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Building Public Confidence in Agricultural Biotechnology
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org

New technologies are developed either to improve existing ones or to fulfill the need for inventive measures.  Every technology comes with defined and realizable objectives, providing a practical solution to a problem.  The consumers and the public should be provided with realistic and complete information to help them in understanding the benefits and limitations of a technology.   They should be assured that there is no more than an acceptable risk in adopting that technology and that the benefits outweigh the risks.   Since most of the questions raised about genetically engineered (GE) products are related to science behind the technology, the answers should come from the same platform.   A science-based approach to information on technology is even more crucial to informed decisions by the policy makers.

Some pro-technology sections often generate hype, brushing aside the limitations of technology and the concerns raised.   Predictably, the anti-tech groups immediately launch an onslaught, with Nelson’s eye on the objectives and potential benefits of the technology.   A number of imagined benefits are thrust on the technology out of over enthusiasm, ignorance or mischief, resulting in the technology getting flogged for not fulfilling what it was not intended to address.      If one supports Bt technology he becomes a ‘Toady’ of the industry and if one opposes it, he is a ‘Luddite’.   Diametrically opposite, extreme and emotionally charged postures miss the truth and confuse the public.   This hampers public acceptance and damages the prospects of a gainful deployment of the technology for the benefit of the stakeholders, whose interests both pro- and anti-tech groups claim to have at heart.  

Agricultural biotechnology has been a perpetual victim of an unfair criticism and onslaught, while the benefits and risks of medical and industrial biotechnology, which should be of equal or even greater concern, hardly raise an eyebrow.  

Only scientists can provide the answers for the questions and doubts raised, because they are the only ones who know better.  This rarely happens.   And then, even if they respond, who would believe them?   Several surveys have indicated that the public believes the anti-tech groups most and then the media.   Unfortunately, the media, with an eye more on sensational news and not science and facts, get their information from the anti-tech groups, and so the public is served poorly.   In the credibility ladder, the scientists are at the bottom rung.   Even some rational and balanced writings, as for example ‘Travels in the genetically modified zone’, (Mark Winston, Harvard University Press, 2002) and ‘Mendel in the kitchen’ (Nina Federoff and Nancy Brown, Joseph Henry Press, 2004) are hardly noticed.  

Defining the ‘public’ and the ‘consumer’ is a hard task.   A top most nuclear or space scientist may be as ignorant as a layman, of issues of agricultural biotechnology.   Who the consumer is depends on the product.   For example, the benefits and profitability from Bt products accrue more directly to the farmer and they may not reach the end users, which is the general public, while Golden Rice is an end-user product and the farmer may not profit much from cultivating this variety of rice.  

Many concerns raised about agricultural biotechnology are genuine.      The public should be satisfied about, a) safety as food and feed (toxicity, allergenicity, chances of human errors), b) safety of the environment (effect on non-target organisms, as gene flow and diversity, lateral transfer of genes), c) the effectiveness of the Regulatory Regime (risk assessment, management, and mitigation), and d) relevance, reach and affordability, of technology.      Even those who believe in technology have raised such concerns.       

The major problem is not that genuine concerns are raised.   Vagaries of weather, non-compliance of guidelines, and errors in management are made the burden of technology.   Political, economic, societal and ethical issues, for which science has no answers, weigh agricultural biotechnology down.  Intercontinental antagonism, conflicting political philosophies, and corporate politics also contribute handsomely to the problem.  Ethical and moral questions are important in some contexts of biotechnology but are absurd in others.   Such comments as meddling with nature, scientists playing God, eating genes, etc., are a mischievous exploitation of ignorance and superstition.     

We cannot build up a credible public awareness platform without accountability and transparency.   Corporate and public institution scientists are afraid of the backlash of commission and/or omission, either from the critics or their employers.   The otherwise responsible officers of the government departments are more concerned about being politically correct and safe, and opt for the customary tight upper lip.   It is very difficult to get any credible and useful information from any of the relevant sources, much more so in the developing countries.   Most of the official websites are eyewash.   We do not even get an acknowledgement of the requests made.   The public must have an easy access to appropriate and adequate information.   This is an ethical responsibility of scientists, product developers, managers of science and policy administrators.  

Reaching the public requires enormous financial resources.   Pro-technology organizations do not have even a fraction of the financial support the anti-tech groups receive from various lobbies. 

Notwithstanding the difficulties, consumer and public awareness and education programs are very basic to the acceptance of technology.   In all fairness the consumer should be the chooser, and this should be on the basis of informed decision-making, devoid of political and emotional pressures or prejudice.   Every one has a right to an opinion but not to dictate what others can or cannot have.   People who want to shape public opinion should do that with a sense of responsibility and accountability.   This is hardly evident in the anti-tech propaganda.  

All those who believe in biotechnology, more importantly the biotechnologists and product developers, should make a concerted effort to lift agricultural biotechnology from the current morass.   This is long overdue.