The Bt Brinjal debate has brought to light a difficult scenario: the extraordinary interplay between science, uncertainty and public safety. It is now clear that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee’s (GEAC) arguments about safety were not convincing enough to many. The body could not address all the concerns raised about health impacts while some studies remain to be done. Yet, based on what was already available, many scientists were ready to show the green light to these companies, sincerely convinced by what they found.
The problem with handing over our future to science in the context of an ecological system is that we presume we know everything about that system and have the capacity to flawlessly analyse it to a conclusion. But that is impossible. The unknowns — and there are so many of them in nature — can trip every last assumption we make. What can policymakers then do in such a haze of uncertainty?
Who would have realised how Thalidomide, a drug prescribed in the 1950s to prevent morning sickness in the United States, would result in babies with deformed limbs? In Europe, where the drug was also known, it was kept from the market on account of uncertainty and thousands of babies were born healthy. Today, several thousand chemicals all over the world remain untested for their impact on us. We only know how unsafe some of them are after they have already started causing grievous damage. The European Union is now using this piecemeal data to limit damage through an entirely new policy called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemical substances) that, if successful, will disincentivise unsafe chemicals. These, and hundreds of other examples, should compel our policymakers to take grey areas as seriously as scientific precision.
Governments have a broader responsibility when dealing with new products than just stamping approval or denying it. They need to protect the safety of their citizens. The Bt Brinjal may not have science conclusively arguing its case one way or the other, but the risks of its use on present reckoning appear far too heavy.
The intra-Cabinet dissent over Bt Brinjal underscores a wider need for good environmental governance — not to squirm when facing uncertainty, but to exhibit the confidence to acknowledge it, by refusing to take decisions that are embedded with risk unacceptable to civil society.
Bharati Chaturvedi is Director of Chintan, a non-profit organisation working on green issues in Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal