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GM: confronting contradictions

Neither the persuasion to nitpick scientific studies nor our persistent hypocrisy is going to end the GM crops debate.

There was a rash of articles published online recently – such as this one – about how the adult human mind, when confronted with information that contradicts its existing beliefs, does not reorganise what it knows but rejects the information’s truthfulness itself. During political conversations, this aspect of how we think and learn is bound to influence both the way opposing parties argue and the effects of propaganda on people. However, this notion’s impact seems to me to be more dire w.r.t. the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Even when confronted with evidence in support of GM crops from the scientific literature, anti-GM activists reflexively take recourse in the deficiencies inherent in the scientific method, even if the deficiencies themselves are well-known.

In the specific example of GM mustard, there is no clear answer: the variant developed by Deepak Pental & co. has lower yield than some non-GM varieties but higher pest-resistance and is easier to breed. As a result, any single discussion of GM mustard’s eligibility to be a food crop (it hasn’t been released into the market yet) should address its pros and cons together instead of singling out its cons.

It would seem anti-GM activists are aware of this pressure because whenever scientists raise the pros of GM mustard, the activists’ first, and often last, line of reasoning is to quote even other studies. They are in turn rebutted by more studies, and the backs and forths go on until the entire debate becomes hinged on disagreements over minutiae. Granted, allowing bad GM crops to be commercialised can have deadly consequences. But this is also true of a score other enterprises in which we are happy to go along with approximations. Why the selective outrage?

It can’t be that farmer suicides touch a nerve because they are driven not just by crop failure but also by crop insurance, grain storage/distribution and pricing indices (such as the differences between rural CPI and MSP). Estimating these three factors is a task ridden with inaccuracies, many ill-supported assumptions and, frequently, corruption. However, we don’t seem to have raged against them with as much intensity as we have against GM mustard. We should have because of what Harish Damodaran eloquently expressed in The Indian Express on June 1:

Why is there so much opposition to a technology developed, after all, by Indian scientists in the public sector? Yes, the original patent for the [Barnase-Barstar-Bar hybridisation] system was filed by Plant Genetics Systems (now part of Bayer CropScience), but the CGMCP scientists improved upon it, for which they obtained patents (three US, two Canadian, one European Union and Australian each). Yet, we see no value in their work. The opponents — from the so-called Left or the Right — haven’t even bothered to visit the CGMCP, most accessibly located in Delhi University’s South Campus, while taking time out for anti-GMO jamborees in Brussels and The Hague. All this opposition is reflective of a unique Us and Them syndrome. For “us”, nothing but the latest would do. But farmers will have no right to grow GM mustard and assess its performance on the field.

The persuasion to constantly reject one study for another and our hypocritical stand on the ownership of GM crops together suggest that the pro/anti-GM debate is going to be settled by neither of these tactics. They are both the effects of a common flaw: ideological stubbornness. Even I – being pro-GM – am inclined to consign some farmers’ opposition to GM mustard to fear-mongering by activists. Sometimes I can find something easily refuted but at others, I struggle to change my mind even if the facts are evident. Anyway, while I can’t think of what it is that we can do to make ourselves less stubborn (each to her own, perhaps?), I do think it’s important we stay aware of our biases’ impact on our public conversations.

PS: If my post seems one-sided, addressing the behaviour of only anti-GM groups, one reason is that anti-GM expression in the mainstream as well as social media overshadows pro-GM expression. I’m also biased, of course.

Featured image credit: WikimediaImages/pixabay.