Indian biotechnologists need to engage GM critics with respect and honesty to win public support.
Indian biotechnologists are embroiled in a fierce controversy over their government's decision to postpone planting of genetically modified (GM) brinjal (aubergine) — and about a proposed law that could see people who criticise GM products without sufficient scientific proof being fined, or even jailed.
These seemingly conflicting actions both highlight how scientists are failing to communicate with critics, and how confrontation can rapidly escalate into an unproductive 'war of words'.
The biotechnologists could learn much from colleagues in the climate change community, particularly when it comes to tackling critics and diffusing conflict.
Climatologists have recently learnt the hard way that they must address criticism head on, accepting and rectifying any major mistakes and deficiencies. Above all, they must now treat opponents with respect.
Rather than turn a deaf ear to criticism, scientists should engage in dialogue, seeking to convince opponents of the robustness of their case with transparency, sound data and a willingness to consider proposals for improvement.
After all, scientists in India belong to a democracy, which means that they must find ways of reaching a workable compromise for controversial issues, while accepting that achieving consensus may be impossible.
Over the past month (February), India has seen a moratorium on cultivating its first GM food crop (Bt brinjal) — but also a draft biotech regulatory bill that includes a silencing clause for critics and a generous rise in public funds for biotechnology research (see India says no — for now — to first GM vegetable and Furore over silencing clause in Indian biotech bill).
Why did Bt brinjal — developed by Maharashtra Hybrids Seeds Company (Mahyco), in which the US giant Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake — get put on hold? After all, it was approved for cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in October 2009.
But, given the broader implications for India's general policy on GM food crops, the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, opened the issue up in a series of public consultations. These uncovered criticism from some top scientists and opposition from civil society organisations and several brinjal-growing state governments — including those already growing Bt cotton. So Ramesh froze action on Bt brinjal.
Only at this stage did biotech supporters enter the fray, denouncing the decision as a triumph of politics over science. Several prominent politicians came forward to defend Bt brinjal, including science minister Prithviraj Chavan and former science minister Kapil Sibal.
India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was left to reconcile the warring factions, but gave government backing to a two year moratorium.
Would better communication by scientists have led to a different result? Three key issues seem to have been lost in the heated public debate following Singh's decision.
First is the image problem facing GM crops in India. Many Indian farmers and civil society organisations identify GM crops with large corporations such as Monsanto — responsible for bringing Bt cotton to the country — and hybrid seeds that need to be bought each year.
This is a far cry from traditional farmer extension systems, run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which distributes seeds for free. And while ICAR may be accused of ineptness, it is not suspected of favouring commercial interests.
Second, are regulation and labelling issues. Months before Bt cotton was approved for cultivation, there were reports of some Indian seed companies illegally selling Bt cotton seeds, as well as contaminating natural cotton seeds with Bt cotton.
How can poor and often illiterate small-scale farmers know about, or understand, the complexities of such contamination? And where vegetables and fruit are often sold from carts, how can the government ensure proper labelling?
Sensitive and sensible communication about the merits of GM crops and the benefits of regulation and labelling are critical to gaining public support.
An open society
And finally, there is openness. When Ramesh declared the moratorium, he overturned the ruling of GEAC, a key advisory committee of his own ministry, arguing that it had ignored requirements for public consultation before the release of GM crops (as embedded, for example, in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety).
Ramesh's action may not win supporters among biotechnologists, but the moratorium reflects a long-standing problem about the transparency of the approval process that scientists must address to inspire public confidence (see also Indian GM research 'lacks focus and transparency').
GM supporters argue that public consultations mean little when the public is misinformed by 'shrill' civil society organisations. But the answer is not to turn a deaf and uncomprehending ear to critics.
Meanwhile the draft bill that invokes fines or imprisonment for criticising biotechnology products without 'evidence' will do little to allay concern about the high-handedness of scientists — quite the opposite in fact.
But it does highlight the responsibility of scientists to provide accurate information in a way that the public understands. They must become more effective and imaginative to get public opinion on their side.
Dissent and criticism can be bitter pills to swallow. But if dissenters are shown respect and understanding, scientists can keep public support behind them.
South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net