What we need to do to protect emerging technologies from the mess GMOs are stuck in

A woman works in a field of mustard plants. Photo: Reuters

  • Should India remove GM plants from regulatory oversight – or chain them with the same regulations applied to GM organisms?
  • The decision will determine the fate of the country’s gene editing industry and affect nutritional security. So how do you make sense of trade-offs?
  • A new book, Genetically modified democracy: transgenic cultures in contemporary Indiaoffers us insight into the nuances that underlie the governance of emerging technologies.

The governance of emerging technologies is a challenge for decision makers. The uncertainty of potential benefits and risks creates difficult choices.

What if the risks materialize, but the benefits do not? How do you determine the long-term impact of technology in the real world? Is it then safer to ban a technology, or to let other countries experiment with it before taking a decision in the Indian context?

What if the risks had been exaggerated and the benefits real? Would banning the technology have compromised India’s chances of benefiting from its apps?

Take, for example, the application of gene editing: to create plants suited to one’s needs. Should India go the American way and remove GM plants from regulatory scrutiny – or the European Union way and chain them with the same regulations applied to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

The decision will determine the fate of the country’s gene editing industry and influence the country’s nutritional security. So how do you make sense of trade-offs?

Aniket Aga’s new book, Genetically modified democracy: transgenic cultures in contemporary India, offers us insight into the nuances that underlie the governance of emerging technologies. The book dives deep into the regulatory journey of GMOs in India. On the wayAga meticulously documents the various stakeholders, their motivations and their interactions.

Genetically modified democracy
Aniket Aga
Yale University Press, November 2021

GMOs are an excellent case study for examining the inner workings of policy-making in a democracy. Although the development of GMOs falls within the realm of biotechnology, the book shows how their actual adoption is influenced by multiple policy spheres.

Their underlying science can dictate the characteristics of a GMO. Bt cotton, for example, produces toxins that are harmful to bollworms. This can lead to farmers spending less money on insecticides and getting a higher yield than if they had used non-Bt cotton.

The adoption of GMOs leading to higher cotton yield may seem simple within the confines of a laboratory – but in the field, the effectiveness of this toxin against bollworms depends on both the toxin and the capsule worm. Natural selection can, over time, endow bollworms with resistance to the toxin, and laboratory studies must take this long-term consequence into account.

Aga’s book also raises questions about the adoption of GMOs in the real world, such as: what will be the impact of GMOs on India’s biodiversity? And as yields rise, could the price of cotton crash? If so, what impact will this have on farmers and what mechanisms can be put in place to protect them? How to fix the price of GMOs? And would the adoption of GMOs displace traditional seed sources and endanger traditional agricultural jobs?

Aga rightly argues that we cannot assess the impact of GMOs, and by that measure of any emerging technology, of science alone. As we navigate through the different dimensions of the political problem, we encounter the various motivations and power wielded by different stakeholders.

For GMOs, these stakeholders are ministries (biotechnology and environment), environmental activists, farmers’ groups, political parties and private companies. And Aga expertly exposes the power struggles between these groups and provides a historical account of how these relationships evolved.

Its analysis is based on secondary research as well as interviews with key stakeholders and field visits. In doing so, it unravels seed dealers as a central player in the GMO ecosystem: dealers are influential not only as gatekeepers of seed access, but also as providers of information.

Their critical role, in turn, highlights an important aspect of the adoption of emerging technologies: access to accurate information. As new information is continually generated about the benefits and risks of these technologies, whoever controls that information also controls the narrative.

This then highlights the larger problem of information asymmetry in GMO governance: the lack of safety data, the opacity of government decision-making, and the ambiguity of regulatory oversight. With the different stakeholders, we end up with a mix of opinions that can shape policy.

With so much uncertainty, how do you craft a good policy for emerging technologies?

The book analyzes this information asymmetry and its role in the adoption of GMOs by farmers, consumers and policy makers. Aga also uses this asymmetry to challenge the popular narrative that the adoption of Bt cotton by a majority of farmers signals their desire accept GMOs. And in this way, it lays bare the heart of the matter: the question of how we should proceed with evidence-based policy-making if there is little or conflicting evidence.

This is a difficult question to answer.

In a democracy, democratically elected leaders are responsible for making decisions about governance. So perhaps the big question that the book should have discussed more is the role of government – ​​that is, whether government should be actively involved in controlling the fate of GMOs or whether it should remain a regulator.

The Indian government seems to want to touch everything related to life sciences technologies: to be the first funder, the creator of biotechnological products and services, to regulate and sometimes even to be the first consumer of these products.

By doing so much, the government may be getting away with it not doing what it should be: creating and disseminating accurate information to help stakeholders make appropriate decisions, without leaving them at the mercy of conflicting stories.

The government should publish safety data and assess the long-term impact of emerging technologies. Parliamentarians are expected to debate the merits and risks of emerging technology applications – topics rarely discussed in the Indian Parliament. But the final choice, whether to adopt a particular application, should rest with the ultimate stakeholders: farmers and consumers.

The other way to frame this debate is: how to assess emerging technologies? Not all applications of a particular technology are harmful. Yet the narrative surrounding Bt cotton and Bt mustard has stalled the progress of the GMO industry in India. In a democracy, should stakeholder dialogue be driven by outcomes aimed at preventing technological applications or creating a safe space for the development and testing of such applications? This dialogue is of utmost importance as India continues its journey to become a technology leader.

This book is an important case study in the governance of emerging technologies and provides lessons for the Indian government to improve its governance mechanisms. Failure to learn from past mistakes will lead to unnecessary risks for Indian citizens and/or loss of opportunities for incoming technologies. We need to address the three important points raised by the book: data transparency, inclusive policy-making, and information asymmetry.

Otherwise, the technologies that will emerge next, such as gene editing, could get bogged down in the same controversies as GMOs.

Shambhavi Naik is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution. She holds a PhD in cancer biology from the University of Leicester.

About Alma Ackerman

Check Also

What happens in the brain when it’s too hot?

Researchers have found that heat turns off the brain. Zebrafish experiments demonstrate how vulnerable freshwater …