Suman Sahai | We must build a consensus on technologies which we need

The wrangling over GM mustard, which could become India’s first genetically engineered food crop if the government has its way, reveals the ongoing dispute in society on the suitability of GM crops. The earlier engagement with Bt brinjal and the government’s efforts to release it saw the same pros-and-cons discussions. Ultimately, Bt brinjal was not released as scientists were unable to answer the questions raised by opponents or provide safety data.

Not just agriculture and food production, in any area where technology is involved, whether science and technology, water management or land use, moving ahead is increasingly fraught with dispute. The ideas and development paradigm are under siege, with disparate viewpoints unable to find common ground. Policy formulation faces confrontational interactions rather than dialogue. Part of this stems from the old paternalistic formula for development that came from the top (meaning government), which was accepted till some years ago, is not acceptable any longer. People aren’t willing to be placid consumers of a roadmap set by the powers that be, but are now informed by wider concerns about the environment, social equity and larger self-interest.

Most new conflicts are arising in technologies and developments derived from or based on biology. Many are related to food, livelihood and ecological security. The 21st century is predicted to be that of biology, the time when fast-paced and radical breakthroughs will transform the science. Recent developments have led to transformative technologies like genetic engineering including Crispr, Nanotechnology, Stem Cell interventions, Genomics, Proteomics, Metabolomics.

The technology, with its associated features like knowledge creation, intellectual property rights and access to key resources like genetic resources, has raised a set of major controversies with deeply entrenched views on both sides of the divide.

Part of the problem is increasing privatisation of science and the fruits of scientific research and resultant sequestering of information going into the private rather than public domain. This is at variance with the hitherto strong traditions of publicly-funded science and technology development that was accessible to all. The Green Revolution, perhaps India’s most visible technology, or at least one with the widest impact, was a technology in the public domain, almost diametrically opposed to the current genetic engineering, a purely privately-owned technology.

In addition to increasing privatisation, there are concerns over the safety and ethical dimensions of the emerging transformative technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology and the “omics” range of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, etc. All these will change the way that food production, healthcare and drug delivery will be managed in future and the ways in which the natural and human environment will be impacted.

Building consensus and finding common ground

Most discussions on genetic resources, genetic engineering and other transformative technologies are characterised by a culture of conflict and opposition, discouraging constructive dialogue between opposing viewpoints. There are few efforts to find consensus and commonality; rather there is escalating sharpness in divergence of views and suspicion among the key stakeholders about “hidden agendas”. In India, the lack of transparency on the part of government agencies, unwillingness to share biosafety data and the exclusion of major stakeholders in decision- making is becoming a major impediment to the adoption of technology.

Not in India, but elsewhere in the world, there have been attempts to scale down differences and find common ground as a prelude to reaching some consensus on controversial issues. Conflict resolution structures have been set up in the past on the issues of Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), with varying degrees of success. In all cases though, the issue has moved forward from the original stalemate. IPR still remains a contentious issue but the concept of farmers’ rights has moved forward, with India playing a pioneering role.

The Keystone Dialogues hosted by the Keystone Centre in the United States are carefully constructed deliberations that address the politically controversial and technically complex aspects of an issue. Another example is the Crucible Group supported by the IDRC (International Development Research Centre) of Canada. This group was active in the field of Intellectual Property Rights associated with Plant Genetic Resources. The Crucible Group discussions produced rather divergent points of view on plant genetic resources but managed to develop a consensus on some issues like joint conservation efforts, including local communities and private companies, as well as sharing of gene bank collections with local communities.

A transparent dialogue process must be initiated to exchange data and build a consensus acceptable to public, private, and civil society sectors. Diverse interest groups must be at the table so that a wide range of inputs are available for decision-making. The creation of a consensus-seeking platform should try to resolve differences among the main protagonists/stakeholders as a first step, rather than seek immediate solutions. The consensus process should try to make opposing parties aware of the nuances of the other positions, even as they disagree. If this starts to happen, the first steps in moving away from the all-black or all- white positions can begin, leading to some agreed areas of action.

India is poised for growth but is hamstrung by muddled, often ill-informed goals for technology adoption. It tends to fall prey to vested interests. The country needs to shake off its confusion and develop a clear line on which technologies are suited to its needs. The judicious adoption of technology can act as a motor for the country’s growth. But we have to develop a consensus on the kinds of technologies that are best suited for us and the manner in which we wish to proceed.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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