I am nevertheless keen to understand the opposing views. This is the only reason I keep interacting with the skeptics despite their visceral antipathy to my skepticism on this topic: the best test of one's hypotheses are to expose them to those who most loathe them.
Which brings us to the controversy over Bt brinjal (eggplant) in India.
The first serious paper I read on this topic was this economic assessment (pdf, 2011). It is very positive about Bt brinjal but isn't actually a complete cost benefit analysis (CBA) because it only compares Bt brinjal with pesticide-heavy methods. File it alongside this investigation (pdf, 2008) of different organic treatments for brinjal in India. Both tell you something about how to optimise within a paradigm but neither attempt a head-to-head comparison between organic/biodynamic/biological and GM systems.
Digging into the controversy a bit further led me to Ronald Heering who cites India's GM regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to state that
No hazards from the insecticidal protein were found through standard safety protocols; GEAC findings conformed to the European Union's general conclusions quoted aboveRonald's paper also informs us that the Minister wasn't convinced by the regulator's report and the whole project got stopped for political reasons, which really got me interested. Here's the regulator's report - it relies on data/analysis supplied by the developer and raises no real concerns.
Given the name of the regulator ("approval committee"), the concept of regulatory capture and Ronald's view that India seeks to actively promote GMOs, there are reasonable grounds for wondering about the robustness of the GEAC's assessment.
The next layer down is this report by Jack Heinemann which digs into the scientific evidence that the Bt brinjal developer presented to the GEAC in India. Jack explains that the accepted international scientific conventions for evaluating products of genetic engineering are produced by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) and then cites (Table 1) six ways in which the GEAC's assessment fell short of these standards. He goes on to cite specific weaknesses in the developer's evidence.
So where does all this leave an objective but interested observer?
- Hurdles for intervention in another country's policy should be pretty high, though there are different levels of intervention of course, and different levels of interest. Apartheid in South Africa was enough to make me break a few rules in 1981, but some people can't even remember which side they were on.
- India is the worlds largest & most diverse democracy. It is consequently bogged down in bureaucracy. A few million westerners suddenly getting behind a campaign to admit a GM product is very unlikely to be effective.
- You need big money to change government policy. The Gates/Monsanto team is pushing on in Kenya but this is for cotton & maize. I haven't seen them caning the Indian government on Bt brinjal but I could easily have missed that.
- There is a natural experiment underway because Bangladesh has embraced Bt brinjal while India has not. We will hopefully learn about the farming economics of the product from this experiment, at least relative to conventional pesticide-intensive methods. Noting of course that production economics is only one part of the story.
- The science around Bt brinjal appears contested. I'd have thought that if it really is a no-brainer then the promoters would just go the whole hog on the science, not leave out bits that seem quite important.
For these reasons I don't advocate pressuring India to approve Bt brinjal