. Vavilov, in his last papers, listed two sources of origin, an Indian centre of origin including Burma and Assam and Punjab and a Chinese centre for a special smaller fruited group. The review argues that Vavilov provided no evidence for his contention and argues that ‘the world has moved forward even in botany.’ Ironically, it is an advance that even scientists like M.S. Swaminathan do not recognize when they still echo Vavilov in calling India the home of Brinjal. The minister for environment reflects that same opinion. The document argues that Vavilov’s opinion was based on circumstantial evidence, that Vavilov did not have the advantage of later genetic evidence.

When folklore and science merge, opinions are not easy to dislodge. In fact, they can become popular sentiments which often turn populist. The presence of a plant becomes a source of identity, heritage and pride. Indians, the document suggests, could be hurt if told that new evidence suggest that the real home of the tamarind is Central Africa and that our precious coconut originated in the Pacific Islands. Between heritage and intellectual property, a people can get sentimental when the origin of a plant is displaced elsewhere. Sadly, the centre of origin for the genus Solarium is Central America. The exact origin of the Solarium Melongenge is uncertain but available literature indicates it is Africa. India is one of the centres for the domestication of Brinjal but not a centre of origin. As a lesson in biology, the evidence is chastening and welcome.

While questions about origin might be acceptable, questions about trust are more formidably complex. There are questions which go beyond science and cannot be decided by scientists alone. For example, what is a reliable evaluation? Is it one done in an independent laboratory? If so, what constitutes an independent laboratory? Is a reliance on independent laboratories feasible or is their establishment a time-consuming proposition? Is the scientist the ultimate arbiter? Can private laboratories offer evidence for public benefit? Can the scientist be derisive of the NGOs lack of trust and facilely dub them anti-technological? The document raises the question of trust and renders it more problematic by contending Alice-like that trust and evidence is what the scientist claims it is. No wonder this world falls like a pack of cards.

The document argues that drug testing is a question of protocols and methods that private laboratories routinely provide data as product developers. The writer finds NGO suspicions polluting and insulting. Yet, beyond the clarity about methodology, the reviewer is not able to answer what maintains the sanctity of data in a multiverse of interests. How does one confront competing data originating from public, private and civil society groups? To suggest that all interests are alike, or that all laboratories are equally trustworthy is to add naiveté to the world of trust. One does not solve a festering problem by foreclosing it. One admits science as method has it models of anti-pollution, but it does not always work. There are two reasons for it. First, a major part of science is commoditized and therefore in the control of private interests. Second, the old model of science as publicly available scientifically certain knowledge does not work for the domain of risk. But let us understand this by unravelling the document’s understanding of science.

For the document, science is expert knowledge. It claims that, ‘It is only the scientists who know the species and those who work with the crop (who) understand its reproductive behaviour and not, all and sundry, however eminent they are in other fields, even in other areas of biology for that matter.’ It reveals that even the great Einstein had once erroneously predicted that if bees disappeared, man would have only four years of life left. But Einstein’s ode to the bee failed to realize that only five to six crops are dependent on bees, while the rest are pollinated by self-pollination or by other means. The message is clear. Science as truth is sustained by specialized experts and does not welcome trespassers, no matter what their reputation. The ‘no-trespassing’ signs are addressed not just to activists and NGOs but to dissenting scientists as well. It is the latter who, while understanding the protocols of science, violated its taboo. Good fences, as Robert Frost once said, make good neighbours, at least for the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.

Two scientists in particular have to face the document’s ire. Both are outstanding scientists whose opinions it seeks to neutralize. The tactics are startling different. The first target is M.S. Swaminathan, the second Pushpa Bhargava. Both have formidable reputations; each is formidable, but as Tolstoy would say, in his own way. The rituals of delegitimation have to be very different.

M.S. Swaminathan is the Father of the Green Revolution, the impresario of half the global projects in agriculture from organic farming to sustainability. The sheer longevity of the man and his impact is stunning. He continues writing and reflecting about science and agriculture long after his contemporaries have faded to anonymity. The document laments that it was Swaminathan who ‘dealt the hardest blow against Bt. Brinjal.’ It almost waxes poetic in its descriptions. ‘The sixer that smashed the scoreboard came from Dr. M.S. Swaminathan…Through this simplest of all letters… Dr. Swaminathan dealt the hardest blow against Bt. Brinjal. The scientists are now on a “sticky wicket” for Dr. Swaminathan’s opinion sidelines every other view in places where it really matters.’ Swaminathan is what semioticians would call a shifting signifier. His contentions change with context. He advocates biotechnology, organic farming, NPM and is a patron of ISAAA, ‘seen as an industry front’.4 He is a happy fraternity of different ideas. One is never clear whether he is a statesman balancing perspectives establishing connectivity in diversity, or a tactician bestowing a conditional approval on things.

The tactics the foundation employs to counter him are tentative. It treats him with forceps. It attributes to him an absentmindedness given the fact he speaks extensively on a wide variety of topics. It suggests the possibility of mutually contradictory statements, often even in the same article or lecture. In fact, by citing chapter and verse from a wide variety of seminars, it shows that, chameleon like, Swaminathan has been an advocate of a whole range of contradictory positions, each advocated with stunning clarity, at different points of time. Almost tacitly, the document asks the real Swaminathan to stand up. It argues that before the moratorium, Swaminathan was a different avatarfrom the Swaminathan who triggered the moratorium. Meanwhile, it wonders what happened to the man who did his post-graduate thesis on the Brinjal.

There is something interesting about the way the document constructs and responds to his multifarious positions. In fact, Dr. Swaminathan often begins reminding one of a character in Joseph Heller’s novel, Good as Gold. Heller’s character acquires the properties of the person he is with. If he is with a person who limps, he begins to acquire a hint of a limp. If he is with a visitor who lisps, he starts lisping. His wife immediately knows who he has been with since her husband is a creature of context. The document suggests that Swaminathan wears the garb of the conference he is attending, providing inspiration and certificates to a variety of diverse arguments and contexts. Yet, for all its disappointment with Swaminathan, it tries not to alienate him.

This gingerliness however disappears when it confronts Pushpa Bhargava. For all his vacillations, Swaminathan is seen as a professional. Bhargava, for all his professional competence, is treated as a political intruder who has overstated his scientific claims. The document refuses to accept all of Bhargava’s self-definitions of himself, questioning his claims to be among the ‘earliest people to coin the very term genetic engineering.’ The reviewer bristles at Bhargava’s advertisement for himself, including his claim to have brought the Department of Biotechnology into being. The review trashes both claims by attributing the invention of the word to a Danish biologist, and then adds that describing Dr. Bhargava as the father of Indian molecular biology ‘is an insult to dozens of Indian molecular biologists who made pioneering and lasting contributions to the field.’ Having belittled his claims to science and restricted his contribution to the establishment of CCMB, it proceeds to tear apart his role in various committees. The document has no hesitation about belittling an outstanding scientist, whatever his exaggerated or nostalgic perception of himself. Yet in the very attack, bordering on libel, it makes him a larger than life character, a politically sensitive scientist who stands by his positions. It calls Bhargava, ‘the science face of anti-GE activism in India’ and a bitter critic who called for the moratorium on ‘GE crops as early as 1999.’

Bhargava argued that we must resist any conspiracy by multinationals like Monsanto, who could use unprincipled and unethical scientists for its benefit. If Swaminathan is turned into an absent-minded statesman with contradictory memories, Bhargava is read as a nuisance for his consistent attack on multinationals. Contaminating both these scientists is the Gene Campaign, ‘a committed anti-GE NGO.’ The assault on the GE opposition is no longer a violation of table manners. It has almost become a form of scientific Macarthyism insisting that anyone not for GE must be professionally and ethically suspect. To add insult to injury, it sees Bhargava as a court jester, someone eased out of the Knowledge Commission for being ‘a big time trouble maker.’ The report makes Bhargava formidable in his effectiveness.

It then tries to construct him as an intruder, an imposition, an invitee to the GEAC deliberation who went beyond his observer status. It cannot forgive him for questioning the validity and integrity of the regulatory system in India. It bestows him with a turncoat status for joining the NGOs.

The reader is amazed by the apoplexy the document displays to dissenting scientists of a high calibre. All they seem to be doing is to question publicly the value of GE crops as a public good in a public debate. That is their right as citizens and scientists. The question one wants to ask is what happens to scientific detachment in these debates. Is science a civility available only to a select inner club? Why do scientists like Rao and the foundation turn witch hunters, become inquisitorial when it comes to dissenters, whistle-blowers and NGOs who claim that science is too important an activity to be left to scientists? One is tempted to ask whether these documents represent the work of powerful private groups that operate in the name of science.

There is a deeper question here. One recognizes that markets are a part of democracy. The question one wants to ask is how market groups should behave in questions of science and democracy. If one were to accept the market in terms of the rules of its game, will the market accept the logic of science and the rules of democracy? One is left with a queasy feeling in this regard. One hopes one does not have to meet the new variant of the old slogan. Alfred Sloan once said what is good for General Motors (GM) is good for America. Are we hearing an echo of that in the cry in, what is good for Genetically Engineered Crops (GEC) is good for India. Let us not forget that no institution is sacrosanct. The once legendary organization we call GM now lies in shambles.

While the essay’s tactics are often cantankerous and shrill, its demand that one recognize the fluid and dynamic nature of the debate on GEC is worth considering. It is right in pointing out that the European Union (EU) cannot be seen as frozen in its attitude to GM crops. There has been an undercurrent of change, a sense that EU governments handled the early debates badly. The list of approvals for GE crops in EU countries is on the rise. But there is no denying that EU countries might be more sceptical of GE crops and much more demanding of their regulatory systems.

What leaves one a bit anxious is the document’s sense of science as a community and its perspective on the growing need to democratize science. Democratizing science is a very crucial part of democratizing democracy. But the document’s illiteracy or anxiety about democracy is obvious. The reviewer’s understanding of democracy is a trifle dated. It is anchored on the old pollution ritual which separated the expert from the layman. The layman was a consumer of science and an object of scienticization. S/he was at the receiving end of science, good or bad. Yet, the politics of knowledge is today a part of the emerging politics of democracy. Science is no longer black-boxed as the domain of experts by a citizenry content to be passive receivers. Reassessing science is a part of citizenship. The debates around Bhopal, the Green Revolution, the Narmada dam, Balliapal are a part of the chain of debates of which the discussions on GE crops is a later addition. Our social movements, our NGOs and our dissenting scientists have added to the imagination of both science and democracy. It is precisely this process to which Jairam Ramesh, Suman Sahai and Kavitha Kuruganti are contributing. Attacking them reflects an inadequacy of faith in democracy.

The document is right in arguing that one needs institutions of governance with established norms, committed to transparency. Yet, to reduce governance in science to the dominance of experts is to create an ignorance of democracy and management that is unforgivable. To treat every critique of science or even doubts about it as anti-technological violates the very norms of science. To see protest as organized naiveté or populism is not convincing.

The very limitations of the encounter and the antagonism of the two groups to each other shows the limits of debate and the need for a more pluralistic frame. There are reasons of text and context for this. First, science has changed facing a level of complexity and uncertainty that has created new paradigms of risk, where the nature of knowledge is seen as different. Knowledge in the domains of biology and society does not quite allow for the predictability and orthodoxy that an earlier vision of science claimed. By not being open to dissent, the document sounds outdated and parochial, a work of a fragmented interest group rather than an open work. It fails to recognize that NGOs have access to science and a professional understanding of knowledge that can match that of the academics.

The knowledge revolution that democracy demands is more far-reaching than the information revolution. It is in this context that we must emphasize that context is crucial in India. Scientific decisions challenge ways of life, livelihoods, especially of small holdings, and values about food and nature which cannot be dismissed as intrusive. These perspectives may be articulated in ordinary languages but they can be as rational and systematic as a paper in a scientific journal. For instance, the documents presented by Kavitha Kuruganti or Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign are well thought and cogently presented. Sahai, in fact, is a Ph.D in science. To brush these individuals aside as shadowy influences or parvenus in science smacks of a residual patriarchy. It will be sad if scientists behave like a boys club, as the army often does. In fact, these citizen scientists deserve to be honoured and many NGOs recognized not only as voices of protest but as knowledge producing centres providing valuable feedback to the policy-maker and the scientist in the laboratory.

There is also a more important question. Groups like the Gene Campaign and advocates like Kavitha Kuruganti, represent the possibilities of difference. The latter is in fact raising an important issue in terms of the possibilities of alternative imagination. Kameswara Rao behaves as if science is a corset and as a result refuses Kuruganti’s invitation to join the diverse dramas of agriculture.

There is a question of language, of translation we must recognize. Democracy, and particularly democracy in science, needs not just translation across descriptions but cultures, and across the variety of knowledge systems. This makes pluralism such a difficult cognitive phenomenon to handle. Scientism, overt or tacit, only becomes another form of fundamentalism. It behooves science not to behave like a Ku Klux Clan of defeated and debate-sore experts. One can understand its angst about Swaminathan’s Hamlet-like movements, but it might be that Swaminathan is more agile in confronting the dynamism of science and its pluralism of perspectives, where a science on the side of the small holder, the NPM man, might have different answers than the science spoken by the biotech industry. The very multifariousness of Swaminathan might be his great contribution to the opening up of these debates. The moratorium is not a mechanical stop-time, it is an attempt to rework the varieties of spaces and places traversed by the debate.

In fact, it might be fruitful to examine the EU approach to debates in biotechnology, health and nanotechnology more systematically. They reveal a healthier, more open process, where science is more self-reflective. It shows a nuanced sense of debates where science need not be either a Pandora’s box or a black box, where a gradient of knowledge is created. In some the expert as expert is recognized and accepted. In other wider issues of complexity and knowledge, societal impacts become more central. Here the expert becomes part of a bigger team, realizing both the strengths and limits of his competence. The world is many-sided, matter of fact and non-manichean. The emphasis is not on scoring points but creating institutions, methods, heuristics which allow for dynamism of science and democracy as it moves from tolerance to pluralism. It shows that compromise, reputation, pluralism, multiplicity are not dirty words but forms of civility in the world of knowledge which eliminates zero-sum games, guaranteeing not shareholder stocks but also stakeholder freedom. To keep lashing out at ‘activist pressure’ is to play the scientific ostrich in an era where science studies have altered the understanding of science.

Let us examine how the document looks at exemplars and paradigms in science. Its classic scientist is a legend who had improved 300 varieties of rice, Gurudev Khush. Khush is an advocate of Golden Rice and GM crops. He sees them as a more than reasonable answer to the problem of hunger. Khush sees no ‘single report in adverse affects on BT proteins on human health.’ Khush’s integrity or his competence is not in question. What is problematic, however, is that the battle over GM might be a battle of right against right. There are powerful stalwarts on both sides. The question is how does one construct a controversy in public space? Is science only a technical answer to a technical question? More significantly, is science value free or is a value free science constructed on the immaculateness of expertise, a myth? The document sees its opponents as weeds. Dissenting scientists are professionals who have lost their way. Activists are intellectual rabble rousers who have got the ear of the ministry. The minister, despite his degrees from IIT and MIT, is a politician playing to populist demands. The entire construction of science is dated. It is like a Victorian prude looking at sexuality after Freud. A return to the old days of clarity where peer review exhausted the world of judgment is not quite possible.

There is a lot of critical understanding that the document adds to the Brinjal as a plant. Technical details are absolutely crucial. But even this text recognizes that the technical can have political consequences. Reading the EU decisions, it claims that an invidious division of labour is being created. India is seen as a cheap exporter of organic food at the cost of acquiring expensive GE technology. We are literally shooting ourselves by not acquiring Golden Rice, with its high beta-carotene content. In fact, the technology is free. It argues that our political biases are depriving us of a great technology. It argues that in a few years the Philippines will have commercialized Bt. Brinjal and Golden Rice. There is a further stroke of irony here as the Philippino government has decided to borrow our tests and regulatory system for the Philippines. We have refused the Golden bullet and opted instead for a mix of practices like reducing fertilizer application, using selective farm machinery appropriate for each task, managing soil conservation, muddling through a bundle of alternate practices when the solution to hunger stares us in the face. The romanticism of regimes and political activists might create huge social costs.

The document seeks to alter the current weight-ages in the debate. In this context, its reading of the problem of diversity reveals both its strength and weaknesses, its theory of science, agriculture, governance, culture, politics and democracy. One must confess that sometimes its sense of detail is more intriguing than the overall logic of argument. It reflects both an act of denial and what it could dub as exorcism of current biases about diversity and innovation.

It begins as one has already mentioned by demolishing the myth of origin of Bt. Brinjal, convinced that not all the individuals like Vavilov, Swaminathan and Ramesh can put the Humpty Dumpty of Brinjal’s origin together again. India is only a major site for the domestication of the plant.

It also suggests that given the advances in molecular biology, where the gene of any organism can be isolated and inserted into any other organism, the architectonic of centres of origin is ‘only’ of academic interest. Two assumptions are built into it. The laboratory obtains primacy over the field. Also the cornucopia of scientific inventions can outdo natural heritage and legacy of nature. Given this, farmers’ practice is not as critical as laboratory science and, therefore, there is no need for rabble-rousing activists crying foul. They are now extraneous to the problem.

The essay also shows that Brinjal does not occur in the wild, nor does it hybridize in nature with any other supposed relative. It argues that the existence of diversity in Brinjal is exaggerated by a confusion between accessions and cultivars. The activists’ fear that India has over four thousand varieties of Brinjal which Bt. Brinjal would destroy is seen as baseless. If one looks at statistics, between 1975 and 2008, sixty-eight varieties of open pollinated brinjals and twenty-eight hybrid, cultivated varieties (CV) were released. There was a matter-of-fact acceptance of them. Farmers discarded Land Races and locally favoured CV when it was required. The farmer is practical, pragmatic. ‘More than 75% of the brinjals on the Indian market are high yielding.’ The paper reads the market as a form of distributive justice. It argues that romanticization of diversity imposes invidious rules on the farmer where he is being museumized into a ‘Keeper of the Field Museum of Brinjal’ by continuing cultivation of the unprofitable varieties. It is time, it argues, for agriculture to be seen as a profit seeking activity so that the farmer can make a living. To force the farmer to maintain field musea at high cost merely caters ‘to the pseudo-intellectual fancies of thebhadralok.’ The battle between diversity as tool box for innovation in the instrumental sense and diversity as an alternative idea of livelihood maintenance, of ideas of life and culture is in the open.

The paper seems to suggest that the choices of the market are wide enough. One does not need the romanticism of alternative practices, which adds little to food security in a hard-headed sense. The review argues that technically, practically, science as a tool box can handle the diversity problem. Unfortunately, it feels the debate has escaped the laboratory and acquired epidemic proportions in the political domain. To the document, viruses might be a fact of nature and manageable, but politics has become an infestation which is slowing down the progressive impetus on science.

The problem, it argues, is exaggerated further by the bias against multinationals and private industry. The evidence that Brinjal is largely a cross-pollinated crop is false and the allegations of toxicity and allegenecity of Bt. Brinjal have no scientific basis. There is no threat to wild brinjal germ plasm ‘as cultivated brinjal varieties do not cross in nature with any of the wild relatives to produce fertile offspring.’

Unfortunately, according to the document, the pollution of the problem comes mainly from activists imposing their paranoia on the issue. Such anti-technology NGOs, the document argues, rely on a mélange of evidence, a mixture, a ragbag of folklore, farmers, literati, activists and professionals whose evidence would hardly qualify in a refereed scientific journal. The review argues that if they wanted pure brinjal, the farmers could easily grow it in small quantities. For this limited use, one does not have to contaminate the market.

One must list these arguments sympathetically as we expand the drama. One has to ask why is there such a fear of politics? The scientist needs to recognize that many of the critiques of science and technology come from the cultural and political domain. To expect that they will be domesticated into a scientific paper is naïve and exclusionary. There is failure of trust, where reliance on the market or science in India are not quite the answer. In fact, in this new battle of institutions, the market, science, the bureaucracy, law and politics are all being questioned and reworked. Paradigms are no longer internalist. The nature of risk has made science realize the epistemological and ontological risks of knowledge. It is also slowly realizing that other forms of community, tribal, peasant, civil society, are also knowledge inventors. Indigenous knowledge reflects IPRs of a level that science is yet to understand.

One has to rework a whole set of questions. How does diversity mediate the politics of culture and the logic of the market? Can regulation go beyond a code of experts and represent the interest of different stakeholders? Or do we need ecological and normative filters beyond regulation? Can we niche to the expert so he does not become iatrogenic? How do democracy and science handle varieties of time from evolutionary time to market time? Is the logic of a subsistence society of small holdings different from the logic of market as visualized by biotechnology firms? How do politics and science mediate not merely the diversity of interests but the varieties of knowledge in a society? Is bureaucratic rationality adequate for risk technologies? Can we invent principles beyond the precautionary principle? What new notions of responsibility and justice do the new innovations in science need?

That is the new canvas of democracy. It demands the drama of a new reciprocity where citizens need to be trustees and critics of science, while sciences in turn need to recognize the power of the social. Its official claims to expertise and innocence are brittle. The beauty is that politics becomes a site for this debate. The choreography of public spaces may be one of the great contributions of the debate around brinjals. For this much, this document, biased, passionate, personal, aggressive in calling a spade a shovel, needs to be understood, respected and then put in its place. This much scholarship and politics can rightly do.

Shiv Visvanathan


1. C. Kameswara Rao, Moratorium on Bt. Brinjal: A review of the order of the Minister of Environment and Forests. Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE), Bangalore, 2010.

2. James G March and Herbert Simon, Organizations. Blackwell, USA, 1958.

3. Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and Ministry of Environment & Forests, National Consultations on Bt. Brinjal, Nehru Foundation for Development, Ahmedabad, 2010.

4. See Bhagirath Chowdhary and Kadambiri Gaur, The Development and Regeneration of Bt. Brinjal in India. International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications, ISAAA Briefs no. 38-2009, Cornell University, 2009.