QUOTE: "It is clear at the moment that larger biotech multinational companies have been reasonably successful in associating their own narrow commercial interests with the broader development goals of the Indian state. It is ironic that they have achieved this at a time when many other countries, notably the very country they seem to regard as their greatest competitor, China, has made a relative retreat from its former unbridled support for the technology. China should offer a salutary lesson in this regard. The battle to define biotechnology futures and whom the technology should serve will not be won easily in India or anywhere else."
That quote comes at the end of an interesting report, 'Biotech firms, biotech politics: negotiating GMOs in India' by Dr Peter Newell. Newell is currently at the Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick but was previously a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, U.K.
The report, published by the Institute of Development Studies, mostly looks at what Dr Newell terms "the material power wielded by some biotech firms and the level of access and influence that they are able to secure through institutional means". That influence, he says, is neatly symbolised by leading government officials with Monsanto filofaxes or Monsanto calendars upon their wall.
Of just as much interest to many GM Watch subscribers is the final section of the report which considers another "important part of the story" of the promotion of biotechnology in India: "the social construction of the commercial potential of biotechnology."
In essence the report is pointing to how the creation of the right kind of narratives or story telling - myth making even - can help "to boost perceptions of the material potential of the sector as well as ensure high levels of government interest in the industry's activities, key to sustaining institutional access."
The report suggests industry achieves a virtuous circle. The material power of the biotech industry helps to secure institutional access and to "create a conducive environment for the construction of discourses supportive of biotech development". At the same time, "the prevalence and potency of discourses about the centrality of biotechnology to India's ability to meet broader development goals of growth and food security creates space for institutional access and helps to encourage investment in the biotech sector."
What follows comes from the final section of the report. It identifies key "narratives" used to promote biotech in India as well as those who help to promote these narratives.
Among the key narratives Dr Newell lists is the same kind of "crisis narrative" that Chataway and Smith in a recent report identify as the means by which Dr Florence Wambugu has successfully promoted her biotech banana project. Wambugu they showed did this by:
1. claiming the banana as an important crop for food security
2. documenting a serious decline in yield
3. attributing the decline to infection
4. claiming "incredible" successes for her tissue cultured bananas in resolving these problems.
Chataway and Smith showed there was a lack of convincing evidence to support any of the components of this narrative. What evidence there was often suggested the direct opposite of what was claimed. Despite which, Wambugu's narrative had been highly successful in both winning backing for the project and in making it appear an "incredible" success. (see 'Smoke, Mirrors and Poverty')
In India, Dr Newell identifies as the central mantras of the crisis narrative: "declining productivity, lack of fertile lands, and rising costs of inputs". These are said to "make biotechnology the 'only way' forward."
Newell also identifies "a set of assumptions that leading firms have played a key part in constructing and embedding in policy debate":
This narrative about the potential of biotechnology to meet the needs of the poor "serves to reassure investors and suspicious publics about the technology".
The irony is, says Dr Newell, that the very firms that have helped to promote this narrative have both a limited ability to deliver a pro-poor biotechnology and a professed reluctance to accept that role.
2.From IT to BT:
India's success in the field of information technology (IT) is presented as a replicable model for the successful development of biotechnology in India. Newell writes that the assumptions underlying the comparison "are in many cases ill-founded as Scoones (2002) points out, but their status as 'givens' in policy debates that gain reinforcement through constant repetition and uncritical acceptance is unquestionable."
3. The "myth of the biotech superpower", China:
"One recurrent feature of this general narrative about the enormous potential of agricultural biotechnology and the urgency with which it is to be tapped is the 'myth of the biotech superpower', China." The analysis underpinning this myth is "weak on detail", says Newell
Despite which, of course, China is used by biotech lobbyists throughout Asia to try and spur on governments to introduce pro-biotech policies in fear of missing the biotech bus or train as it pulls out of the station. Outside of India, India is often added to China to create an image of 2 Asian giants striding forward leaving the rest of Asia behind. At one time Indonesia was also woven into this narrative but had to be dropped after the disaster there with Monsanto's GM cotton that led to the company's withdrawal.
Notable actors in disseminating these biotech myths in India include newspapers like the Economic Times which provide uncritical coverage of pro-biotech hype from the following sources:
1. leading industry bodies "whose statements are taken as an adequate statement of truth in the debate in much of the mainstream media".
2. leading pro-biotech NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) such as C.S. Prakash (of AgBioWorld fame)
3. bodies such as the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, which aim to generate beneficial publicity about the benefits of biotechnology for Indian agriculture.
India's policy makers and much of its media are clearly just as susceptible to being hoodwinked by biotech industry hype as farmers in their villages faced with company posters proclaiming the miracle of Bt cotton via pictures of smiling "farmers" endorsing the technology with tales of quadrupled yields and new tractors purchased. (See THE MARKETING OF BT COTTON IN INDIA: AGGRESSIVE, UNSCRUPULOUS AND FALSE)
India's policy makers, media and farmers are not particularly different in this regard to many others around the globe in both the developing and the developed worlds.
For more on biotech's deceptive narratives see: 'Biotech investment busy going nowhere'
Biotech firms, biotech politics: negotiating GMOs in India
by Peter Newell
Institute of Development Studies Working Paper 20
Despite the limited ability of firms to deliver a pro-poor biotechnology under existing circumstances and their professed reluctance to accept this role, which they see as primarily a public sector responsibility, the case for biotechnology development in a country like India is premised on a set of assumptions that leading firms have played a key part in constructing and embedding in policy debate. Key government officials repeat back the central mantras of declining productivity, lack of fertile lands, and rising costs of inputs that are said to make biotechnology the "only way" forward. Though it remains removed from the reality of lack of progress and poor incentive structures for industry to perform the role set for it, the narrative about the potential of biotechnology to meet the needs of the poor serves to reassure investors and suspicious publics about the technology. Important for our purposes here, however, is the way in which these projections, assumptions and myths are internalised and carried forward in policy discourse by influential players within key government departments.
Many media commentators and industry representatives discuss the potential of biotechnology in light of the success achieved by the information technology industry in India. The slogan "from IT to BT" slips easily from the mouths of advocates of the technology, as if IT provides a replicable model for the successful development of biotechnology in India. Such assumptions are in many cases ill-founded as Scoones (2002) points out, but their status as "givens" in policy debates that gain reinforcement through constant repetition and uncritical acceptance is unquestionable. Biotech companies gain materially from such an association with the IT "success" story. The Minister of Finance has granted biotech companies the same entitlements as the other "sunrise" industries such as IT, including tax holidays and exemptions from customs duty, for example. There are many contestable assumptions behind media-led social constructions of the seamless continuity from the IT to BT revolutions around the level of skills required to sustain the shift and about the types of government intervention that are necessary to support these new market players, but such details are overlooked in the rush to sell India as a prime biotech location for investors.
Despite more critical coverage in papers such as The Hindu or the Indian Express, key daily national papers such as the Economic Times play an important role in this process, a newspaper which Sharma describes as "the mouthpiece of industry". Both Time magazine India and Economic Times adopt a broadly pro-biotech line, but it is the ET which is taken most seriously by government. In terms of magazines and weekly journals, India Today is seen as more pro-government and less critical, but with a huge circulation it is taken seriously by politicians. Business World and Business Line also play an important role within the biotech sector in promoting the attractiveness of investing in the sector and lending support to claims regarding its growth potential. Economic Times reported that the bioinformatics sector in India is registering per annum growth of 90 per cent. Similarly, Kiran Muzumdar-Shaw is quoted as suggesting that the biotech business in India will reach $1.5 billion by 2007 and The Financial Express cites back the same figure uncritically, gleaned from a CII report on the subject.
These magazines and newspapers have played a key role in terms of selling the potential of Indian firms to global audiences, faithfully and regularly reporting statements from leading pro-biotech NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) such as C.S. Prakash, endorsing the government's approval of Bt cotton for example. The views of bodies such as the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, which aims to generate beneficial publicity about the benefits of biotechnology for Indian agriculture, are frequently reported. The opinions of leading industry bodies are taken as an adequate statement of truth in the debate in much of the mainstream media. In a story on the problems associated with India's patent legislation, Business Standard concludes; 'India requires a strong patent regime to encourage research and development. Intellectual property rights must be used to build an asset base'. The same publication also attributes the success of Bangalore in attracting biotech investors to the "single clearance for investors", endorsing the calls of industry associations for such clearance at national level. Sector specific magazines such as Chemical Weekly also play an important role in hyping the sector’s success. The magazine ran a story claiming, for example, that the Indian biotech sector is on the "fast track to catch up with western countries" and is "on the threshold of a big revolution".
One recurrent feature of this general narrative about the enormous potential of agricultural biotechnology and the urgency with which it is to be tapped is the "myth of the biotech superpower", China. The analysis underpinning this narrative is weak on detail, importantly regarding the extent to which there is scope to apply in India the Chinese model of agribiotech development. Key differences that are often glossed over in the rush to present China as a viable model for India to follow include; the different capacities for public sector research, the contrasting role of civil society in contesting the benefits of the technology and the divergent degrees of dependence on external market acceptance as opposed to producing for domestic consumption. Nevertheless, the success of biotech developments to date in China is a common point of reference for government officials who readily cite the savings in pesticide use, the absence of detrimental environmental affects and the positive benefits accruing to smaller farmers reported in studies from China. Slow-downs in the process are regarded as missed opportunities to catch-up with China. P.K. Ghosh, former advisor to DBT and member secretary of the RCGM committee, regrets that when Monsanto and Mahyco proposed cotton back in 1993, a decision was stalled which meant that India "lost the bus" that would have allowed them to surpass China's technological supremacy in this area. Industry groups such as CII also create this sense of a zero-sum competition between India and China, where potential investors are "waiting and watching" to see which signals the government sends out about its likely stance on approvals for LMOs, in order to create pressure on government officials to hasten the approval process.
”¦It is clear though that through a combination of material influence, in most cases high levels of institutional access, and in a context in which claims about the benefits of biotechnology are echoed and repeated in influential media, industry, some firms more than others, has played an important role in the evolving regulatory regime. Reasons for this include the expertise and economic weight of these actors and the fact they are providing a technology which ostensibly has the potential to directly address many of the most pressing problems India faces”¦ the DBT [Department of Biotechnology] finds support for its pro-biotech position from the drivers of the technology, the major biotech firms themselves.
”¦It is clear at the moment that larger biotech multinational companies have been reasonably successful in associating their own narrow commercial interests with the broader development goals of the Indian state. It is ironic that they have achieved this at a time when many other countries, notably the very country they seem to regard as their greatest competitor, China, has made a relative retreat from its former unbridled support for the technology. China should offer a salutary lesson in this regard. The battle to define biotechnology futures and whom the technology should serve will not be won easily in India or anywhere else. It will be waged for many more years, subject to ongoing contestation by each of the actors discussed in this paper.