Spicy IP Fellowship 2016-17: Examining Risk Construction and Public Engagement in the GM Debate

In this post Job Mathew examines the debate surrounding Genetically Modified crops in India. This is Job’s first submission for the fellowship.

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The debate surrounding Genetically Modified crops has been one of the most polarized debates of our times. Economic Survey 2015-16 which came out a few days back opined that adoption of hybrid and high yielding variety seeds are a definite pathway to achieving higher productivity in Indian agriculture. A few editorials that appeared in national newspapers over the last one month also echoed the same sentiments; a Times of India editorial titled ‘Let Science Speak: It is not the weight of evidence that’s keeping GM Mustard down’ argued that the attempt to scuttle the introduction of GM Mustard even after the success of BT cotton (yield increased by 2.5 times) clearly show that the debate is grounded in concerns other than science. At the other end of the spectrum are a Parliamentary Standing Committee Report and Supreme Court appointed Technical Examination Committee Report, both of which criticized the appalling gaps in the regulatory framework of GM crops with the latter calling for a moratorium on field trials of BT in food crops till more definitive information was available on the safety of GM crops. Needless to say the GM debate is a nightmare for the independent objective individual. The Parliamentary Standing Committee Report found the haphazard introduction of GM cotton to be one of the factors which lead to the suicide of more than 7000 farmers in Vidarbha district during 2006-2011.This post will focus on offering an explanation for this polarization and its implications on the innovation landscape of India.

Central to this explanation is the thesis that risks in any society can be understood from multiple viewpoints all of which are equally legitimate. One of the reasons for the disconnect between the proponent and opponents of GM crops is the mutually exclusive perception of risks associated with the technology. Proponents of the technology locate risks worthy of denying implementation of GM crops only in scientific risk assessments done on a case to case basis. Opponents on the other hand locate risks in a much more expansive social setting including within their ambit risks arising from substitution of traditional varieties of food crops for GM food crops or worse still cash crops and the impact of such technology on input costs of farmers etc. The polarization of the debate needs to be seen in light of efforts of the proponents to progressively limit the boundaries of the debate within the rationality of science and the countervailing efforts of the opponents to expand the boundaries in every way possible.

Between these models of risk construction, there is a normative argument to be made in support of defining risks to include social risks. This is for the simple reason that a narrow scientific conception of risk divorced from social realities would have the effect of transferring important questions of public interest from the public domain into the hands of a few scientists. There are instrumental and moral reasons for favouring public consultations; such consultations will not only improve the quality of decisions taken but also recognize and respect the fact that each individual has a stake in affairs affecting her environment. It is not difficult to see how the innovation landscape of a country will be closely connected to the model of risk construction and the consequent public engagement or the lack of it. Thus Governments have important political choices to make in relation to issues of risk construction and democratic (or non democratic) control of innovation through public engagement.

The National Biotechnology Development Strategy 2015-2020 (NBDS) brought out by the Department of Biotechnology recently is a good place to start in order to see how the Indian Government has made choices in relation to risk construction and democratic control of innovation in relation to Biotechnology (GM for the purpose of this post). This 44 page document which provides a broad framework for the facilitation of Biotechnology in the country has a particular heading titled- ‘Communicating Biotechnology’ under which appears the following lines;
‘It is important to raise public awareness of the modern tools of biotechnology and how it could improve our well being , offer food and energy securities and helps in preserving our environment. With this mandate, DBT would engage with not-for-profit and other professional organizations to clearly articulate scientifically benefits , risks and impacts of biotech products for easy understanding of society’.

Such a statement is worrying (at least) in the context of the GM debate. The statement (and the policy at large) seems to have taken for granted that Biotechnology is a magic pill that needs to be consumed as soon as possible. To that end it is important to convince people about the benefits of the same through public awareness with the help of NGO’s and professional organizations. Thus in the context of the NBDS , the public are merely instruments to be made aware of the benefits of biotechnology and not autonomous individuals capable of exercising their own faculties in arriving at a conclusion they believe is best suited to their interests. This skewed understanding of public engagement needs to be contrasted with instruments such as the Aarhus Convention which provides for meaningful public engagement on matters concerning the environment. The convention ratified by 47 parties provides for the right to a) receive all environmental information held by public authorities b) right to participate in environmental decision making (which extends to enabling affected people and NGO’s to comment on proposals and such comments are to be taken into account while taking the final decision) c) challenge all public decisions made in violation of the above two principles.

Meanwhile in 2014 the Government lifted an 18 month freeze on field trials and cleared trials for 13 GM food crops despite the moratorium recommended on the same by the Supreme Court appointed TEC. Such a move prompted renowned scientist and head of Gene Campaign Suman Sahai to ask how anything has changed since the recommendation of the moratorium considering the fact that the regulatory apparatus for GMO has not changed over the years. Perhaps in such a situation it would not be wrong to say that there is an urgent need to reconsider the models of risk construction and public engagement that has accompanied GMO regulation till now in order to avoid the spilling of blood on the country’s innovation landscape.

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