Cut eggplant is not as pretty as this when subject to insect tunneling
Bt Eggplant had been approved by the scientific establishment in India. Specifically it was approved in by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, GEAC, in late 2009. Acceptance of Bt eggplant (Brinjal in Hindi) was seen as important to the image of biotechnology globally. First, it was a food crop that would be directly consumed. Acceptance would indicate trust in the world’s scientific establishment on the safety of Bt technology. Second, Bt eggplant had been developed by a created by a consortium which included public and private plant science entities. It was not entirely associated with multinational companies. Third, it was developed to meet the needs small scale farmers. Bt eggplant did not fit the image of technology for large scale commercial agriculture.
Sometimes Resistance to Agricultural Biotechnology Refects Additudes to the Private Sector
Seed related policy in India is important for the seed industry not only because of the market for seed in India, but because of the play of ideas which takes place within its borders spills into international discussions. I have written previously about the importance of the Indian political discussion of plant variety intellectual property rights. India is also home to some of the most outspoken of the postmodern critics of the seed industry and biotechnology, such as Dr. Vandana Shiva. On the other side, India is one of the most striking examples of the success of the green revolution, and the impact of improvement of plant varieties which was at its core. That brings us to Dr. Swaminathan and the eggplant.
Moratorium on the Use of Bt Eggplant
In February of 2010, the Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh put a moratorium on the release of Bt Eggplant. I got interested in the story recently because there was a document in the Wikileaks diplomatic releases which reported on the moratorium. 1 One of the reasons which the Minister offered for his decision was advice given him by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. Dr. Swaminathan is one of India’s most well-known and respected scientists. As it happens I had meet Dr. Swaminathan when he visited Iowa State to receive an honorary degree, one of dozens he has received. It was a trivial meeting but one of those things which one remembers. Dr. Swaminathan is a supporter of biotechnology. The foundation which he has founded, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, has projects to use biotechnology for the improvement of plant stress tolerance. How did Dr. Swaminathan come to his position opposing Bt Eggplant? The answer lies in the world of values.
It is important to note here that although Bt eggplant has important parts of its development in the public sector, Monsanto is involved, and opposition to Monsanto colors much of the Bt eggplant discussion. Bt Eggplant was developed by Mahyco and Monsanto owns 26% of Mahyco. The leader of Mahyco is B. R. Barwale. Dr. Barwale is an eminent Indian in his own right. He won the World Food Prize for his role in the green revolution. While Dr. Swaminathan won his World Food Prize for public sector activity, Dr. Barwale won his for his contribution to the development of the commercial seed industry in India. His is one of the few World Food Prizes which has been awarded for private sector success. Dr. Barwale is an early believer in the potential of biotechnology. Mahyco developed major biotech capabilities, but to move things along Mahyco made a partnership with Monsanto. Monsanto’s major interest was in cotton. Ownership in Mahyco was one of the ways that Monsanto planned to use to capture some of the income from the commercialization of their Bt cotton in India, but as part of the arrangement Mahyco got a license to use to use some of Monsanto’s constructs to do transformations of other crops. This partnership accounts for Bt Eggplant having Cry1Ac Bt protein. Public institutions were involved in conversion of existing varieties to Bt versions. This history accounts for the association of Bt eggplant with Monsanto. There is additional information on Bt eggplant at the Wikipedia entry on Br Brinjal, and for the more science and market oriented there is a very detailed account of the Moratorium On Bt Brinjal by Kameswara Rao. 2
To those who believe in the value of free markets, classical liberals, the value of markets lies in their efficient allocation of capital. Supporters can attribute much of the success of modern civilization to the ability of markets to attract capital to productive innovation again and again, even in situations where supporting new innovation required removing capital from older technology.
To socialists, and when I say socialists I mean those who believe in government control of capital, the political power of private wealth prevents actually existing free markets from achieving the economic goal which believers in the free market thing that the exchange of capital can achieve. They believe that the power of wealth lies in the regulations which support it, property rights granted by government and regulations which give the wealthy influence over government. But if government regulation can be used create capitalist free market societies through property rights, then government regulation can create other kinds of societies also, especially ones that conceive of social justices as granting the poor special rights.
Socialists see wealth and capital as something which is or should be held in trust for society. When improvements in raw resources are made, lots of people are involved, including poor laborers. When productivity increases because of investment, they see the increase in productivity as having been made by society as a whole. Socialists saw capital not as the creation of individual owners of capital who might accumulate wealth, but as the product of society in general. The wealth which society creates can be reclaimed from individuals and redistributed by society. Property rights can be modified. There is no basic human right to protection of property.
Before entering into any discussion of socialism in India, or a lot of other places, one needs to differentiate between the rationalist and idealist traditions in socialism. When we in the US think socialism we usually think of the Marxian tradition. That is the rationalist side. Marxian and Leninist ethics before the revolution consists of doing that which will advance the revolution. They reject any sort of static morality. After the revolution they expect ethics to evolve. 3 Most of the socialism of India is not of that sort. It is very idealistic or religious. I take Nehru to be the archetype of Indian socialism. Nehru is not so far from the tradition of Fabian socialism in Britain. The gradualism of the Fabian Socialists fits with the non-violence which sometimes is asserted to characterize Indian socialism. In any case, socialism in India tends to be expressed as a moral rejection of wealth and of the influence of wealth.
Dr. Swaminathan’s arguments about Bt eggplant link back to distrust of science in the hands of private industry. Here is what Minister Ramesh had to say about Dr. Swaminathan’s contribution to the process of making the decision to issue the moratorium on the release of the Bt eggplant:
23. I have had the benefit of extended conversations with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, MP who is, without doubt, India’s most distinguished and senior-most agricultural scientist who was one of the scientific architects of the Green Revolution. Dr. Swaminathan, whose own research foundation is working on GM technology, has said that we need to be concerned with three issues here: (i) chronic toxicity since brinjal is an element of such frequent consumption in India; (ii) independent tests that command credibility and not depend only on data provided by the developers themselves; and (iii) the need to have an independent regulatory system that will be in a position to study all aspects of GM technology in agriculture and arrive at a measured conclusion. Dr. Swaminathan has also agreed with the view since brinjal itself contains natural toxins, we have to be extra-careful on Bt-technology. In view of his great stature both in India and abroad, I would like to place below his most recent communication to me on this subject in full:
I am glad you had wide ranging consultations, and something useful should emerge from such unprecedented churning of minds and experience. Both benefits and risks are now well known. There are unquestionable benefits in the short term, but also potential risks to human health and our brinjal heritage in the long term. What is the way forward?
1. Conserve India’s genetic heritage in brinjal:
My post-graduate thesis at IARI in 1949 was on Brinjal and non-tuber bearing Solanum species. I have studied our rich genetic wealth in this wonderful crop. What will be the long term impact of numerous local strains being replaced with one or two varieties with Cry1Ac gene from Monsanto? I suggest that during 2010, ICAR (the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources) along with Dr Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (he maintains a national data base on indigenous knowledge and farmers’ innovations) should both collect, catalogue and conserve the existing genetic variability in brinjal. Such a collection must be carefully preserved, before we permit the extinction of the gifts of thousands of years of natural evolution and human selection.
2. Assess the chronic effects of consumption of Bt Brinjal:
The second step which needs to be taken is to ask the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and the Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore to undertake a careful study of the chronic effects of Bt brinjal on human health. This is analogous to the studies carried out on the impact of tobacco smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in human beings.
Dr. Swaminathan’s reputation is as a scientist, but he is also close to being a politician. He frequently uses quotes from Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Mr. Nehru, the heroes of the Congress Party. He was appointed principle secretary for Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in 1979. This is a post usually held by political appointees. 5 He was appointed by the Janata Party at a time of political confusion. The party had been held together by dislike of Indira Gandhi and the left leaning Congress Party of her time. The Janata party did not hold together after he was appointed and Indira Gandhi was reelected. Dr. Swaminathan stayed on and seems quite comfortable with his association with the Congress party. In 2007 the Congress Party government nominated him to Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament. This was an appointment rather than an election. A certain number of seats of the upper house are appointed. Another indication of Dr. Swaminathans Congress Party affiliations is the fact that Mr. Ramesh wrote the introduction to Dr. Swaminathan’s new book. 6 Mr. Ramesh is no longer Minister of Environment and Forestry where he made the Bt eggplant decision. Since 2011 he is Minister of Rural Development.
The Congress Party of the time when Dr. Swaminathan was at the Ministry of Agriculture was accused of authoritarianism by its opposition. That puts Dr. Swaminathan in alliance with a party whose authoritarian tendencies were not so different from those of the British Raj of the first half of the century, but a government which was obviously more nationalist and populist. One difference is that conservatives in London were concerned about the welfare of constituents in Manchester, while the Congress party was concerned with the welfare of Indians.
This does not make Dr. Swaminathan a radical socialist. He expresses respect for Indian tradition which at times makes him sound like a conservative. For example in a recent interview he said, “We must blend the tools of traditional wisdom and modern science, this will lead to an era of biohappiness.” 7 In his education he has some links back to holistic environmentalism at the time when it was a conservative cause. Sometimes we forget that conservatives can be against capitalism also. Once conservatism was nearly defined by oppostion to capitalism. In an authorized biography he recounts a story of Christmas in 1951 he spent with F.L. Brayne, a retired member of the Indian Civil Service. Here is a quote from the biography:
all those years ago has had a far-reaching impact on Swaminathan’s work. The concept of sustainable agriculture, one aspect of the sustainable development towards which Swaminathan is an ardent crusader, owes a lot to Brayne’s thinking and advice. This is agriculture based on ecological awareness, in which synergy, harmony, and economy are the basic principles, and of which recycling is a tool. These are essentially the doctrines on which Gandhi developed most of his ideas of rural reconstruction. Today, when the world is reeling under the pressures of overexploitation of all its assets like land and water and the environment, Swaminathan is of the firm opinion that Gandhian agriculture is the only system that will work effectively.
I don’t intend to be overly critical of Dr. Swaminathan for his affiliation with the Congress Party, but the association of science with authority does underline a problem which postmodernist’s are fond of pointing out. When science establishes a truth, the existence of that truth can provide the authority for government to act. We who are associated with science usually think of that as a good state of affairs, but not all agree. Dr. Swaminathan expresses a great deal of respect for small farmers and their participation in development, but there is a real conflict. For example Dr. Swaminathan supports participatory plant breeding and social pluralism, both postmodern anti-authoritarian ideas , at the same time he seems to identify with some of the powers of the big government favored by the Congress Party.
In the rejection of Bt eggplant the Minister’s points (ii) and (iii) indicate distrust of science in the hands of the private sector. Dr. Swaminathan has recommended an independent testing body for biotechnology, because he does not trust private business to coordinate testing.
This is part of a long standing Congress Party tradition. The Party has a long tradition in government intervention in society and the economy. If there is a problem, they have a tendency to propose a solution which involves more government. Dr. Swaminathan’s proposals to have government do the experimental testing fit this pattern.
Misunderstanding of Science and Scientists in Biotech Regulation
There is also a misunderstanding of science at work here. The usual modern understanding of science is that it is a descriptive process which can be objective or close to objective. Science produces a description of the world by comparing theory to observations. Science in this understanding can hope to be neutral. It should not matter who conducts the trials as long as the standards of science are observed. In rejecting the possibility of neutrality of science in the hands of commercial entities, Dr. Swaminathan is really rejecting the neutrality of science in anyone’s hands.
Dr. Swaminathan is a follower of M.K. Gandhi (no relation to Mrs. Indira Gandhi). He was brought up in a society which esteemed Gandhi not only as a national political hero but as a religious leader. Gandhi did not understand science as descriptive. He thought that western science was evil, but that a moral version of science was possible. 8 That moral science required the right moral point of view. As Dr. Swaminathan puts it “His [Gandhi’s] concept was that science was the search for truth,” not only objective truth about the physical world but moral truth about the spiritual world. From this perspective, private business, being at best amoral and usually immoral, it was not to be trusted in carrying out experiments to be used in public policy making. In the case of Dr. Swaminathan, science was alright if it was a “Quest for a Hunger-Free World.” 9 But to admit to a profit motive was to deviate from that quest. In this sort of perspective, the separation of science from ethics is undesirable, and the separation of the results of testing from the ethical outlook of the organizations which conduct it is impossible also. There are no invisible hands to rely on in this perspective and no methodology of science.
I think that Dr. Swaminathan is aware of this difficulty. For example here is a quote:
Scientist should look at the risks and benefits in an objective manner. The moral responsibility of the scientists and the consequences of their work have enormously increased. Bio-ethics should be a compulsory topic at today’s schools. 10
He is well aware of the responsibility of science to be objective, but at the same time he does not want practicing scientists to be without an ethical position and assumes that some of those moral positions are unacceptable.
Dr. Swamminathan’s Environmental Role and Its Influence on a Biotech Food Safety Issue
In recent years Dr. Swaminathan has been very involved with environmental issues. As UNESCO Chair for Ecotechnology, he co-ordinates the UNESCO Asian Ecotechnology Network. In this he role as environmentalist he is quite distinctive as being an advocate of both organic agriculture and plant biotechnology. He does not recommend that all agriculture be organic. His support for organic agriculture is pragmatic rather than moralistic. He prefers green or evergreen agriculture for most farmers. This is agriculture which is practiced using integrated pest management and optimized for reduced environmental impact. Sometimes he presents the optimization as optimizing for future productivity. Here we can agree. Here is a quote: “The ultimate aim is sustainable human happiness.” If I took this quote in isolation I would think that this would make Dr. Swaminathan a utilitarian, willing to judge actions by the happiness or pain they bring. But I may not understand what he means by happiness.
At other times Dr. Swaminathan talks about optimizing agriculture to maximize biodiversity on the assumption that biodiversity will be contribute to future productivity. I think that conservation of biodiversity is a good thing, but I am more inclined to recommend conservation of wilderness and wildlife habitat and recommend high productivity agriculture which allows space for wilderness. At some point additional biodiversity is going to limit agricultural productivity. My more fundamental point is that it is not so certain what we should be optimizing in environmental considerations in agriculture and that the objectives should be set via the democratic process.
His position on the conservation of eggplant germplasm before releasing Bt eggplant flows from his concern with protecting biodiversity. I don’t think that he has any complex argument about the mechanism for the impact on eggplant biodiversity. He simply holds that the new commercial Bt varieties are likely to be very popular and displace traditional varieties. One could conceive of arguments about the diversity impact of Bt resistance in crosses with wild relatives but I did not run across his use of that argument.
In his new book, In Search Of Biohappiness, he has an extensive discussion about the role of the Convention on Biological Diversity. He goes into some detail on the role of village level preservation of biological diversity. 11 The book makes it clear that his position on biodiversity is linked to his position as a Gandhian also. He provides this quote from Gandhi: “we should live in harmony with nature and with each other.” 12 in the book he calls repeatedly to make the conservation of biodiversity into an ethical issue. For example on page 11 he says, “Biodiversity conservation and sustainable management should become a national ethic.” This is consistent with the Gandhian assertion of moral imperatives, but back here in the real world of political give and take, we citizens of the world are going to find that this is not an absolute imperative but one that will have to be balanced with other ethical notions. One could even note in passing that the failure of Gandhi’s life work was linked to this attempt to raise morality at the same time knowing that high moral positions will become attached to factions which too often come to blows as in the Indo-Pakistan war which Gandhi failed to prevent. Nehru understood the problem.
Summary and Conclusions for Understanding of Seed Industry Policy
In a recent post on the influence of 1960’s radicalism on current university culture I introduced a figure which can be used to describe positions related to society.
Socialology provides concepts which are useful in understanding the opposition to agricultural biotechnololgy
This figure can be modified to describe the positions of the Nehru and Gandhi. Nehru and the Nehru tradition in the Congress party believe in rationalism and secularism as ways to keep peace between the factions, and also believe in authority to allow government to actively change society for the better. That includes an active, and sometimes forceful, role for science. M.K Gandhi believed in independent villages guided by their own ideals. So do the postmodernists. Dr. Swaminathan has wavered between the these two poles, but he has never joined the people on the upper left where Dr. Barwali and I tend to locate ourselves.
Indian political figues like Nehru and Gandhi have fundamentally different ideas about the social condition
Dr. Swaminathan is a nice elderly gentleman. He as a conservative side which some find refreshing in the modern world. We all should be grateful to him for his contribution to the modernization of Indian Agriculture, even when he has second thoughts about the “Greed Revolution,” a phase that he has used frequently when discussing the negative impacts of fertilizer and insecticide supplied by commercial enterprises and used by farmers, both of which he finds are overly focused on this year’s profits. 13 We can be sympathetic to him for the heat that he has taken for support of biotechnology. The postmodern left has made all sorts of accusations about his motives for supporting biotechnology: the influence of his American Education, collusion with American organizations to steal germplasm collected back in the 1960’s 14, etc. He does not deserve those attacks. He has an appreciation of village life and the ideals of village life that qualify him to be post-modern or pre-modern himself. Radicals being in the position of minding and binding the positions of their followers cannot abide neutrals. Reasonable people don’t have to be so harsh for a transgression or two.
In the case of the GEAC decision on eggplant, a seed industry person could wish, that Dr. Swaminathan’s trust of science went just a bit further and that his distrust of the private sector did not go quite so far. His conservative side, when he shows it, is moralistic rather than free market.
There is only one thing wrong about being so magnanimous about the Bt eggplant decision. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in Asia in the last thirty years by limiting the capricious regulation of the private sector. First it was under Zhou Enlai in China. Then it was under Rao of the Congress Party in India. More recently it was under the BJP opposition to the Congress Party in India. The “Quest for a Hunger-Free World” has now taken on a pro-private sector character. The current Congress Party administration in India is not fully on board with this swing to support of the private sector. The BJP opposition adopted the pro-private sector position and Congress is forced by politics to oppose that pro-private sector position and swing back toward the positions of the Nehru dynasty.
The Bt eggplant decision was not science-based, even though there are scientists like Dr. Swaminathan who supported the moratorium. In general, one can say that the objections of these scientists to the deregulation of Bt eggplant were based on ethical positions, not on science where their scientific expertise is recognized. In the case of Dr. Swaminathan, he is asserting an ethical objection to food safety science conducted by private industry and asserting that measures for the conservation of eggplant diversity should be linked to the food safety approval of Bt eggplant. These are ethical positions which can be debated, but from my perspective they don’t seem to reflect existing science or food safety law. The fact that the moratorium does not reflect current food safety law makes it capricious regulation of the sort that has in the past kept millions in poverty in Asia before 1980. Placing the moratorium in effect in the name of the morality of protection of the poor does not remove the fact that it is the wellbeing of the poor which is suffering while the technology remains unused.
M.K. Gandhi held that suffering was a virtue, but only when it was deliberately undertaken the cause of right. Giving up improved sales of eggplants to the local market is not what he had in mind in the movement of his time. He approved of putting morality above the law at times, but one of the troubling parts of his legacy is the question of how the village should choose which morality to put above the law. 15 Is the right of future generations to the conservation of eggplant germplasm to be compared to the right of democratic participation in government? At what point does the right of future generations to eggplant germplasm override the right of the current generation to make laws about due process in the evaluation of food safety? To me those are choices which belong in the scope of democratic law making. The best that can be said in favor the decision which Mr. Jairam Ramesh took about the moratorium in his capacity as Minister of Environment and Forestry is that it followed the administrative procedures and reflected real public concern. It does appear that the Minister acted within the legal scope of his authority to issue the moratorium, even though he could have done otherwise if he had made other judgments about food safety. The poor have the right to choose suffering, even when they do so for the wrong reasons…Don’t they?
2 C. Kameswara Rao, MORATORIUM ON BT BRINJAL: A Review of the order of the Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, 2010.
8 ARVIND K PANDEY, GANDHI AND SCIENCE. THE TELEGRAPH, FEB.10,06
9 Gita Gopalkrishnan, M.S. SWAMINATHAN: One Man’s Quest for a Hunger-Free World, Education Development Center, Inc. 2002
11 M. S. Swaminathan, IN SEARCH OF BIOHAPPINESS: Biodiversity and Food, Health and Livelihood Security, World Scientific Publishing Company, 2011. Google Books has excerpts.
13 Questions and Answers: M.S. Swaminathan, INDIA NEWS, August 13, 2009.
Seed, India, Swaminathan, M.S. Swaminathan, agricultural biotechnology, biotech, eggplant, brinjal, Bt eggplant, Bt brinjal, regulation, policy, M.K. Gandhi, Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Congress Party, ethics, morality, postmodern, Monsanto, free market, acceptance, rejection.