"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free…" —Rabindranath Tagore
Freedom of knowledge is freedom to think freely, without the influence of powerful interests. It is the freedom to develop one’s understanding of an evolving reality in order to enhance the wellbeing of all.
We, as a society, have become indifferent towards material pollution — growing mountains of garbage, polluted rivers, including the sacred Ganga and Yamuna that now resemble nalas (drains), and the polluted air we breathe. But there is a more serious and invisible pollution — one that affects our mind.
The deepening brutality and frequency of violence against women is one symptom; a star-studded Saifai Mahostav while Muzaffarnagar riot victims freeze in the cold wave is another symptom.
Similarly, pushing for genetically modified organisms is polluting our seed and food, our science and democracy. The freedom of knowledge and knowledge sovereignty is threatened by GMOs at multiple levels.
First, knowledge is “free” when it can be freely shared, when knowledge is an intellectual commons.
GMOs have been deployed to privatise knowledge and seeds through Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), which include patents and copyrights. While on the one hand this is blocking public research on plant breeding, on the other it is denying farmers the right to save seeds and to share knowledge and continue the evolution of the seed. IPRs also deny the collective, cumulative innovation of indigenous cultures and promote biopiracy. For example, take the case of the neem patent taken by the US department of agriculture and multinational WR Grace. India won a 10-year-long battle at the European Patent Office (EPO) against a patent granted on an anti-fungal product, derived from neem. The EPO had granted the patent to the US department of agriculture and WR Grace in 1995, but the Indian government successfully argued that the medicinal neem tree is part of traditional Indian knowledge.
Second, the paradigm of genetic reductionism and genetic determinism (the belief that genes, along with environmental conditions, determine morphological and behavioural phenotypes) — on which genetic engineering is based — is a violation of knowledge sovereignty. It is an artificial model of how life works, assuming genes to be “master molecules” giving direction to RNA (ribonucleic acid) and proteins.
As geneticist Dr Mae Wan Ho said: “Instead of the linear, one-way information flow envisaged in the central dogma from DNA to RNA to protein and ‘downstream’ biological function, there is intricate cross-talk between the organism and its environment at all levels, with feed-forward and feed-back cycles in the epigenetic and metabolic networks of molecular interactions that mark and change genes as the organism goes about its business of living… The organism is doing its own natural genetic modification with great finesse, a molecular dance of life that’s necessary for survival. Unfortunately, genetic engineers do not know the steps or the rhythm and music of the dance.”
Knowledge sovereignty in the science of life goes hand in hand with the awareness of the sovereignty and self organisation of living systems, from cells to organisms, to ecosystems, to the living planet. The third violation of knowledge sovereignty is the attack on independent scientists who undertake scientific enquiry and scientific investigations independent of corporate interests.
The first example of a scientist being attacked was Dr Arpad Putzai, a Hungarian biochemist and nutritionist who had been asked by the UK government to study the safety of GMOs. In 1998, Dr Pusztai announced that the results of his research showed feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats had negative effects on their stomach lining and immune system.
In spite of being a world expert on plant lectins, authoring 270 papers and three books on the subject, he was removed from his lab at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he had spent 36 years. A gag order was put on him preventing him from discussing his findings.
More recently, a paper was published in 2012 in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology by Dr Seralini of France, who had conducted a two-year study on GMO safety. When the journal was asked to retract the paper, the editors refused, saying it had been peer reviewed and evaluated. Monsanto then appointed its own biotechnology editor, Dr Goodman, who had the paper retracted.
In India, two environment ministers who tried to carry out their work on biosafety as enshrined in the Rules for Genetically Engineered Organisms framed under the US Environmental Protection Agency, have been sacrificed to try and make way for GMOs. India’s new environment minister Veerappa Moily has indicated he will push to overturn the blockage on GMO crops instituted by former ministers.
Mr Moily’s support is expected to pave the way for the government to submit an affidavit in the Supreme Court acquiescing to field trials of GM food crops on a conditional basis. This is an attempt to subvert the technical expert committee set up by the Supreme Court, which has called for a moratorium on field trials for 10 years while a robust biosafety infrastructure for assessment and regulation is created.
There is also an attempt to replace the EPA rules with deregulation and fast-track approval for GMOs by creating a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Act.
The fourth violation of the freedom of knowledge and knowledge sovereignty is preventing the evolution of public knowledge about how life works, how we can produce more and better food ecologically through the control of scientific publications as well as the media to promote an obsolete paradigm of genetic reductionism and mechanistic science, and repeatedly making false claims to miracles through genetic engineering.
There is adequate evidence that GMOs do not increase yields and cannot address hunger. The “miracles” of biofortification through genetic engineering such as Golden Rice for removing Vitamin A deficiency, and GMO banana for removing iron deficiency, are less efficient than alternatives available through indigenous knowledge and biodiversity. Also, instead of controlling pests and weeds, GMOs have led to the emergence of superpests and superweeds.
The GMO emperor has no clothes, but influence on science, media and public policy by the biotechnology industry got everyone whose minds are captive, clapping for the GMO emperor’s new clothes.
The fifth violation of the freedom of knowledge is denying citizens their right to know what they are eating. The influence of $40 million spent by the biotechnology and food industry to undermine the labelling initiatives of California and Washington is an example of knowledge pollution eroding food democracy.
The irony is that GMOs are being promoted in the name of science, yet science and knowledge are being sacrificed daily for untruths to feed the greed machinery, not people.
Without knowledge sovereignty there is no food sovereignty. Without knowledge freedom there is no freedom and democracy.