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.
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.