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Sowing the right seeds

The debate on Bt brinjal promises greater transparency in the GM food industry and Jairam Ramesh has taken the first step towards it by making the debate itself transparent, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2010 23:31 IST

The government has lost the battle to market Bt brinjal but Jairam Ramesh has won the war over genetically modified products. The political process he piloted has established important principles — that new technologies should not be introduced without a transparent consensus built on impartial appraisal, or let loose without regulatory oversight.

This war is not about whether GM crops are safe or not, which is for the scientific and medical communities to ponder. It is about the larger question of how to safely and democratically manage innovation in a society evolving at breakneck speed. Part of the answer lies in controls and oversight, and a precedent was set when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee was proposed to be turned into the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. The new name suggests continuing oversight and perhaps it can become the regulator that M.S. Swaminathan had recommended half a decade ago.

Regulation influences the acceptability and success of innovations. Harshad Mehta would have found it impossible to swing his scam under today’s market regulations. If Manmohan Singh had instituted controls along with liberalisation instead of closing the door after the horse had bolted, lakhs of families would have been spared heartbreak and consistently high investor confidence would have spurred growth.

In the area of GM crops, the introduction of Bt cotton was poorly policed and illegal strains found their way into farms. Imagine the crisis of confidence if it had been brinjals, because food is much more intimate than clothing. Anyway, the Bt
brinjal debate was tainted because it relied on the safety data of its creators, and clearance without independent studies was unthinkable.

And yet the discourse remains incomplete. The leading question about GM crops has been: are they safe? Apart from organic nuts and fruitcakes, few ask an equally important question: are they necessary? Are genetic risks apprehended from Bt brinjal lower than the risk of pesticide used on regular brinjal? A positive answer would justify its introduction, but you’d have a hard time finding an impartial, credible and transparent analysis.

Almost all studies on innovations like GM products originate from institutions which either have a substantial interest in or against it, or have financial links with an interested party — a corporate, non-profit or government. When the stakes are high, opinion that does not keep an arm’s-length distance from the issue becomes mighty suspect. Protecting your stake is just business as usual, but it can be difficult to differentiate from evil.

Here’s an admittedly extreme example from the 18th century, when England introduced a countervailing duty against the import of Indian sugar. Why? Simple, because Jamaican sugar produced using slave labour was more expensive than sugar produced by free Indian peasants. Indian sugar had to be held off because too many worthies in the City of London had invested in the Caribbean. Their stake had to be protected, even if it meant subsidising slavery.

GM promoters are scarcely evil, but they too have business interests to protect. And the opposition to them is not always as non-partisan or even as rational as could be wished. So, independent, transparent appraisals must precede marketing of GM crops, and Jairam Ramesh has taken the first step towards it by making the debate itself transparent.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal