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We must begin with Bt cotton and follow with the so-far abortive case of Bt brinjal (eggplant, aubergine; Solanum melongena). Cotton was India’s first, and still only, officially authorized transgenic crop. . . .
Much has been written about Bt cotton in India and around the world (James, 2002). The case has been important in global discussion of both realized potential and catastrophic concerns about agricultural biotechnology: reports of higher yields and aggregate production compete with stories of farmer suicides and dead sheep (Kloor, 2014). What is made of performance of Bt cotton therefore has global and national implications for the future of agricultural biotechnology in general. Reciprocally, India’s political divisions on biotechnology did not spring forth on an empty world stage, but rather reflected existing forces in an already formed field of contestation—a global rift—between a catastrophic framing (‘suicide seeds’) and a frame of technological optimism (‘silver bullets’). Performance, potential, and concerns cannot be understood without this embedding and its consequences. Pre-existing rival networks had different stories to tell—centering on either technological threat or promise, Promethean science, or Pandora’s box (Herring, 2007a). . .
Anticipatory risk is then an expansive and untethered claim in politics, needing no confirmation, or even specification, to have effect under certain structural conditions. Risk politics around Bt cotton were largely about agrarian risks centered on unsupported claims of agronomic failure. Farmer interests were sufficiently strong, however, that risk politics of campaigners had little purchase. Bt eggplant presented a more capacious opening for risk politics; food crops are more responsive to anxiety framings than are fiber crops. The new Bt crop elicited a rational strategic change in oppositional politics, away from risks of agro-economic catastrophe to hypothetical risks centered on biodiversity and urban consumers, neither identifiable. As a consequence, concerns about Bt brinjal proved more telling than either potential or performance, producing strong headwinds against agricultural biotechnology in India. These headwinds would not have mattered so much, however, had regulatory authority been structured into ministries other than environment, or had a different minister of environment been in office. That outcome makes the future of agricultural biotechnology particularly uncertain. If determined by the grounded assessment of farmers — their settling of concerns, their experience with performance, their projection of potential — rather than by a distal state or urban critics connected to even more distal global networks effectively wielding risk narratives — there will be more cases like Bt cotton and fewer like Bt brinjal.
Read full, original post: Politics of Biotechnology: Ideas, Risk, and Interest in Cases from India