Ganesha, Gandhi & GM foods

2nd October 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD Or, how to remove obstacles in innovating with food and agriculture India has just celebrated the grand Ganesha festival. We may be unique in the world with a god for obstacles:

2nd October 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

Or, how to remove obstacles in innovating with food and agriculture

India has just celebrated the grand Ganesha festival. We may be unique in the world with a god for obstacles: Vighnakartaplaces obstacles and Vighnaharta removes obstacles. Ganesha must be closely linked to innovation. In this column, I will discuss obstacles in innovating with food and agriculture. In the November column, I will touch on obstacles in other domains.

Innovation faces obstacles, sometimes at the individual level and sometimes civilisational.

The individual level is about personal apprehensions, not necessarily logical or consistent. Some people feel uncomfortable about the use of fertilisers and pesticides though they may use pest control at home. Some consumers don’t like the idea of genetically modified (GM) foods, which, they believe, may have the “bad effects of foreign genes”.

When people gravitate to a common view, a civilisational challenge may arise, more far-reaching than individual challenge. The Organic Farming Digest 1947 argued that “human diseases have increased because of fertilisers”. In the 1970s, Australian ecologist Peter Bennett argued that “artificial fertilisers are poisoning our gardens and farms.” In 1953, German philosopher Martin Heidegger opposed the “monstrousness” of technology through his thought paper “The question concerning technology.”

Some groups are fiercely opposed to key agricultural technologies developed over the last century: crop protection and nutrition chemicals, and GM seeds. The merits of the pro- and anti-movements depend so much on the subject and how you view the issues.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that what makes humans distinct and successful in evolution is the ability to unify small groups behind certain “fictions” (or groupings) – for example, a nation. These fictions survive because of the human ability to retain people around an idea. He points out that if 10,000 chimpanzees were assembled in Wembley Stadium, chaos would prevail, but if 10,000 humans were so assembled, with time, they would organise themselves, co-operate and produce a fiction.

Harari also believes that the first agricultural revolution was “a wrong turn”. The average peasant in Egypt at the time of Christ had a far worse life than the hunter-gatherers who lived in the same place 20,000 years earlier. His evidence is that the skeletons show that the peasant had a poorer diet and had to do back-breaking work compared to the hunter-gatherer.

But can you imagine all of us living as our ancestors lived, let alone as hunter-gatherers? It seems that all forms of progress do carry their penalties. Every innovation leads to unintended consequences, which lead to further innovation. Nature has its own law of compensation. Perhaps this is why dilemmas posed by progress have always been central to public debate.

Activists see industry as blood-sucking and selfish folk with heavy money power and little concern for future generations. Business and industry see activists as unreasonable blockers in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Some activist organisations are regarded unfavourably for their hidden agendas and funding methods (since 2012, 20 countries – Azerbaijan, Mexico, Venezuela, to name a few – have passed laws that affect NGOs receiving foreign funds). Both views have some validity, but only partially so.

Experts and the cognoscenti are also divided with their own fictions and interest groups also spread disinformation. One writer in a Tamil magazine recently concluded his diatribe against GM seeds by saying, “Let nature be nature. Or else snakes will grow in the brinjals from your garden, and dinosaurs will be born from your cows. So be careful!”

Some activists change their view. For over a decade, British environmentalist Mark Lynas stood solidly against the use of biotechnology in agriculture. In his January 2013 lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas detailed his conversion from an organiser of the anti-GM food movement in Europe to a supporter of the technology. He admitted “… in 2008, I was still penning screeds in The Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science…” He apologised for engaging in vandalism of field trials of genetically engineered crops, stating that “anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change”. Lynas criticised organisations with which he was previously associated, including Greenpeace and organic trade groups like the UK Soil Association, for ignoring scientific facts about GM crop safety and benefits because it conflicted with their ideologies.

As expected, his admirers applauded his openness, his opponents slammed him!

The key challenge is: how do you decide on any matter when there is no accepted arbiter? Activists feel that citizens cannot rely on government, which is inefficient, compromised or both. If the government appoints a technical committee, the opponents cite alternative technical experts. In this way, India did not permit Bt brinjal, but Bangladesh did: now watch the brinjal border security!

So, how can an intelligent and aware citizen develop a view that need not be bipolar? Here are four ways.

One way is to leave it to a team of scientists and everyone must accept their view. Another way is to leave it to the key practitioner, who has an earthy common sense about these things. If it is food, let the consumer decide. If it is agriculture, let the farmer decide. After all, with Bt cotton, Indian farmers adopted it from neighbouring countries and government permissions followed. But this may not be a good option in some cases.

A third way is to fall back on the Rig Veda aphorism: bahujana sukhaya bahujana hitaya cha (for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many). If lots of people can benefit, is there a case to try the innovation? But who is to decide?

A final way can be to refer to what Mahatma Gandhi said, albeit in a different context, “Before you do anything, stop and recall the face of the poorest, most helpless destitute person you have seen and ask yourself whether what you are about to do will help him.”

These ways may provide a way forward, a way that Vighnaraja may approve.