Three Cheers for a Protest
Posted on 1-March-2010
The egg-plant, still known widely among users of the English language in India by its outmoded name brinjal ( cf. Arabic badinjan and French aubergine ) has been in the news in the country for some time now. Monsanto of the USA and its Indian partner propose introducing a strain of genetically modified (GM) seeds of the plant, known as bt.brinjal. The Indian government has held some public hearings, as required by the law. A Government of India committee of experts dealing with matters relating to biotechnology has given its approval to the proposal. In the public hearings and elsewhere different groups have been opposing the proposal both on scientific and economic grounds. The government has given the impression that it is in a hurry. This impression was strengthened by the churlish and intemperate outbursts of the Indian Minister of Environment in response to the arguments of the opponents at the last public hearing last month. Eventually the government announced a deferment of the introduction of bt. brinjal. But given the business interests of Monsanto, pressure to introduce the seeds early is certain to be revived sooner rather than later.
Development of and trade in GM food--whether seeds or edible fruit or grain--continues to raise both scientific and economic questions. Intervention at the level of genes to modify organisms for different purposes is already established science. The technology of intervention is advanced enough and continues to improve. But nearly all doubts about GM food centre round the question of possible harmful effects on and unforeseen and unintended consequences for the human body. Good science, as opposed to science directed for serving different interest groups, should eventually find answers for the doubters. At the present moment, the doubts are strong and well-founded enough not to be swept aside with a perfunctory wave of the hand and some of the opponents of GM food know too much biology and biotechnology to be taken in by any gobbledygook put forward by civil servants or politicians. Doubts will need to be cleared scientifically, that is, by producing empirical data. Proponents of GM food will also need to deal with the question whether even a statistically small probability that GM food can be injurious to health can be ignored.
Economic questions about GM food, especially GM seeds, are related in one way or another to patents for such seeds. Once a farmer takes to GM seed for a crop, he becomes tied to the manufacturer of the seed, for it is to him that he has to return to buy seeds for every new crop. This puts a small farmer at grave disadvantage as he cannot select seeds for the next crop from his own produce in a given year, while those in a stronger financial position may have no difficulty in getting their seeds from a GM seed producer for every new crop. Then there is a real possibility that suppliers of GM seeds might in time become near monopolies--Dr. Manmohan Singh who once mentioned Joan Robinson as one of his teachers in Cambridge will no doubt be well-versed in her work on the economics of imperfect competition. It is entirely possible that these fears of economic harm are chimerical in which case it should be possible with argument or facts to demonstrate this to the opponents of GM seed. In the present case of bt.brinjal, Monsanto which is obviously looking at the profits it is going to make from its bt.brinjal seeds in India should also see advantage in persuading people in India that its adoption will bring benefits to all.
Producing unassailable scientific evidence that bt. brinjal could cause no health hazards whatsoever for people or persuading people that their fears that introduction of this or other GM seeds will damage them economically are unfounded will take time. There can be no reason for the government to be in such a hurry as not to want to wait that long. There are two pieces of folk wisdom about the value of egg-plants in India which it is worth recounting. There has been a tradition in some places that people who perform a major Hindu pilgrimage, such as, for example, to the temples of Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri or Rameshwaram must give up on return some favourite habit, occupation or even addiction as an act of abnegation. In time it came to be that people gave up some kind of food and the joke was that the food given up the most frequently was egg-plant as being the easiest to give up. Then there were some bengalis I knew who loved a pun on the bengali word for egg-plant which can also, at a stretch, mean something without any quality, that is, something worthless. Unlike rice, wheat, sorghum or millets, egg-plants are not staple food in India even for those who might consider it a delicacy. Delaying the adoption of a seed which will increase the production of this vegetable until all rational doubts are cleared can cause no serious harm to anyone in India other than those making and marketing it. Those who wish to rush things will do well to remember that there has been opposition to the introduction of GM food in the UK and in Europe among other places. There is nothing to suggest that Indian opponents of GM food are specially perverse.
Among others, there are three tendencies in contemporary India which run counter to the principles of good governance. The first is the growing ability of private business groups to bend government to their will and the second is the willingness of government to delegitimise and steamroller any opposition to its policies. These two are common to other capitalist societies, liberal democracies or not. The third is peculiar to India and to many other developing countries and is not new. It is the readiness of India's ruling classes, or ruling elites as the euphemism goes, to swallow whole--skin, flesh, bones and innards-- any smartly worded idea presented by an American, a Britisher or other members of the white races from less influential countries--whether knaves, fools, charlatans or genuine experts capable of giving disinterested advice is immaterial--without stopping to ask if the proponent of that idea has an axe to grind. Some of the swallowers do not probably know that they are being used while others may know and willingly allow themselves to be used. This case of Government of India trying to rush in Monsanto's bt.brinjal exemplifies all the three tendencies. That the protesters have succeeded in delaying the move at least temporarily is something to be cheerful about.