What genetically modified mustard and gender injustices debates in India have in common

Published on 8 December 2022

Poonam Pandey

Post-Growth Innovation lab, University of Vigo, Spain

Poonam Pandey is a Maria Zambrano fellow at the Post-Growth Innovation lab, University of Vigo, Spain. She was co-investigator the IDS project ‘Green Revolutions in Brazil, China and India: epic narratives of the past and today’s South-South technology transfers’.

The Genetically Modified (GM) Mustard saga in India provides a good glimpse into the patriarchal and patronizing organization of science in India. In this blog, I discuss the uncanny resemblances between the push for GM crops in India and the disrespect for consent that normalise gender-based violence.

In the light of mass movements such as Me Too, ‘No’ means ‘No’ is a slogan devised to sensitize against gender based violence and teaching consent. The nuances of the slogan fit so well with the GM saga in India where the general public, or publics (in recognition of diversity), becomes the equivalent for women. This means both the gender injustices and push for GM crops raises important questions about power in a social system and who makes decisions on whose behalf.

The slogan –‘No’ means ‘No’- in both the cases does not mean one has to try harder and be more persuasive. It also does not mean that the public/women didn’t hear the message properly the first time or that there was a lapse in their judgement. And it certainly does not mean that the public/women are  ‘ignorant’, ‘biased’ or ‘irrational’ if they do not always entirely depend on complex scientific and economic calculations to decide on what they want. Like many men in the gender justice debate, scientists in India should also learn to respect the wishes of the ‘public’ which were made very clear during the Bt Brinjal consultations of 2010, where the public rejected GM aubergine. This raises questions of who the public is, whether this is a uniform entity, and what consent by the public means. But let me first clarify what the issue with GM mustard is.

GM mustard (DHM-11) is a transgenic variety of mustard that uses a soil bacterium to engineer genes from two different mustard varieties. In October 2022, GM mustard was cleared for environmental release in India by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of India.  Scientists are claiming that GM mustard hybrid has 28-30% higher yields than old, self-pollinating regional varieties. Although new research argues that rather than being entirely about yield, the GM mustard environmental release and eventually its commercialization would bring hope for many other GM and transgenic crops in India. GM Mustard is hyped to solve the problem of import dependency for edible oils in India and to increase farmers’ income by increasing productivity.

It is clear from discussions in mass media that the debate about GM mustard is directed to multiple publics, specifically Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), farmers, and consumers.

NGOs as the ‘anti-GM lobby’

Proponents of GM crops often labelled NGOs and CSOs as the ‘anti-GM lobby’, motivated by vested interests against science. In the context of GM Mustard, many CSOs working with farmers’ groups have registered their protest and concern regarding the lack of scientific testing, rigging of trial protocols, and data manipulation by crop developers leading to exaggerated productivity claims. There are also concerns about the lack of transparency in following regulatory protocols. In the parallel universe of gender violence debates, the NGOs are equivalent to the radical feminists often labelled as ‘feminazi’ who are often ridiculed and discredited. Although these labels hurt the credibility of both NGOs and feminists; many of them continue to work with social groups against violence and injustices. NGOs have been very central in opening-up the regulatory governance of science in India and making it more democratic.

Farmers and the allure of productivity

Farmers are the primary focus of the attention of GM crops proponents. In the GM Mustard discussion, farmers are portrayed as beneficiaries of higher yields, which are in turn expected to result in more income. It is also presented that because of farmers choosing to grow GM Mustard, the Indian government could save huge amounts of money spent in importing vegetable oils from other countries. Similar to the parallel universe of gender injustices where women carry the burden of safeguarding the honor of the family and the institutions by following certain ‘codes honor and decency’, farmers in India bear the burden of safeguarding the honor of the nation. During the Green Revolution, farmers saved the honor of the country by ensuring food security and here, in the GM Mustard case, they are again being asked to do so by helping decrease import bills for vegetable oil. Hypocritically, when these vulnerable farmers are supported by subsidies from state to carry forward the state’s agenda, they are accused of being ‘freeloaders’.

Consumers and safety

The debates on GM Mustard concerning consumers focus exclusively on food safety. However, a recent response from the Centre to the Supreme Court quotes that Indians are already consuming GM oil, despite there being a ban of GM foods in India and a legal system of mandatory labelling since 2013. This means that the regulatory system for GM crops safety has been severely compromised and has failed the consumers.

In the parallel universe of gender injustices safety is again the most common topic of discussion. In both cases there are mechanisms to ensure safety from an institutional point of view. There are grievance committees, institutional bodies, monitoring and regulatory bodies, the legal systems, and the list goes on. As a woman/ consumer of GM crops you are assured that you will be safe. Yet, the proposals and practices do not match-up. Most of the times, in both the case, one finds that the evaluation, monitoring and regulatory systems are biased, inefficient and severely lacking in capacity to comprehend and appraise the situation.

Democratizing decision-making for responsible science

Considering the discussion above it is time to make three pleas to Indian scientific establishments. First, rather than assuming what the publics want and justifying research on their behalf, it would be more useful to engage in a democratic, reflexive dialogue with different kinds of publics to understand their needs, priorities, concerns, and expectations; and eventually respect their decisions and wishes. Second, rather, than making the processes of scientific appraisal more opaque and more ‘expert-centric’, it is time to be more transparent and democratic. Third, it is time to strengthen and empower tools and institutions of regulation, monitoring and governance that could ensure environment and food safety.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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