In Nobel Laureates v. Greenpeace, Don’t Ignore the Sociology of GM

It is with caution that promises and claims of biotechnology must be evaluated, even when signed by a hundred Nobel Laureates. We don’t need rocket science to uncover the politics of technology.

Bt cotton. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Bt cotton. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

When over a hundred Nobel Laureates in unison stand in ardent support of Golden Rice, you sit up and take notice. In that instance, when you read the headline – Nobel Laureates Slam Greenpeace’s Opposition to GMOs, Golden Rice – you are converted by the sheer weight that singular voice of ‘expertise’. You are induced into suspending your own analytical gaze and say, “If so many of the most honoured experts of the world are saying that Golden Rice (a rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A) will remove vitamin A deficiency (VAD), will prevent childhood blindness and premature deaths in millions, it must be true.” You are persuaded into believing that Greenpeace, the organisation against whom the ire of Nobel Laureates’ letter was directed, was really committing, as alleged, a “crime against humanity”. But all such proselytising acts, persuasive as they may be, need to be revisited and re-reasoned.

Technology is seldom about technological capacities only. If it were just about that – the capacity of transgenic seeds to be high yielding, to repel pests, to increase agricultural outputs, to remove VAD – the debate could well have been carried out in the expert domain occupied by molecular scientists, biotechnologists and medical biologists. But though the persona of technical expertise persuades and induces, at times it also seeks meek submission.

Imagine a scenario where there were no patent rights, no technology or license fees (to be paid for 20 years to the patent holder), no privileging of breeders’ rights, no international politics or pressures on governments to align intellectual property rules with that of the WTO, UPOV, no Trans-Pacific Partnership’s (TPP) TRIPS Plus agreements. Imagine a field of low monetary returns where technology played the global humanist on a mission to remove the scourge of hunger and disease from the face of the earth. If it’s hard to imagine, it is because ‘technological humanism’ as such does not seem to exist. And why should it? Companies are not in the business of humanitarian service. Their investments need to be incentivised, their profit-returns need to be secured. Only then can we expect technology to serve the so-called ‘interests of humankind’.

So let us then understand that technology is also a social construct. It is in a socioeconomic field – determined by corporate/national/class interests –  that technology operates. It is a field where scientists innovate, where experts generate consensus, where publics demand, where capital is mobilised, where research is funded, and where legal rules secure economic returns for technological innovations. These together form the field of discourse where each becomes the sine qua non, a defining condition, of the other.

Technology therefore has a sociology. Supposedly ‘noble’ claims of technology have to be assessed not merely for their capacity to augment production, increase yields (as claimed in the instance of Bt Cotton, oilseeds and rice) but also for the social causes that underlie and social effects that are generated.

Most debates have tended to assess the effect of GM crops on human bodies. Supporters claim the positive benefits of GM technology to improve the quality and quantity of yields. Detractors claim that there are various harms that can, potentially or actually, come to bear upon human bodies.

It is important to flag that both GM supporters and GM opposers base their claims on a common concern, i.e the human body. Both sets of arguments worry about the end-consumer whose health and vulnerability to various risks (hunger, nutrition, vitamin deficiency, disease etc) is at stake. They both invoke an idea of ‘somatic individuality‘, where the individual body/bodies is/are at risk. What is undermined, ironically, is the very capacity of GM technology to be authoritative and to yield unambiguous answers to biological puzzles. This should, at the very least, make us confused, circumspect and guarded against the bigger claims.

At the same time we should also place these claims in a larger social field.  It is important for us to understand that we – the populace demonstrated to be at risk one way or the other – are not the only consumers of GMOs. There are farmers and peasants, outside of these networks of science and technology, perhaps even literacy, who are consumers of seeds as both grain and as a factor of production. So what happens to cultivating farmers in the process of integrating with globalised networks of technology and commerce is a question that needs to be asked.

Vidarbha district in Maharashtra, India, is nearly a 100% Bt cotton (of the total cotton area) producing region. Local, land varieties of cotton seeds have almost disappeared from the scene. Vidarbha shows both increases in acreage under Bt cotton farming and yield. Yet it is also a region that has earned the epithet of being the suicide capital of India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, at least 284,694 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995. This occurred at an annual average rate of 14,462 in the five years from 1995 to 2000, and 17,699 in the 12 years between 2000 and 2012. That is, since 2001, around 49 farmers have taken their own lives each day, on average – more than one every half hour.

The reasons for farmers suicides are complex and overlaid with a number of structural and institutional factors. But what cannot be put aside, at least with conscience, is that farmers are put to greater risk in their interface with technology that they do not understand, control or produce. Take the case of Monsanto’s Bt Cotton, a technology that was sold to farmers with a promise of eradicating susceptibility of the cotton crop to its scourge, bollworms. Over time both Bollguard I (in 2009) and Bollgurad II (in 2015) have become susceptible to pink bollworms. The Central Institute of Cotton Research reports Gujarat may have lost 7-8% of its cotton to the pink bollworm in 2015. The National Seed Association of India has asked Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, Ltd. to pay compensation to farmers who suffered losses due to the Pink Bollworm that has developed resistance to the company’s much-touted Bt cotton variety this year.

Another important fact to bear in mind is that although in India a farmer has a right to save seeds, hybrid seeds incorporating GM technology are ‘programmed’ in such a way that seeds produced from hybrid plants lose their ‘hybrid vigour’ so new seeds must be purchased every planting season. In other words, GM seed production prevents farmers from saving and replanting hybrid seeds.

Do note that unlike products, where the technology to reproduce is outside of the product we consume, for a farmer the technology of production is embedded in the seed itself. So it matters whether the farmer is a consumer or a producer. In one case, he reaps the economies and control of production as producer, and in another he relinquishes it to the seed company and their researchers.

As a producer, who can save, sell, exchange, make his own seeds according to the generational knowledge that he has amassed and practices that he has inherited, the farmer has a fair degree of control over both costs and inputs of production. As a consumer, both the process (aspects of agricultural production) and the product are appropriated and substituted, reducing seeds as industrial inputs for manufactured products.

While the physical aspects of biotechnologies raise issues of appropriation and substitution, the proprietary aspects of biotechnology are related aspects of this process. A network of legal rights and obligations accompanies technologies of production. Such legal and technological means together often subsume the traditional forms of wealth generation and ownership strategies in spaces of every such encounter. Technological interventions, together with legal paraphernalia of multiple, imbricated property rights reconstitute the realm of ownership, wherein the absence of science/technology-led innovation, traditional forms of ownership are rendered ineffective as protective or remunerative mechanisms.

So when we talk of technologies of production and their capacitates to enhance production and avert risks, we also need to talk property rights – those that are protected and those that are diminished. In the absence of it, all assessment of technology as a means of averting risks are at best partial, at worst, obfuscatory.

It is therefore with caution and skepticism that promises and claims of biotechnology must be evaluated, even when signed by a hundred Nobel Laureates. We often don’t need rocket science to uncover the politics of technology.

Rajshree Chandra is an associate professor of political science at the University of Delhi and the ICSSR Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

  • Priyanka Pulla

    The risk is high for any proprietary technology, including conventional hybrid seeds. This can’t be a GM issue alone, can it? The sociology of GM is the sociology of all corporate agricultural technologies. To draw an equivalence with GM alone is a bit of red herring

    • Rajshree Chandra

      If by risk you mean risk of crop failure for farmers, it is perhaps not the same for GM and conventional hybrids for two reasons: one the price paid for the two varieties of seeds is different – GM seeds are priced much higher (because of monopoly protection) and therefore that increases all risks associated with higher input costs. Two, conventional hybrids are cross pollinated versions between two members of the same species – two different but related plants for example! They bring together all genes of two different individual types. GM is a modification across species and insertion of single gene into another species. In the latter case chances of the hybrid not suited to local agronomic conditions increases because of cross mutation between specie types – the mutated type has never earlier performed in varied soil conditions across regions and soil and climate types….For these two reasons GM does become a special case of a general argument that asserts sociology of all scientific knowledge. Where’s the red herring?

      • Priyanka Pulla

        “GM is a modification across species and insertion of single gene into another species. In the latter case chances of the hybrid not suited to local agronomic conditions increases because of cross mutation between specie types ”

        Sorry, but I have no idea how you have arrived at this conclusion. Could you explain?

        Are you saying conventional hybrids/high yielding varieties are never unsuited to ‘local agronomic conditions’? (It happens *all* the time. Farmers learn and move on). Bio-technologists pick traits from other species *because* they are suited to a crop species.

        This argument betrays a lack of understanding of what genetic modification actually is, and that is unfortunate when you are taking a stand on the issue.

        To reiterate, conventional breeding methods produce varieties with very specific traits (drought tolerance, pest tolerance, male sterility etc., high yield) that, by definition, will have the same limitations in various agro-climatic conditions that GM crops will. The source of the particular gene/protein doesn’t make a difference, because the protein isn’t going to be different because of where it is coming from!

  • Rajshree Chandra

    1) Golden Rice was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus, then of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Their desire to donate Golden Rice as a gift to resource-poor farmers in developing countries led them to establish a public-private partnership with Syngenta to help further develop Golden Rice. Scientists at Syngenta carried out additional laboratory, greenhouse, and field research to help raise the beta carotene levels in Golden Rice. Syngenta also arranged royalty-free access to the patents and intellectual property, held by several biotechnology companies, for a number of key technologies used in Golden Rice. IRRI DOES NOT HOLD THE PATENT – it merely has royalty free access to the technology which allows IRRI to develop Golden Rice on a non-for-profit basis.

    2) There was no reference to terminator gene in the article. GURT technology, as you point out, are at the green house testing stage and have been blocked from commercial use because of the controversies that surround it. Some hybrid seeds may lose their recombinant trait – or “hybrid vigor” as I choose to call in preference of a jargon-free language. In some cases – as in Roundup Ready seeds of Monsanto (Soy, Canola), the recombinant traits do reproduce in the next generation seeds. Monsanto has fought several cases with individual farmers precisely because farmers were able to save seeds bypassing Monsanto’s Technology Agreement. unaccompanied by legal proprietorial rights, Monsanto’s technology wouldn’t be where it is. In cases where the recombinant trait does not pass on to next-generation seeds the farmer is anyway compelled to buy from the market – what seeds are therefore available to him, in either case, slips out of his control and conventional practice. This is the sociology part!

  • Rajshree Chandra

    Prof. Shantharam, turf wars are difficult to fight particularly with someone who is a biotechnologist of eminence, who has served Syngenta, USDA, International Food Policy Research, Wash DC and many other high profile corporate bodies They are also difficult when incorrect attributions or assumptions are made based on my “social science” background. Let me list your assumptions: You assume I do not know that hybrids have a pre-Monsanto history. You also assume that as a political scientist I am unaware of the New Agrarian Strategy (NAS – green revolution) of 60s which commercialized high yield variety seeds. You also assume that high yield hybrids perform evenly across agronomic conditions, across time, across crop varieties. You assume away the dangers of monocultures. You assume (or at least don’t make the point) that there is no difference between age old practice of cultivating cross pollinated hybrids and genetic modification. You assume that GM seeds and non-GE hybrids have similar proprietorial walls guarding them; you further assume that farmers using their generationally improved varieties (farmers or extant) are not profit making when tested as an average over years. So many assumptions are not good either for social science or for rocket science!

  • Vijay A

    Sayan, since GM technology has ‘far reaching’ effects on humanity, shouldnt it be ‘proven beyond doubt’ that it is safe? Besides, most GM food I have eaten looks beautiful, unnaturally big and even in size but totally tasteless – it is against nature if you will. It doesnt matter if 100 Nobel laureates ‘support’ it – just like 100s of politicians can be sold, 100s of scientists can be sold too – the fact that there are 100s of studies showing GM is harmful, non-sustainable, a vicious circle where you keep endlessly modifying genes, make strong pesticide ‘tolerant’ plants as bugs become more resistant does not sound ‘right’ by any stretch

  • Rajshree Chandra

    Just read your response, Priyanka. Unfortunately you might have the conceit but not the prerogative of putting something “permanently to rest” so here’s my response: In a nut-shell, I am arguing that a built-in propensity of technology – that is not governed or developed or produced by farmers – has exclusionary implications. It is a fairly basic and foundational thesis of Science Technology Studies, as also of the Strong Programme of Sociology. Technology is not benign – technology does not go wrong only because of “exploitative corporate bodies” – gosh where did you get that one? As a journalist of science and tech you should be able to read the sociological and political embeddedness of technology….Btw, One of the oldest tricks in the world is to infatalize what the other person is saying and then respond to that. That, I think, is dishonest, as also vain and conceited.