Monday, March 4, 2024
HomeViduraGM crops: rethink needed on gag order on scientific opinion

GM crops: rethink needed on gag order on scientific opinion

Bharat Dogra critiques the recent ban on government scientists, both serving and retired, from airing views contradictory to the official stand. Instead, all serving and former scientists in the government system should be encouraged to express their views in an unbiased way, no matter how critical they may be of government policy and regulators’ decision, so that the country can benefit fully from their wisdom and experience, he says.

The recent orders issued by the Director General of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) against serving or former officials expressing opinions or writing articles which differ from the documentation and decisions made by the regulators on the subject of GM (genetically modified) Mustard has come in for pointed criticism. Those well-informed on the subject feel the gag order shows that authorities have much to hide on this issue. They allege that the government is threatening science into silence.

There is a long, though incompletely documented history of suppression of scientists, their research and opinions that run counter to the interests of big business which is bent on promoting GM crops and foods in order to gain control of the world farm and food systems. However, in such cases, generally, attempts are also made to hide the suppression so that it does not appear to be anti-science or anti-democratic.

It appears that in India, farm research authorities do not see a need for even such a ‘fig leaf’ and find nothing wrong in barring serving and even retired scientists and officials from expressing views that differ from the government-promoted discourse on GM Mustard (and presumably other GM crops).

The extension of such restrictions to even retired scientists marks a new low for Indian democracy, as several retired government officials, including scientists, have freely criticised important policy issues (including GM crops, particularly GM mustard) in the past. That the low has been struck by scientific authorities is all the more regrettable, as science is supposed to be on the side of truth.

If the authorities are sure that the clearance they have given for GM mustard is based on scientific evidence, where is the need for placing such severe restrictions? Such a draconian attitude towards free expression of opinions by its own scientists reflects a hidden fear that the decision stands on very thin ice, those in the know say. 

It would be interesting to see what action these authorities intend to take if a retired scientist or official expresses a critical opinion on GM mustard. When scientists join government positions to serve their country, do they forfeit the most basic right of speaking the scientific truth, as understood by them, for their entire life?

One wonders what would have been the stand of the authorities towards Dr Pushpa M. Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, an acknowledged authority on this subject in India, who worked for a long time within the government scientific system. He was a most outspoken critic of GM crops as well as the use of this technology by multinational companies to gain control over the farming and food systems of India. He gave detailed reasons for his views, pointing out how the overwhelming percentage of scientific papers written by unbiased scientists, those with no conflict of interests, were opposed to GM crops. He also wrote in great detail about the weaknesses and biases of the regulatory system relating to this in India.

The present controversy on GM crops is important in the context of the future of the farming and food systems in India. At this time, it is important to hear all voices, and it is particularly important to hear those who are or were working within the government system and so know the system well, but differ from the government stand on this issue. Giving their views due consideration will lead to better, safer decisions. So, issuing a gag order at this stage to prevent such views from being even articulated is counter-productive and such orders should be rescinded.

Instead, all serving and former scientists in the government system should be encouraged to express their views in an unbiased way, no matter how critical they may be of government policy and regulators’ decision, so that the country can benefit fully from their wisdom and experience.

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