Today technology is discussed as a source of anxiety, uncertainty and risk and this session looks at the politics and ethics of risk and regulation of biotechnology. Here to examine the socio-technical frameworks of agro-biotechnology in India and Latin America are Prof. Rajeev Gowda of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, Suman Sahai of India’s Gene Campaign and STEPS members Esha Shah, Adrian Ely and Patrick van Zwanenberg.(Photo: Suman Sahai)

We’ll hear some Indian perspectives first, from Prof. Gowda to start, talking about managing risk in Bt cotton use in India, where the government response to biotechnology risk has been a top-down process with elaborate regulatory mechanisms, he says. The Monsanto-MAHYCO example of scientific tests of Bt cotton seeds was elaborate, science-driven and attracted much NGO scrutiny, but the cotton was allowed. But regulators grant approval based on safety measures, and the assumption that these measures can be policed, but small farmers are unable to comply.

Meanwhile, down on the farm in Gujarat farmers were found to be planting seeds with Bt cotton in it, although the seeds were not from Monsanto, they were from Navbharat. Destruction was ordered, but didn’t happen and the seeds went back into circulation – it was a regulatory stalemate.

What can we say about the risk-management process? “We have interests that are talking past each other,” says Gowda. The assessment of Bt cotton risk is contentious and the inadequacy of the enforcement of power is obvious. To improve the process we need to integrate other voices and representation of the farmers, but even within the farming community there are divergent interests, scales and views. It is a big challenge.

Suman Sahai, who has been involved in campaigns and cases on this issue for many years, takes the floor. “Regulation in India bypasses bio-safety,” she says, as an opener to a look at the regulatory process. The regulatory body is GEAC, and it lacks technical competence, says Sahai, there are no food safety, population geneticists or ecologists in there. Plus it is not transparent and because of that there is no public accountability.

So what does Sahai think needs to happen? Firstly GEAC needs to be transparent and accountable. Her Gene Campaign recommends that the regulatory structure is divided into an advisory function and a statutory body of scientists that do risk assessment. We need time and a budget and public participation to set up a good regulatory system.

“We are in a country where there is an enormous amount of indigenous knowledge…and this needs to be brought in to the regulatory process,” says Sahai.

A third perspective comes from STEPS member Esha Shah who gives us an historical perspective on this debate about Bt cotton, taking us on a ride across a century and a half in the life of the cotton pest during which it insecticide triumphed over cultural methods of control and insects were elevated from being a nuisance to a threat. In conclusion Shah says that a major problem today is the absence of history and lack of scrutiny of the regulatory options in the past.

Adrian Ely now brings in some examples from his work on risk and regulation in the US and EU. Unlike the US where an administrative body formulated the regulation around GM crops, in the EU it was debated in Parliament. So whereas, in the EU, many ecological uncertainties have been highlighted, this has not happened to the same extent in the US.

Paddy van Zwanenberg brings in experience from Argentina where he has looked at the ungovernability of seeds. The disputes there are not about risk but about access and ownership, such as a long-running row between Monsanto and the government over collection of royalties. The debate then is about where in the chain of production you extract property rights – at the seed, or when the seed has been grown. Monsanto has gone so far as to threaten to pull out of the Argentinian market.

We have to think beyond the conventional framings of these debates, says Ian Scoones, co-director of the STEPS Centre, and that is what the STEPS risk and technology and risk and regulation projects intend to do. “We have to explore actively how to govern the ungovernable,” he says.