Science & Technology

GM Mustard, Joshimath: Gagging scientists is a lousy idea; here’s why

Science needs to be open; the silencing of experts by the Modi regime on critical issues is against the public interest

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Monday 13 February 2023
GM Mustard, Joshimath: Gagging scientists is a lousy idea; here’s why
Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

When Deepak Pental’s highly contested genetically modified (GM) mustard, DMH-11, was approved for environmental release in late 2022 after being in
cold storage for many years, there was a furore.

This was predictable, since the question of using genetically modified seeds for food crops is far from being settled. India’s farmers, proponents of
sustainable agriculture, consumers and, most importantly, scientists, had challenged the technology and won a significant battle against the introduction of GM Bt brinjal or eggplant more than a decade ago.

That was in 2010, when then environment minister Jairam Ramesh heeded countrywide protests and imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, citing inadequate environmental risk assessment tests as the major reason for his decision.

Nothing has changed in India’s regulatory framework since then. So it was not surprising that the clearance granted to Pental’s GM mustard would provoke
strong protests, more so over concerns that it is herbicide-tolerant, since it is based on the bar-barnase-barstar system.

Scientists, all of them with expertise in several advanced disciplines of biology, plant breeding and environmental science, wrote open letters warning of the dangers of such a crop. These are not new concerns; they were raised earlier as well. In fact, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition against the release of DMH-11 and has sought more details on it.

Governments generally do not like holes in their regulatory system being exposed or their decisions coming under the scanner of science. When valid questions are raised, they invariably blame non-profits with ‘vested interests’ for the anti-GM campaigns.

This was also the case with Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh, a strong votary of GM technology who was unexpectedly circumvented by his environment minister.

Singh, however, did not overrule Ramesh, nor did he bar scientists from voicing their concerns. That is the big difference.

The Narendra Modi government, on the other hand, has issued a gag order to the many scientists who have been pointing out the risks that the GM hybrid mustard poses to Indian agriculture.

The scientists said it would be “technically unsound to preclude the possibility that DMH-11 will be grown as a herbicide-tolerant crop by Indian farmers” — a fair enough assessment  given the structure of the gene construct.

They  said this in the belief that “a correct understanding of the scientific facts would help to inform the public and policymakers so as to guide decision-making”, but they were quickly disillusioned.

The chief of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), who is also  secretary of the Union government’s Department of Agricultural Research, came down heavily on the many myths being propagated about DMH-11 and made it clear that serving and former scientists who voiced any opinion contrary to the official line would face action.  

Thus we have an official gag order, which is possibly the first of its kind in this country and one that marks the beginning of what could be a trend: muzzling expert opinion when faced with a crisis.

Three weeks down the line, a more wide-ranging gag order was issued by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). It warned several scientific organisations and government institutions not to share data related to ground subsidence at Joshimath in Uttarakhand, or to talk to the media on the subject.

The order came in the wake of the escalating subsidence in the temple town and a preliminary report by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre showing satellite images of rapid subsidence was taken down from its website.

How self-defeating is such a move in this age, when satellite images can be secured from a host of sources? If the government really wants to keep the people from panicking, the best way would be to keep them informed instead of muzzling scientists and inviting all kinds of conspiracy theories.

The memory of what China did to scientists who first sounded the alarm on the COVID-19 outbreak is too recent to be forgotten.

The pandemic may have been a time when governments across the world showed a marked a tendency to shut down scientists, but the problem is much older. In recent years, many a developed nation has been keen to pass laws that would muzzle scientists in different ways.

In the UK, for instance, there was a proposal in 2016 to prevent state-funded scientists from lobbying for change in their field but there was a spirited
campaign against the move.

And in the US, Donald Trump showed us that scientists in even the most advanced country could be gagged to suit the administration’s political agenda.

Less than a week after its inauguration, the Trump administration had issued memos blocking scientists at two departments, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture, from communicating with the public and the press.

At EPA, whose budget had been frozen, staff were banned from talking even about this change to reporters or on social media. However, thanks to an alert media and courageous scientists, the news did leak out.

In today’s India, both of these are in short supply; any gag could prove extremely dangerous for the people. Our scientists have been largely the docile kind,
subservient to hierarchy and unwilling to dissent.

But some do find the spine, specially when public interest is at stake. A large number of scientists have protested against the gag order and reminded the
government about the core spirit of science.

In a swift reaction to the ICAR chief’s order, they have reaffirmed the primary functions of scientific inquiry and pointed out that “Science progresses
on being critical of conclusions already made, and questioning certainties, clarifying niggling doubts and double-checking results. In fact, it is the duty of a confident and progressive government to invite open and transparent public debate based on scientific facts and set a precedent of public participation in issues related to policy choices of technology.”

And to that, one would add a more important reminder: there is a social contract between scientists and society. ICAR should not forget that the public funds most of its work, so the people have a right to know and question what is being imposed on them.

Read more:

DTE Coverage: Does India really need GM mustard

Scientists write to PM against ICAR ‘gag order’ on GM mustard

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