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AgBioForum, 12(1), 2009 | 21

Given the risks rural people face from threats as differ- ent as rigged global markets and climate change, the ethical problem for opponents of transgenics is Rawl- sian. That is, how does one justify blocking technolo- gies farmers seek out?

Opposition is not really a politics of precaution or Luddism—all participants in international advocacy net- works embrace advances in digital technologies, for example, and indeed depend on them. Nor is it a politics of risk. There are significant risks in common technolo- gies accepted by the metropolitan middle classes, though one would recognize variation: cell phones are thought to be less risky than digitization of national accounts, stock ownership, medical records, air traffic control patterns, terrorist watch lists, and personal data of all kinds. The whole apparatus of digital technologies vulnerable to viruses and malicious hacking raises remarkably few fears (except among software profes- sionals), but certainly no global movements. There is no comparable threat even conceivable from GMOs, which have spawned both fears and movements. Moreover, opposition is not a politics of opposing multinational capital, as often represented. Information technologies are not exactly free of concentration of power in multi- national corporations. The same is true of pharmaceuti- cals, where there is both risk and concentration of power in intellectual property. Yet genetic engineering in that industry has become globally naturalized; there are no FrankenPills on posters. Nor are oppositional narratives rooted in a politics of economic democracy: virtually all modern technologies experience concentration of capital in large firms accountable to no one.

One must then ask about the interests and ethics of mobilization against technical change in agriculture. Crop transgenics has proved of interest to poor farmers, but not of high-income consumers; the Bt cotton case confirms this pattern. It would be impossible to argue from an original position behind Rawls’ veil of igno- rance that the preferences of the well-fed and comfort- able should dominate those of the more numerous and vulnerable.

frames that rely on brokers with strong ideological screening. Would the Pesticide Action Network be so opposed to GMOs if the evidence were widely available on pesticide reduction through Bt technology, for exam- ple? Given that farmers have adopted transgenic tech- nologies in droves, how plausible are reports that they continue to replant seeds that failed them and are destroying their health and environments? Would they allow their sheep to feed on poisonous leaves? Who is going to find out? That extreme claims are so difficult to disconfirm and are buttressed by local interests in their promulgation goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of egregiously erroneous narratives. The “failure of Bt cotton in India” is among the most perva- sive of these, but only one of many.


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For conscientious citizens of the “first world,” the first obligation is recognition that our political prefer- ences have powerful influences on decisions in parts of the world where the options are fewer and less attrac- tive. If European aid programs and global civil-society organizations are to press their preferences in low- income countries, they have an obligation to get the empirics right (Paarlberg, 2008). This obligation is most apparent when information about places remote from their experience is so inaccessible, filtered through

Gupta, A.K., & Chandak, V. (2005). Agricultural biotechnology in India: Ethics, business and politics. International Journal of Biotechnology, 7(1-3), 212–227.

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Herring, R.J. (2005). Miracle seeds, suicide seeds and the poor: GMOs, NGOs, farmers and the state. In R. Ray & M.F. Katzenstein (Eds.), Social movements in India: Poverty, powe , and politics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Herring — Persistent Narratives: Why is the "Failure of Bt Cotton in India" Story Still with Us?

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