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Democratic choice
By Vandana Shiva March 6,2010
Biotech technicians neither have the knowledge of gene ecology nor the expertise in multiple disciplines.

After the minister of environment Jairam Ramesh announced a moratorium on Bt brinjal, article after article in the media has denounced the decision, saying such decisions should be left to ‘scientists.’ The issue is however not science vs anti-science. It is reductionist science vs systems science. The moratorium took into account the best of science.

Many scientists have called for caution and for full and independent assessment. Dr Pushpa Bhargava, the leading scientist who established genetic engineering in India, has been the most vocal voice against Bt brinjal. The so called ‘scientists’ speaking most vociferously for Bt brinjal are in fact ‘technicians’ who are using an outmoded reductionist science to develop GM crops for corporations like Monsanto/Mahyco.

Leaving biosafety decisions in their hands is unethical and risky for society. It is unethical because developers and promoters of a technology cannot decide if it is good for society or not. This is an example of conflict of interest. It is risky because they lack the scientific expertise needed for biosafety assessment.

They are like makers of refrigerators who have no idea that the chlorofluorocarbons they use can make a hole in the ozone layer. They are like makers of cars who have no idea that the emissions of their cars pollute the atmosphere and destabilise the climate. Production expertise is not the same as impact expertise.

Genetic engineering is based on reductionist biology, the idea that living systems are machines, and you can change parts of the machine without impacting the organism. Reductionism was chosen as the preferred paradigm for economic and political control of the diversity in nature and society.

Genetic determinism and genetic reductionism go hand in hand. But to say that genes are primary is more ideology than science. Genes are not independent entities, but dependent parts of an entirety that gives them effect. All parts of the cell interact, and the combinations of genes are at least as important as their individual effects in the making of an organism.

More broadly, an organism cannot be treated simply as the product of a number of proteins, each produced by the corresponding gene. Genes have multiple effects, and most traits depend on multiple genes.

Genetic engineering moves genes across species by using ‘vectors’ — usually a mosaic recombination of natural genetic parasites from different sources, including viruses causing cancers and other diseases in animals and plants that are tagged with one or more antibiotic resistant ‘marker’ genes. Evidence accumulating over the past few years confirms the fear that these vectors constitute major sources of genetic pollution with drastic ecological and public health consequences.

Risk assessment
Biotech technicians do not have either the scientific expertise of gene ecology or the expertise in the multiple disciplines that are needed for the risk assessment of GMOs in the context of their impact on the environment and public health.

Real scientists know that mechanistic science of genetic reductionism is inaccurate and flawed. Deeper research has led to the emergent field of epigenetics. Epigenetic mechanisms can edit the read out of a gene so as to create over 30,000 different variations of proteins for the same gene blueprint. Epigenetic describes how gene activity and cellular expression are regulated by information from the environment, not by the internal matter of DNA.

The limitation at a higher systems level is even more serious. Bt brinjal is being offered as a pest control solution. A gene for producing a toxin is being put into the plant, along with antibiotic resistance markers and viral promoters. This is like using an earth-mover to make a hole in the wall of your house for hanging up a painting. Like the earth-mover will destroy the wall, the transgenic transformation will disrupt the metabolism and self regulatory processes of the organism.

Genetic engineering is ‘high tech’ like the earth-mover, but it is also crude tech for the sensitive task of maintaining the ecological fabric of agriculture to control pests. Pests are controlled through biodiversity, through organic practices which build resilience to pests and disease. In Andhra Pradesh, a government project for non-pesticide management has covered 14 lakh acres.

The scientific alternative to the crude tech of putting toxic genes into our food is agro ecology. The International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology Development has recognised from a global survey of peer reviewed studies that agro ecology based systems outperform farming systems using genetic engineering.

Epigenetics and agro ecology are the sciences for the future. Reductionist biology is a primitive science of the past.

Our decisions about food and agriculture need to be based on the best of science, not the worst of science. They definitely should not be based on a crude technology parading as science.

Because we are what we eat, and food enters our bodies, citizens must have a choice about what they eat. The democratisation of science and decision making has become an imperative. All human beings are knowing subjects and in a democracy people’s choices must count.

That is why the public hearings on Bt brinjal were a democratic imperative. Those who say our food choices must be left to biotech technicians are working against both science and democracy.