ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

'Science' in the Risk Politics of Bt Brinjal

Drawing on the literature on controversies, especially on the health risk assessment of genetically modified organisms in Europe, and long-standing debates in science and technology studies, this article argues that science-based risk assessment has inherent limitations, however rigorous, independent, and peer reviewed the work may be. In this context, the debate on Bt brinjal needs to broaden its frame from science-based assessment of consequences to evaluate society-oriented causes and objectives. We need to ask questions such as: What kind of society do we wish to live in? What kind of science and technology do we want? Who sets the agenda for science and technology development and who controls the science and technological decisions?

‘Science’ in the Risk Politics of Bt Brinjal

Esha Shah

and submitted its report in 2007. It permitted large-scale field trials but also recommended that seven more studies on biosafety and socio-economic aspects be c arried out mainly to reconfirm the data already generated during the confined multi-location trials. Accordingly, the

Drawing on the literature on controversies, especially on the health risk assessment of genetically modified organisms in Europe, and long-standing debates in science and technology studies, this article argues that science-based risk assessment has inherent limitations, however rigorous, independent, and peer reviewed the work may be. In this context, the debate on Bt brinjal needs to broaden its frame from science-based assessment of consequences to evaluate society-oriented causes and objectives. We need to ask questions such as: What kind of society do we wish to live in? What kind of science and technology do we want? Who sets the agenda for science and technology development and who controls the science and technological decisions?

Esha Shah ( is with the Department of Technology and Society Studies, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.

cience is the main actor and even the stage upon which the recent controversy about the genetically modified brinjal, Bt brinjal is unfolding. Civil society organisations and representatives, independent scientists and citizens (henceforth civil society actors – CSAs), have displayed commendable vigilance and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF)’s response too has been commendable in applying precautionary principles. However, when it comes to the public debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) not only has the risk assessment acquired overwhelming importance but the only player imbued with any significant agency in the risk assessment seems to be science. In this essay, drawing from the literature on similar controversies in other parts of the world, especially on the health risk assessment of GMOs in Europe, and drawing from long-standing debates in science and technology studies (STS), I intend to show that the sciencebased risk assessment has inherent limitations, however rigorous, independent, and peer-reviewed it might be.

Below is a brief recount of the course of events. After six years of development of Bt brinjal, in 2006 the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company popularly known as Mahyco submitted biosafety and efficacy data to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and applied for permission to conduct large-scale trials. At the same time the Supreme Court issued a ban on the ongoing field trials of Bt brinjal responding to the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by civil society representatives. The GEAC then constituted an expert committee (now known as expert committee – I (EC-I)) to look into the concerns raised by several civil society actors. The EC-I reviewed the biosafety data already submitted by Mahyco as also the concerns raised by civil society organisations and independent scientists S upreme Court lifted the ban on field trials. In 2009, the results of the large-scale trials were submitted to the GEAC at the same time that a number of national and international scientists, civil society representatives, and citizens also submitted their concerns to the GEAC (actually to the MOEF to which the GEAC reports). It might be noted here that out of the 18 scientists from abroad – several of them well known in their fields – who made submissions to MOEF, only eight supported Bt brinjal. The rest were critical of it. There were 26 submissions from scientists in India, 16 in support and 10 opposing. The GEAC constituted a second expert committee (EC-II) to review the adequacy of biosafety and efficacy data and also to look into the concerns raised by the civil society organisations and independent scientists. In October 2009, the EC-II submitted its report based upon which the GEAC approved the environmental release of Bt brinjal. However, responding to the strong opposition expressed by civil society actors the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, announced a nationwide series of public consultations in January 2010. Based on these consultations held in seven cities, he declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010.

From the start the protocol and mandate of the GEAC seems to have been to produce biosafety and efficacy “data” on the impact of Bt brinjal on human health and environment. The GEAC and, for that matter, the MoEF have framed the problem of GM food in such a way that it can be solved only with science-based risk assessment. As a result, the approval processes are heavily hinged on the risk science despite the fact that civil society actors have time and again questioned this narrow mandate of the GEAC. Imprisoned by this narrow mandate, an overwhelming majority of a wide range of issues raised by the civil society actors also concern the nature of science – the science of genetic modification, and science of risk assessment. The bones (actually, genes) of contention therefore are: (1) the inadequate description of the transgene inserted in Bt brinjal and the consequences of its intended and actual expression,1 (2) the insertion of two antibiotic marker genes which is considered problematic and unnecessary, (3) inadequacy and ineffectiveness of relatively older event EE 1 of Monsanto produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a basis for the genetic modification of Bt brinjal which might amount to transgene dumping,

  • (4) the use of surrogate gene in biosafety studies, (5) a series of problems with pollen flow, soil impact and crossability studies conducted during confined and largescale trials, (6) the inadequacy of the design, in terms of the duration and scale, of the health impact studies – too small a number of animals tested for too short a duration for any biologically and statistically significant results to emerge, (7) a series of problems with the way biosafety data are read and interpreted towards the no-harm conclusions, (8) the disputes about the inserted transgene’s impact on human gastric and intestinal fluids,
  • (9) the disagreements on whether or not the transgenic DNA could be horizontally transferred to other organisms, (10) the lack of compliance of EC-II with the Codex Alimentarius – the international guidelines for food safety assessment for GMOs, which are themselves heavily based on risk-science, and (11) the clash of interests of the members of EC-I and EC-II and the product developers resulting into “biased” science.2
  • The CSAs have also raised a wide range of socio-economic, cultural, and agrarian concerns. However, their most significant demand is to make the science of risk assessment rigorous, independent, and peerreviewed. They have accordingly demanded that a long range research over many years on environmental and human health risk assessment be rigorously conducted by i ndependent scientists. Driven by this d emand and also bound by its own initial mandate, the MOEF also took two sciencebased substantive actions soon after declaring the moratorium. First, along with the National Planning Commission, it asked India’s top seven science academies to provide a report on transgenic crops in the wake of the ongoing controversy. The Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops which was released in September 2010 was widely discredited on charges of plagiarism. Even the MOEF rejected the report on the grounds that it lacked scientific rigour. Second, the MOEF has asked the GEAC to consult scientists to draw up a fresh protocol for the specific tests to be conducted in order to generate public confidence. This is where the debate is precariously hanging presently.

    The controversy which is therefore unfolding over a long period significantly r evolves around one pivot – science-based risk assessment. Science here plays many roles. We have good science – the CSAs’ d emand for independent, peer-reviewed, “normal”, and rigorous science; we also have bad science – the industry-sponsored science approved by EC-I and EC-II is widely discredited by CSAs as erroneous, flawed, biased, misleading, inadequate, and incomplete. We also have ugly science – the i ndustry-sponsored science described as un-science, pseudoscience, scientific fraud, including the recent allegations of plagiarism concerning the Inter-Academy Report.

    Reviewing the literature on STS, I intend to show that all forms of science – good, bad, and ugly – will always be value-laden, performed from a situated location of theory and politics and hence a lways be inherently biased. More importantly, both industry-sponsored and civil society-performed independent sciences are embedded in the same epistemological frameworks shaped by risk discourses and hence they share the same methodological limitations. I therefore want to a rgue that while it is absolutely necessary

    – even essential – to make the science of risk assessment transparent, accountable, systematic and reproducible in a democracy, however, a rigorous, independent, and peer-reviewed science in itself will not be sufficient to provide a singular answer to the public controversies like Bt brinjal. The debate on Bt brinjal needs to come out of the narrow consequentialist frame of science of risk assessment and to broaden its frame of analysis to social and scientific appraisal of GMOs. This should be structured around more fundamental questions such as: What kind of society do we

    july 30, 2011

    wish to live in? What kind of science and technology do we want? Who sets the agenda for science and technology development and who controls the science and technological d ecisions? The debate needs to broaden its frame from science-based assessment of consequences to evaluating society-oriented causes and objectives.

    To prevent any possible misunderstanding, I would like to clarify at the beginning that I strongly support the moratorium declared by the MOEF. I also wholeheartedly applaud and support the civil society actors’ opposition to Bt brinjal and their demands. This is not a critique of e ither the moratorium or the CSA’s demands. This essay aims to question the adequacy of science-based risk assessment as an approach to settle the controversy. It aims to broaden the scope of appraisal process. It is a critique of the method and the approach and not of the actors.

    I first review some key literature on health risk assessment of GMOs in Europe followed by a critique of science-based risk assessment. I conclude this essay by a brief sketch of the methodology of social and scientific appraisal of technology based on a revisited concept of risk.

    Science in Health Risk of GMOs

    “Many opinions but few data” is not an u ncommon complaint about health risk assessment of GMOs. In 2000, Domingo (2000) r eviewed the literature on health risk of GM foods using the Medline database. He searched the data base for “toxicity of transgenic foods” and found 44 citations of which one study corresponded to an experimental study in mice. For the second search on “adverse effects of transgenic foods” he found 67 citations of which only one was a 38-day feeding study that evaluated whether standard broiler diets prepared with transgenic Event-176-derived corn had any adverse effects on broiler chickens. For the third search “genetically modified food” he got 101 citations of which only four corresponded to experimental studies on the adverse health effect of GM food. Two of these citation studies evaluated the safety of the GM soybean consumption by rats, the third citation was about the famously controversial study by Ewen and Pusztai (1999) which evaluated the e ffects of GM potatoes

    vol xlvi no 31


    on rats, and the forth citation was the study of the effects of insecticidal lectin GNA on human blood cells (Domingo 2000).

    The situation is not very different in 2009. Reviewing the literature on health risk of genetically modified food, Dona and Arvanitoyannis (2009) report that the studies concerning GM safety are still very few compared to the toxicity studies that must accompany the application of a novel drug for approval. They have reviewed a fairly exhaustive list of studies conducted mainly in Europe, most of them published in peerreviewed journals or accepted by European regulatory authorities, to conclude that “the duration of exposure is too short in order to fully evaluate any potential disruption in biochemical parameters and to evidence possible signs of pathology within the limited subchronic exposure of animals”. They conclude that “the results of most of the rather few studies conducted with GM food indicate that they may cause hepatic, pancreatic, renal, and reproductive effects and may alter hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters the significance of which remains unknown” (emphasis mine). In their conclusion they recommend that a large number of animals should be used in toxicity studies which should comply with the guidelines for the toxicity testing for drugs. They also recommend additional tests to understand the effect of GM food on mutagenesis and carcinogenesis and to evaluate protein allergenicity in humans. They eventually conclude that many years of careful, independent research with animals and also clinical trials with humans will be needed to understand and forecast possible consequences (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 2009).

    These conclusions do not sound any different from the objections raised on the findings of EC-I and EC-II. The only significant difference is that the science of EC-I and II is declared as biased, not rigorous enough, and not peer-reviewed, whereas the scientific studies discussed by Dona and Arvanitoyannis are “rigorous enough” to have been published in the peerreviewed journals. This raises a fundamental question (which is also the question that Arpad Pusztai, the scientist who b ecame the centre of controversy on GM potatoes a decade ago, asked), “Can science give us tools for recognising possible health risks of GM food?” (Pusztai 2002).

    Case of GM Potatoes

    For a moment I want to step back and revisit the famous case of the GM potatoes before returning to the above-mentioned question. Pusztai’s work and his position on the health impact of GM food are not unknown to those who closely follow the Bt brinjal debate. The murky politics that followed the public disclosure of Pusztai’s preliminary findings on the health impact of GM potatoes in 1998 has been reported and discussed elsewhere (Dubhashi 2004; Rowell 2003); here I wish to comment on the scientific issues underscored by this case.

    Pusztai was regarded as a world expert on plant lectins – defensive proteins that kill insects and other invaders – at the time in 1998 when his long and distinguished research career at Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen abruptly came to an end. At that time he had been commissioned a study to evaluate the safety of GM potatoes modified with the addition of a lectin gene called GNA from snowdrops (Randerson 2008). He was investigating in a rat-feeding trial if potatoes modified with the GNA lectin were “substantially equivalent” to parent potatoes. His conclusion was that the rats on the GM diet grew less well, their vital o rgans like liver, heart, and brain got smaller in size, and they developed immunity problems even when the lectin itself caused no adverse effects at high concentration. Pusztai declared in a television interview that the genetic modification had somehow made the potatoes less nutritious. At the time when he declared his preliminary findings (not yet peer-reviewed and published) on the TV show, he had submitted a paper for publication in the prestigious medical journal Lancet. Following his public appearance he and his wife, who was also at Rowett, were suspended and were subjected to a series of inquiries including that of the House of Commons Select Committee and Royal Society (Dubhashi 2004). The editor of Lancet also came under severe pressure not to publish the pending article. How ever, the journal decided to publish the research letter (as it is called) after a s tringent peer review spread over 18 months.

    Richard Horton (1999), the editor of Lancet, justified the publication as a “welcome dialogue of accountability that needs to be forged between scientists and the public” in order to “raise the standard of public conversation on science”. However, he also opined that the publication would allow “all parties to see data for themselves and draw their own conclusions” (Horton 1999). Even when he did not mean that the “data speak for themselves” and that he intended to facilitate the process of “interpretation” through “seeing” the publication, his assertion that the “peer-reviewed data” is the basis upon which either a dialogue between scientists and public be fashioned or a controversy like on GM potatoes could be settled is rather suspect.

    The research letter by Ewen and Pusztai was examined vigorously by six instead of the usual three referees – a nutritionist, a human pathologist, a veterinary pathologist, an agricultural geneticist, a plant molecular biologist, and a statistician. The authors revised their letter three times to meet reviewers’ criticism. Four referees eventually approved the letter for publication, the fifth referee deemed the study flawed but favoured publication to avoid suspicion of a conspiracy, and the sixth referee objected to the publication (Horton 1999). In their letter (finally published in Lancet in October 1999) the authors focused not on the stunted growth of the GM-fed rats, but on the abnormalities in the intestines of rats fed for 10 days only on genetically modified potatoes. They reported that the mucosal lining of the colon and jejunum – a part of the small intestine – of the rats fed on the GM diet had thickened which did not happen in the rats fed with non-transgenic potatoes and non-transgenic potatoes just spiked with GNA (not genetically modified with GNA). They concluded that the genetic modification might have caused the silencing or activating of other genes – and the inserted gene was not i tself responsible for the changes in the GM-fed rats (Ewen and Pusztai 1999).

    Further, on peer review, in the commentary in the same issue of Lancet three (independent) scientists (to whom Arpad Pusztai himself referred to in his later work) from the National Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products in Wageningen commented that the sample size of six rats in each group was too small and that the consistent pattern of changes was not observed. They also opined that the monotonous diet of potatoes made all the rats protein-starved which was not a good basis for assessing toxicity levels, and that the effects in GM-fed rats could have stemmed from the nutritional difference between potatoes that might not have anything to do with g enetic modification. They thought that the difference was physiological response and not toxicological significance. They concluded that the experiments done by Ewen and Pusztai were incomplete and that such studies warrant further studies. They also questioned the adequacy of existing test methods and strategies for the assessment of the safety of GM food (Kuiper Noteborn and Peijnenburg 1999). There were also “institutional” responses

    – for instance, the president of UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences objected to the publi cation of the paper in Lancet, while the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine called the paper uninterpretable. She described the publication of the paper as “dropping the bar” (of standards), and the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council called the journal “irresponsible” (Enserink 1999; Horton 1999).

    My aim here is to show that it is impossible to take sides based on peer-reviewed science. What this controversy demonstrates is that the “peer-reviewed” “rigorous” “normal” science (the science of GM potatoes was more rigorous than normal because it was performed in the glare of public and media scrutiny and was r efereed by six instead of three peers) is necessarily “incomplete” and “ambiguous” science. In fact, as Horton puts it, the arguments over scientific study are “perfectly normal” and in that sense all forms of normal science are necessarily incomplete and ambiguous sciences. The trouble is when science, which is normally incomplete and ambiguous, is attributed an agency to be solely responsible to settle the public debate on GMOs.3

    In this sense, the question that Arpad Pusztai eventually asked, approvingly quoting his adversaries – the three scholars from Wageningen who disapprovingly commented on his research letter in L ancet – is more relevant, “Can science give us tools for recognising possible health risks of GM food?” (Pusztai 2002). Pusztai’s own answer was positive, but I want to discuss and answer this question in the negative to show that science-based risk assessment has inherent limitations.

    Risk in regulatory processes is commonly understood as potential harm or hazards or potential negative events in the future. Accordingly, the common risk discourse is about calculating probability and severity of effect of the event in question (Adams 1995). In this sense the common discourse of risk brings the future into a calculative relation to the present (Levitas 2000) and thereby colonises the future to determine the present. Such a view of time undermines the space for history and importance of past in determining the present (Beck 1992; Giddens 1995). Risk in this sense is regarded as wholly external to the social processes that gene rate risk. It is merely a measurable and calculable consequence.

    Such calculations actually originated in the late 19th century in the field of










    july 30, 2011 vol xlvi no 31


    maritime shipping and trade as issues fundamental to the processes of fixing insurance. This was later applied to the medical health professionals and their clients, to dangerous sports, and even to gambling (Adams 1995). Risk calculations were meant to neutralise negative events by prescribing monetary compensation which attributed negative events to mere chance or fate – external to any social processes. Risk in this sense is purely a calculative and cognitive concept embedded in probability-thinking and statistics. In such probabilistic framework of risk, for instance, in the 19th century there were debates whether child labour in the mines was harmful, whether it stunted and deformed children’s growth or whether it was good for children and they enjoyed it (Levitas 2000). Levitas argues that experts were prepared to defend the latter theory (Levitas 2000). Beck called such processes as sub-politicisation in which fundamentally political issues were transformed into i ssues of (scientific) expertise (Beck 1997).

    Problems with Risk Assessment

    The science-based risk assessment of GM biotechnology is epistemologically (and philosophically) rooted in these earlier and outdated versions of risk. What is c onsidered as a “scientifically rigorous a pproach” are actually reductive-aggregative statistical methods of probability of risk occurrence, an analysis of things that might happen and the degree of likelihood or probability associated with it. Risk is thus a reductive-aggregative entity which Andy Stirling contends is based on a variously “incomplete” and “problematic” knowledge (Stirling 2008). Stirling thinks that a diversity of indeterminate circumstances are rolled together under the term risk. Instead, he proposes to use the term incertitude. He contends that risk usually used in the policymaking and regulatory processes often means a singular entity – a number or a formula or statistical equi valent of probability that represents the condition of hazard or outcome – it does not include the conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance. The controversy then revolves around these varieties of incomplete, indeterminate and ambiguous knowledges.

    There are other epistemological issues with the science of risk assessment. This science is based on the statistical methods in which risk becomes an empirical (statistical) entity that denotes the probability of a hazard or harm. A number of experts challenge the correspondence between the statistical entity as an objective measure of probability. A celebrated probability theorist said that “probability does not exist” (Finetti 1970). De Finetti rejects the idea of objective probability and proposes that the only meaningful interpretation of the word probability is subjective probability.

    First we admit that every probability has at least a subjective meaning as a degree of belief of somebody (either real or hypothetical) agreeing with a given evaluation…. only rules of probabilities are logically founded, but whole set of probability is an opinion, it’s an assertion, not a fact….. Probability is a degree of belief that an event is true says De Finetti (1970).

    Karl Popper, another such authority in science, also argued that the concept of probability only has meaning insofar as it refers to the limiting values of a relative frequency in a long series of observations. A probability historian Lindsay Prior a rgues that probability belongs to the s eries and not the individual event. In

    o ther words, probability is a property of the collective. The risks induced by genetic modification must also be considered to be a property of populations rather than of a few select entities/individuals (Prior, Glasner and McNally 2000).

    Another problem with the subjective probabilistic judgments is that they may take a number of plausible forms resulting in competing prescriptive recommendations. With this narrow philosophical foundation of risk embedded in probabilistic science, the controversies on risk a ssessment often become a confrontation between two sets of statistical calculations – each subjectively equally plausible. Brian Martin (2005), an applied mathematician and social scientist, placing the antibiotic debate in the context of other such public controversies such as fluoridation of public water and nuclear winter argues that many scientists believe that if we just had sufficient evidence on one side or the o ther, the controversy would be resolved. Martin argues that public debates are always about more than just evidence and evidence is sometimes secondary to political concerns. He shows how the antibiotic debate remains inconclusive with genuine disagreement about the evidence, because the controversy encompasses more than the disputed data or lack of data. This “more than what cannot be summed up in data” – an essential feature of almost all controversies of this nature – is what Stirling includes in the condition of ambiguity. Ambiguity covers a range of contending experts/disciplines, contested mandates and framing of questions, and contending interests, politics and ethics. Often the disputes about risk that are articulated on the site of evidence and data are actually disputes about these surplus elements. Here the framing of questions and the interpretations of outcomes are controversial. On such questions over “contradictory certainties” the rigorous science-based risk assessment alone is u nable to provide any definitive answers. And when the issues of broader values, epistemologies and ontologies are added, the resolution of controversy becomes even more challenging, complex and intractable. Lastly, Stirling adds conditions of ignorance in this conundrum. Quoting Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”, Stirling (2008) characterises the “we don’t know what we don’t know” as prospects of ever-present surprise which would be profoundly impossible to include in the risk assessment however rigorous this assessment might be.

    As we have already seen, scientists themselves have time and again declared the incompleteness of their science. Dona and Arvanitoyannis in their literature r eview conclude that the significance of effects of GM food that have been already studied remains unknown. They also contend that the possibility of predicting toxicity will remain low due to complex metabolic pathways (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 2009). A common suggestion by almost all parties involved in a scientific controversy, for instance by both Ewen and Pusztai and their critics from Wageningen, that a large number of animals need to be tested over a long period of time and that further studies need to be conducted is also symptomatic of the fact that the science-based risk assessment is considered incomplete and ambiguous. Although Pusztai thinks that risk science needs to be further improved, he also reports that regardless of how sophisticated the analysis may be, it cannot reveal the presence of unknown toxic/allergenic components resulting from unintended effects of the insertion of a novel gene into the plant’s genome.

    Here I must emphatically mention that I do not wish to undermine the importance of science-based risk assessment. My aim is to question the exclusive agency ascribed to it to provide conclusive evidences towards “cooling the crucible of public controversy” as Horton puts it. If sciencebased risk assessment is not an appropriate method and approach towards the resolution of such controversy, what is? Below I propose a brief sketch of an a lternative approach to “social and scientific appraisal of technology” based on the revised concept of risk and a review of d ebates in STS and agrarian studies.

    Risk Revisited

    Both Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens argue that the currently dominant discourse on risk adopted by regulatory authorities worldwide is no longer adequate. Beck and Giddens, including a range of other social scientists have offered alternative ways of understanding and positioning risks. Beck defines risk as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards of insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself” (emphasis mine) (Beck 1992). Giddens on the other hand distinguishes between external risk and manufactured uncertainty (Giddens 1995). Risk is external, but by contrast, manufactured uncertainty – “risk actively confronted within frames of action organised in a reflexive way” – deals with the causes of risk. As other scholars argue, “if risks are perceived as external only consequences are addressed and if they are considered manufactured the causes will be called into question” (Levitas 2000).

    For Beck risks are “manufactured” in the production of scientific knowledge. In his seminal work Risk Society, he argues that in late modernity there is a shift from class society to risk society – a shift from the questions of production and distribution of wealth to the production, definition, and distribution of risks. He distinguishes between early modernity as the conflict field of wealth (goods) production and late modernity as the conflict field of hazard (bad) production. He also thinks that this shift from class society to risk society is not complete because it entails a relationship between structural change and discursive change. The central political issue in late modernity is the discursive field of reduction and legitimation of risks rather than the reduction or legitimation of inequality which was a central feature of class society in early modernity. He claims that the qualitative shift from class society to risk society occurs not just because the hazards have increased in number and intensity but because the pre-occupying issues in society are legitimation of risks, rather than the legitimation of inequality. Beck’s distinction between early and late modernity has been criticised by many as a crude distinction implying a linear understanding of historical change which do not correspond to the actual material or discursive conditions. See Scott (2000) for a spirited critique. However, the larger point in terms of the discursive shift in the focus from inequality to insecurity still remains valid.

    In the background of this repositioning of risk, here are a few revisions in the concept of risk. First, risks are not external and out there and which need to be deciphered and controlled. They are manufactured, not only through the application of technologies but also through production and management of scientific knowledge. If risks are manufactured then the risk assessment must also address the causes of risks instead of confining its mandate to assessing risk as a consequence. Second, all interpretations and knowledge of risks, including empirically-driven scientific knowledge, are inherently a matter of perception and hence subjective and political. As Haraway (1988) points out, knowledge is tied to a particular location – objective knowledge is possible only from a subjective political location. All knowledge is thus situated knowledge. It is in the production of knowledge that the complexly conditioned subjectivities are expressed (Longino 1993). To produce objective knowledge is thus to take up a subjective position. And taking up a position and being positioned is inevitably a matter of politics and ethics (Haraway 1988). There are no unambiguous, objective, scientific facts that can apply to all political and ethical positions possible. There is no one truth; there are no facts outside the interpretation of values based on context, position, perspective, interest, and power. Third, in risk assessment, therefore, the politics and sub-politics of risk definition become

    july 30, 2011 vol xlvi no 31


    extremely important. In risk definitions it is no longer “interests” alone that dominate the politics but the claims about the legitimacy of particular forms of knowledge replace the politics based on interests. This revised concept of risk fundamentally problematises the role of s cientific expertise in the assessment of Bt brinjal. The contestation is not about what kind of science can or cannot be reliable. The revised concept of risk highlights the contested nature of who is d efining what risk is and how. This contestation also calls for a re-examination of the role of scientific expertise in not only assessing but manufacturing risks.

    Social and Scientific Appraisal

    In conclusion, the problematic of Bt brinjal raises two, mutually intertwined, challenges. As argued above, revisiting the concept of risk creates what Wiebe Bijker and his colleagues call, a paradox of scientific authority (Bijker, Bal and Hendriks 2009). How can scientific advice be influential in an age when the nature of science and the status of scientists are increasingly questioned is what Bijker et al call the paradox of scientific authority. Scientific authority is no longer a technocratic monarchy as it was a 100 years ago when science could speak with one and unchallenged voice. Nowadays, the interplay between scientific authority and democratic institutions is sensitive and tricky. Bijker et al suggest that in order to be effective, the scientific expertise has not only to learn to work with the democratic institutions and public participation, but first and foremost, it has to be aware of its own limitations (Bijker et al 2009).

    The acknowledgement of the limitation of scientific expertise opens up newer forms of appraisal of technologies such as GMOs that must, in addition to the questions of insecurity and risk, include the broader assessment of agrarian development on the interface of what Vinay Gidwani calls, nature of work and work of n ature (Gidwani 2001). The second such challenge therefore pertains to the wider appraisal of GMOs and its relationship with agrarian development.4 In this appraisal, risks are not consequences, but are manufactured in the organisation of techno-scientific institutions such as the green revolution whose application not only create and perpetuate newer forms of risks but also produce and reproduce newer forms of injustice and inequality. It is a well known fact in agrarian studies that the increase in the newer and potent forms of pests is a result of the intensive use of chemicals in the green revolution technological paradigm. Pests and consequently the newer forms of risks that pestkilling GMOs may entail are thus manufactured by the green revolution paradigm.

    What is rarely acknowledged and discussed, however, is that GMOs reinforce and even produce newer forms of inequality. In my work on Bt cotton cultivation in Gujarat, I have shown how only resource rich farmers profitably cultivate Bt cotton. It has been commonly acknowledged that the cultivation of Bt cotton extracts substantial nutrition from the soil and that continuous cultivation for four to five years is likely to leave the soil unfit for any other cultivation. Farmers compensate the loss of soil nutrition by rotating cotton with wheat and pulses. Approximately four tractor-loads of green manure are ploughed into the field after each crop of cotton, and in addition, a crop of wheat or pulse is cultivated on the same piece to a llow the green manure to weather sufficiently. Only in the third season is cotton cultivated again on the same piece of land. Moreover, while hybrid cotton needs w ater once in 15 to 17 days, Bt cotton needs water once in 10-12 and even five to seven days during an exceptionally hot season. This means that for the continuous cultivation of at least a few acres of cotton to maintain a profitable standing in the market, a c otton-growing farmer needs to be holding more than four to five acres of wellirrigated land. The cotton cultivation by resource rich farmers is thus a significant reason why groundwater has plummeted to 1,200 ft in central and northern Gujarat. There are other forms of injustice that Bt cotton entails. For instance, Bt cotton seeds are multiplied by importing seasonal, migrant, child and young female labour from south Rajasthan (Shah 2005, 2008).

    The social and scientific appraisal of Bt brinjal thus needs to be based on a methodology that can combine, as Bijker et al put it, scientific expertise with democratic participation, and such an appraisal also needs to include the issues of injustice in the assessment of insecurity. A fuller articulation of this methodology would need a separate paper which my colleagues and I hope to write soon.


    1 To explain this point further – when scientists develop transgenic plants, plant cells are transformed with foreign DNA individually. Every cell that successfully incorporates a gene of interest represents a unique “event”. Marker genes, most commonly antibiotic or herbicide resistance genes, are used to identify transformed cells. The event EE 1 from which Bt transgenic line has emerged was developed by Monsanto in late 1980s and early 1990s.

    2 This section is based on the following literature (Andow 2010; Kuruganti 2010; Manjrekar 2010; Rao 2010; Ray 2010; Seralini 2009; Kuruganti 2006). It includes following reports, articles, newspaper items, and submission to the MOEF: Report of the Expert Committee (EC-II), 2009; Independent Scientists write to Prime Minister (2010); Letter from Citizens to Prime Minister (2010); Centre for Environment Education (nd); Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops, 2010; Seralini answers to EC-II Report, 2010.

    3 It is far more important to understand the extent to which the pressures from civil society – in

    o ther words, the requirement for external legitimation, relevance, and accountability – have induced theory change within the practices of risk science. This is what Aant Elzinga in his celebrated paper called epistemic drift (1997). More recently, these have been speculated as a shift from Mode 1 (disciplinary) to Mode 2 (multidisciplinary) science inaugurating what is called postnormal science. Unfortunately, due to the space limitations these discussions cannot be included in this paper.

    4 This point is also made by other scholars (Purkayastha and Rath 2010; Rao and Dev 2009).


    Adams, J (1995): Risk (London: UCL Press).

    Andow, D (2010): “Bt Brinjal: The Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Environmental Risk Assessment”, cb3fcfce2ee7.pdf,

    Beck, U (1992): Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage).

    – (1997): The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking M odernity in the Global Social Order (Cambridge: Polity).

    Bijker, W, R Bal and R Hendriks (2009): The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies (Cambridge: MIT Press).

    Centre for Environment and Education (nd): “National Consultation on Bt Brinjal: A Primer on Concerns, Issues and Prospects”.

    Domingo, J (2000) : “Health Risks of GM Foods: Many Opinions But Few Data”, Science, New Series, 288(5472), 1748-49.

    Dona, A and I Arvanitoyannis (2009): “Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods”, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 49(2), 164-75.

    Dubhashi, D (2004): “GM Foods: Inside Story”, Economic Political Weekly, 39(2), 158-60.

    Elzinga, A (1997): “The Science-Society Contact in Historical Transformation: With Special Reference to Epistemic Drift”, Social Science Information, 36(3), 411-45.

    Enserink, M (1999): “The Lancet Scolded over Pusztai Paper”, Science, 286(5440), 656. Ewen, S and A Pusztai (1999): “Effects of Diets Containing Genetically Modified Potatoes Expressing, Galanthus

    Nivalis Lectin on Rat Small Intestine”, Lancet, 354 (October), 1353-54.

    Finetti, B D (1970): “Logical Foundations and Measurement of Subjective Probability”, Acta Psychologica, 34(2/3), 129-45.

    Giddens, A (1995): Beyond Left and Right (Cambridge: Polity).

    Gidwani, V (2001): “Laboured Landscapes: Agro-Ecological Change in Central Gujarat, India” in A Agrawal and K Sivaramakrishnan (ed.), Social Nature: Resources, Representations and Rule in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 216-47.

    Haraway, D (1988): “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Previledging of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14(3).

    Horton, R (1999): “Genetically Modified Food: ‘Absurd’ Concern or Welcome Dialogue?”, Lancet, 354, (October), 1314-15.

    Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops, September 2010. 09/transgenic-report-sep2010.pdf

    Independent Scientists Write to Prime Minister (2010): Tehleka, 20 October.

    Kuiper, H, P J M Noteborn and A C M Peijnenburg (1999): “Adequcy of Methods for Testing the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods”, Lancet, 354 (October), 1315-16.

    Kuruganti, K (2006): “Biosafety and Beyond”, Economic Political Weekly, 41(40), 4245-47.

    – (2010): “Is This What Indians Should Be Trusting? The Story of the Expert Committee That Recommended Bt Brinjal”, (28 January).

    Letter from Citizens to Prime Minister (2010): Tehleka, 20 October.

    Levitas, R (2000): “Discourses of Risk and Utopia” in B Adam, U Beck and J V Loon (ed.), The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues of Social Theory (London: Sage).

    Longino, H E (1993): “Subjects, Power, and Knowledge: Description and Prescription in Feminist Philosophies of Science” in L Alcoff and E Potter (ed.), Feminist Epistemologies (London: Routledge), pp 101-20.

    Manjrekar, J (2010): “Response to the Final Conclusions of the Expert Committee (EC-II) of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee on Bt Brinjal”. /1-news-items/11880-response-to-conclusions-of-theexpert-committee-on-bt-brinjal-microbiologist-drjohannes-manjrekar?format=pdf,

    Martin, B (2005): “Agricultural Antibiotics: Features of a Controversy” in D L Kleinman, A J Kinchy and J Handelsman (ed.), Controversies in Science and Technology: From Maize to Menopause (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press).

    Prior, L, P Glasner and R McNally (2000): “Genotechnology: Three Challenges to Risk Legitimation” in B Adam, U Bech and J V Loon (ed.), The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory (London: Sage Publications), pp 105-21.

    Prof Seralini’s Answer to EC II report Submitted to GEAC on Bt Brinjal, January 2010 http://www. seralinis-answer-to-ecii-report-submitted-togeac- on-bt-brinjal-part-i

    Purkayastha, P and S Rath (2010): “Bt Brinjal: Need to Refocus the Debate”, Economic Political Weekly, 65(20), 42-48.

    Pusztai, A (2002): “Can Science Give Us the Tools for Recognising Possible Health Risks of GM Food?”, Nutrition and Health, 16, 73-84.

    Randerson, J (2008): “Arpad Pusztai: Biological D ivide”, The Guardian, 15 January.

    Rao, K (2010): Moratorium on Bt Brinjal: A Review of the Order of the Minister of Environment and Forests, Bangalore: Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.

    Rao, N C and S M Dev (2009): “Biotechnology and Pro-poor Agricultural Development”, Economic Political Weekly, 64(52), 56-64.

    Ray, K (2010): “Bt Brinjal Safe, Certify Scientific Academies”, Deccan Herald, 24 September.

    Report of the Expert Committee (EC-II) on Bt Brinjal Event EE-1 (2009): Submitted to Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, Ministry of Environment and Forests.

    Rowell, A (2003): Don’t Worry [It’s Safe to Eat] The True Story of GM Food, BSE and Foot and Mouth (London: Earthscan).

    Scott, A (2000): “Risk Society or Angts Society? Two Views of Risk, Consciousness and Community” in B Adam, U Beck and J V Loon (ed.), The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues of Social Theory

    (London: Sage).

    Seralini, G E (2009): Effects on Health and Environment of Transgenic (or GM) Bt Brinjal, University of Caen: CriiGen.

    Shah, E (2005): “Local and Global Elites Join Hands: Development and Diffusion of Bt Cotton Technology in Gujarat”, Economic Political Weekly, 40(43), 4629-39.

    – (2008): “What Makes Crop Biotechnology Find Its Roots? The Technological Culture of Bt Cotton in Gujarat”, European Journal of Development R esearch, 20(3), 432-47.

    Stirling, A (2008): “Science, Precaution, and the Politics of Technological Risk: Converging Implications in Evolutionary and Social Scientific Perspectives”, Annals of the New York Academy of S ciences, 1128, 95-110.

    EPW Research Foundation (A UNIT OF SAMEEKSHA TRUST)














    july 30, 2011 vol xlvi no 31

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top