It may be argued that since the biotech industry has now succeeded in inserting its catchphrases into the mainstream of reportage around genetically modified crops

Voices Saturday, June 07, 2014 - 05:30
By Aritra Bhattacharya The agricultural biotechnology industry is dominated by six companies globally. Representatives of these companies and other smaller companies are part of an organisation called International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). The mandate of ISAAA is to liaise with governments to promote the use of biotechnology. This mandate is, of course, adequately sanitized as follows: ‘By sharing and disseminating scientific knowledge to the global community, and by facilitating the transfer of technologies to developing countries through public-private partnerships, ISAAA has established its role and contribution in world efforts to help achieve agricultural sustainability and development.’ The ISAAA document Communication Challenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology mentions that each country has an ISAAA knowledge centre that is tasked with disseminating ‘knowledge’ on the need for biotechnological intervention. The activities of these knowledge centres, and sub-centres under them are coordinated by the main body at the international level. Campaigns are conducted in individual countries based on the perceived strength of companies in such countries and the opposition to their activities on the ground.  The section on India in the document, for instance, notes that opposition to GM technology in India is particularly strong at the ground level, but the media environment allows for reporting on the matter. Therefore, in the context of India, there is a need to use the media to counter the ‘claims’ of activists. The barrage of positive coverage around GM technology, and the tying of the issue of food security to the GM debate, as we will see later, may be seen as part of this arc. As opposed to this, the opposition to GM technology is highly fragmented. There are international NGOs like Greenpeace that work on exposing the ‘truth’ on GM technology, but such organisations are few, and GM is not the only issue they work on, as opposed to bodies like ISAAA that are devoted solely to promoting biotechnology. In India, there is a network called Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) that seeks to counter the ‘propaganda’ of biotechnology majors. But as experience with reporting on with some of their work shows, it suffers from lack of funding, and the multiplicity of decision makers and regional differences hinders a sustained ‘centrally driven’ campaign that matches up to the standard of a body like the ISAAA. Of course, the absence of an overzealous centrally driven campaign isn’t a drawback, for the differences in soil and climate that are crucial for agriculture are vast across India, and any group working on agriculture and allied issues must take into consideration this diversity. The ‘one size fits all’ ploy does not work. Widening the net Perhaps realising this, the biotechnology industry too is now focussing on select states through various organisations. At the all-India level is the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises – Agricultural Group (ABLE-AG), which is perhaps the most powerful group nationally working on promotion of biotechnology in agriculture. The industry body, which has representatives from all the major biotechnology companies in India, organises workshops in various parts of the country, and local farmers and resource persons are called to these workshops, as are renowned ‘experts’ from across the country. The mix is one where the local is fused with the national/global, and activists/ their concerns are given token representation.  Executive director, ABLE-AG, Dr Nadoor Seetharama has this to say about the mix of resource persons tapped for these workshops: Mainly scientists who have much experience in both GM crop research, and participated in the national and international bodies on GM regulation (such as RCGM in DBT, GEAC in MOEF, etc., and those served in international bodies dealing with Ag Biotech or GM food such as FAO, WHO, UNIDCO, UNEP, etc.), Foundations such as MS Swaminathan Research Foundation,  Activists in some meetings, especially those in Bangalore  Expert farmers and farmer leaders where always brought in (those who have grown GM cotton, travelled abroad, etc.) Practicing farmers: we try to mix different types of them together, such as:      Those sponsored by member companies: usually better-off lot = progressive farmers.       Award-winning (small) farmers (Krishi pundits): most are marginal/small holders (selected by the Universities, mostly from KVKs).       Farmers specializing, such as in organic production.       Women farmers and rural extension agents (selected from NGOs or Universities) Apart from ABLE-AG, there is also the Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL) in New Delhi, FABE in Bangalore and state biotech missions, among which the one in Karnataka was described as a “model” by Dr Seetharama. The number of organisations working for the promotion of GM crops, the span of the pool they reach into—surpassing centralised agricultural universities to ultra-local krishi vikas kendras, and the collaborations they are able to draw up with organisations working along the same lines in other countries places the biotech industry at a distinct advantage.  Each of the bodies working for the promotion of GM crops have their own communication channels, and routinely collaborate with state-owned universities and institutions to “promote a scientific view” and “remove misconceptions” around GM crops. Glancing through the reports that constitute the sample for this study, one notices how these phrases form the cornerstone of reporting on genetically modified crops, leading one to ask if the language of reportage itself is not borrowed from the industry.  It may be argued that since the biotech industry has now succeeded in inserting its catchphrases into the mainstream of reportage around genetically modified crops, thanks to numerous workshops and sensitisation drives for the media, the views presented through the use of such language is always already coloured. It is a language that talks of yields and acerage, security and returns, science and evidence, and emotions and ideology; each of these terms have very layered, contingent meanings, but they are hollowed out in this debate.  In this language, when one talks of yield, one talks simply of the yield, and not the connection it has to the inputs the farmer has had to resort to and the costs therein. A farmer may have bought biotech-enhanced seeds, sprayed several rounds of pesticides and herbicides, used large quantities of chemical fertilisers, and the cost of all of this may amount to Rs 1000. At the end of this, he may report a yield that is higher than the yield for traditional seeds of the same crop. Reporting the yield hardly ever takes into account all the other factors; what matters is merely the number. Similarly, when one talks of security in this coloured language, aspects of environmental and ecological security are forgotten, as are concerns over the sustainability, or lack of it, in reported high yields. This hijacked language is a very important aspect in the debate on GM crops as reflected through the media, and holds special significance for India, where the law on food security passed by the UPA government in September 2013 provided a fillip to the role of agriculture in the same. However, at the core of the concerns regarding media coverage on GM crops is the position India holds for the biotechnology industry as a market. Missing this, or bypassing it, is missing half the story—for it is the importance of the Indian market that accounts for the stridency of promoters of GM crops, and perhaps the opposition to it. These issues will be explored in the next part of the series. The writer is a journalist and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). He can be reached at The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.

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