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The Battle about a Vegetable
Vikram Doctor, Economic Times (India), February 15, 2010
When the news broke that the government was imposing an indefinite moratorium on approval of Bt brinjal , my sister was most disappointed. Not because she’s a great believer in biotechnology, but because she felt the ban didn’t go far enough. “Brinjals are such horrible vegetables, they should have used this chance to ban them completely,” she told me feelingly . In the small, but super passionate group of brinjal haters, my sister is a charter member. 

For a vegetable with such an innocuous taste, brinjals have always evoked oddly extreme reactions. It’s true that older varieties were offputtingly bitter (though hardly on par with something like karela), but once it was learned that salting before cooking reduced this, it should no longer have been an issue. 

In any case modern varieties have had most of the bitterness bred out, leaving only a mild astringency in the raw vegetable, which is apparently how the mathematician Ramanujan liked to eat them, in a tamarind marinade prepared by his mother. Much more commonly it’s cooked to a subtle, deep savouriness, of the kind which famously made a Turkish imam faint from its deliciousness (or more likely overeating), after which the dish has was called imam bayildi, or the ‘fainting imam’ . 

It’s more likely the texture that the brinjal haters dislike, and I agree that the bharta style of roasting and mashing it can leave it looking like an unappetizing mush of seeds and pulpy vegetable strands (Middle-Eastern mashing techniques usually add lots of olive oil, which makes it more creamy than pulpy). I much prefer leaving it in whole slices, skin just holding the cooked brinjal together, allowing it to melt in creamy perfection in the mouth. Brinjal cooked like this provides the texture base to the spices it is cooked with, whose flavours it absorbs so readily through the oil they are cooked in. 

Perhaps it is subliminal knowledge of this absorbent trait that helped convince people that bt brinjal is dangerous. The repeated use of ‘poison’ for the organism those gene is being spliced into the vegetable to make it pest resistant, may be triggering the thought of brinjals absorbing and concentrating it – though this is probably far more applicable to the pesticides with which most brinjals are already grown, and which is precisely what gene technology aims to spare us from. Such pesticides are bad for consumers , and terrible for the farmers who must administer them, and of all the arguments for biotechnology, this seemed to me the one least well countered by opponents. 

I think a lot of people like me who are interested in food issues have tried understanding the scientific arguments , and ended up quite befuddled. The arguments on both sides can sound convincing, but also confusing given how much they seem to depend on issues of testing procedures and review protocols. This is annoying for those of us who expect clear answers from white-coated scientists , but in fact it’s a useful reminder that this is how much of science does work. 

The anti-bt lobby has used this uncertainty very effectively to argue that we should not take any risks, but the argument actually cuts both ways: science has always involved uncertainty and risks, and while this sometimes gives us qualms (chemical weapons, cloning), we also accept its benefits (nearly every part of the lives we now live). Strict scientific Luddism, which is the implication of the most vehement anti-bt arguments, is just not something which will find many takers . 

Given the confusion, it’s natural enough to fall back on secondary factors like the credentials of those involved , and here at first things seemed simple. On one side were multinational agrotech companies of very dubious history, like Monsanto , and allied Indian scientists, and on the other hand ‘ordinary’ farmers and activists, who seem to have got involved just from an interest in food issues that many of us share. 

I have real respect for people like Vandana Shiva whose organization Navdanya has done exemplary work in preserving traditional crops, promoting organic and sustainable farming (Navdanya is one of the few here which has recognized the pioneering work done by Sir Albert Howard in India in establishing the principles of organic farming) and even creating retail markets for their produce. But the more I followed the debates , the less sure I got about such neat distinctions. 

Monsanto’s history is not clean, and its involvement in this issue is a real complicating factor. But circumstances change, and it is not a given that with the regulatory mechanisms that exist today (partly in response to the past problems caused by agrotech companies ), with food such a passionately followed subject with strong independent scrutiny, with the global exchange of information through the Internet, the same abuses could occur again today. 

Painting agrotech companies as evil multinational monsters is useful for the purpose of rallies, but it assumes they would be stupid enough to act in the ways being ascribed to them, and companies like Monsanto, whatever their ultimate aims, are not stupid. Another rallying call I found hard to swallow was that scientists were deliberately trying to ‘poison’ us. This assumes scientists are faceless malevolent entities, but they are not. 

I’ve met many agricultural scientists and they are mostly dedicated professionals, who are also individuals with as little desire to do deliberate harm as you or I. It is true that science can breed arrogance that overrides other concerns, but most of our agricultural scientists are too beleaguered to be like that. The lack of support for them has been so total, both in general, with the Indian government doing its best to ruin by neglect the excellent system of agricultural research left to us by the British, and in particular in this bt debate , with their voices being literally outshouted during the public consultations, that I’ve ended up with real sympathy for them. 

The government needs to shore up the damage their morale must have taken in this debate, but since the ministers involved are Mr.Pawar, too busy politicking to care about agriculture, or Mr.Ramesh, already off in search of some new high profile cause to espouse, one rather doubts this will happen. On the other side, I found myself steadily more suspicious about the anti bt brigade. It started in a very trivial way with one of the campaigners putting me, without asking me on her mailing list. This is always something done by people of fairly dubious intent, but since I was on it,  I started reading the mails, and others like this, and saw ho! w the arguments became increasingly more passionate, and increasingly less rational , and the whole issue took on an a quasi-religious tone. 

Watching the coverage of the public debate, with people dressed as brinjals , a tamasha like atmosphere, and the vituperation of alternate viewpoints (which I realize will be extended to me, now that I’m expressing even mild skepticism), it all seemed less a debate than one of those religious gatherings where demons are cast out and true belief exalted. Ms.Shiva described it as ‘democracy in the most vital aspect of life – the food we eat.” It certainly seemed to be a peculiarly Indian kind of democracy, where bussing in truckloads of true believers and intimidation of opponents counts more than any real discussion of the issues. 

Ms.Shiva’s interventions have made me even more skeptical. As I said, I admire the work she’s done in the food field, but if you read her (exhaustingly voluminous) writings, it’s also evident she’s doing it to drive a very particular left-wing agenda – which is entirely her right, but it does make people like me, who support her food work, but not her politics, dubious about her arguments that the two are necessarily tied. Many of her food aims could be achieved through alternative means that involve more corporate and government involvement, but I doubt Ms.Shiva would agree. 

The organic aspect of biotechnology is an example. Ms.Shiva has been arguing for less pesticide use, less cultivation of water hungry crops and so on. Biotechnology has the ability to reduce pesticide use, breed more drought resistant crops and so on – but because of the corporate argument, it’s potential for organic farming is rejected . Ms.Shiva argues that using only traditional varieties, grown in traditional labour intensive ways, can supply all our needs and increase agricultural employment, but I simply cannot buy this. 

Organic food has a future in India, but its higher costs are a real problem. If nothing else, it’s labour intensivity ensures this – farmers are already complaining how hard it is to find rural labour, and how schemes like NREGA, which excellent in themselves , by providing alternative employment , have increased labour costs. Across the country, the trend to urbanization is very clear – in a rather more democratic display, than the rather contrived public hearings, people are moving from rural areas to cities, and it is very hard to see how organic farming could supply the increased demand, with less labour, at affordable prices – without some help from biotechnology. 

But I doubt there’s much chance of getting Ms.Shiva even to concede there’s an argument here, because she seems to have an ideologue’s inflexibility to alternate viewpoints, rather than a genuine concern with the issues in hand. And this finally is what made me dubious about the anti bt brigade. In its usual muddled way I think the Indian government has reached the right answer – if it is serious about setting up a serious study about the issue. There really seem to have been issues about the approval process and the independence of the data, and a study should be able to resolve this. 

Such a study should look seriously at the credentials of all the relevant studies – if some scientists are compromised by their closeness to agrotech companies, surely the closeness of others to organisations like Greenpeace also counts as bias that should be taken into account, if not used as grounds for rejection? It should look at the argument for organic biotechnology sketched above, as well as the issues of access to this technology if it becomes available. It should look at whether a mechanism for separate labeling of bt and non-bt crops is viable, and also means to conserve the biodiversity of brinjals – a cess on biotech products is something most companies would probably happily pay. 

And if at the end of all this, the study concludes that biotech products are safe and should be licensed – do you then see its current opponents agreeing? There are reasonable individual among them who might, but for the majority that seems as likely as getting my sister to eat brinjal curry. This, finally, is what has turned me from a mild skeptic of bt brinjal, to someone ultimately willing to accept it, if the certification comes. I don’t want to claim any special objectivity, but I think my focus is food, rather than pushing a political agenda through it, and from that perspective, I’m willing to accept that a bt brinjal bharta can possibly taste as good as any other kind.