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−− Uncovering the true and hidden costs of unscientific fearmongering

Oct. 14, 2021

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Oct. 14, 2021

Part 1


At the recently held 10th Agrochemical Conference organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), Shri. Narendra Singh Tomar, Hon. Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Govt. of India, emphatically stressed the importance of balancing various approaches and practices such as chemical-based and/or organic farming for the ultimate benefit of the farmers. Further, Shri. Bhagwanth Khuba, Minister of State, Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers and Ministry of New & Renewable Energy, Govt. of India, aptly emphasized on countering negative (public) perception about use of chemicals in agriculture. Both of them equivocally placed more significance on the imminent need for adoption of new technological innovations to make India’s agrarian sector more resilient, profitable, and yet environmentally sustainable. These sensible remarks emerging from the upper most echelons of policy making assume great importance at this juncture particularly, in India because the general public often has very limited understanding of science, be it pesticides, antibiotics, or chemicals, in general. 


Diversity is the basic foundation needed for the very existence of the human species. Diversity in culture, social norms, rules, ideologies, language, food, culinary preferences, and crops grown make the world interesting. Ideologies are critical here, and one must understand the differences in perspectives that form the basis of the belief systems in every culture and race. For example, Asian cultures are typically hierarchical and bound by strong social norms wherein individual choices and preferences are most often overruled by societal expectations or norms. But this is not the case of some other cultures. All these factors influence how people process, perceive, and respond to information fed to them constantly over a long period of time particularly, about scientific innovations. 


Risks vs Benefits – A balanced approach


OIP-C.jpgAny technology or product (e.g., chemical compound such as a drug or a pesticide molecule) will have its own advantages and disadvantages as well as risks and benefits. Risks are to be weighed against the benefits and that must be the main objective while taking a neutral and balanced stand on assessing any new innovation. History is rife with many examples of innovations that are constantly under fire such as golden rice, Bt cotton, GM soybean and GE corn, or pesticides such as glyphosate, neonicotinoids, when unfortunately, science is often overtaken by sensation. 


Of late, there are many examples of borrowed ideologies having no relevance to the on-ground social, economic, cultural, and political realities of the developing countries influencing the regulatory & policy making process. One of those borrowed ideologies is the “Utopian green” agriculture wherein people want to take precautionary (often negative and time-consuming) perspective towards any new technology but expect the agriculture sector to continue to feed the growing population with affordable, safe, and nutritious food yet being environmentally sustainable. The question whether it is possible or achievable remains unanswered. 


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Catchy slogans vs on-ground realities


The internet is swamped with myths, misconceptions, half-truth, and baseless claims propagated by several entities (unqualified individuals in the guise of experts, groups of non-profit organizations sharing common ideologies) with questionable credentials and ostensible motives, inventing catchy phrases such as “ecological armageddon, beepocalypse” etc., These are often coined based on, at best, opinions that cannot be justified scientifically and are used to serve the sole purpose of confusing the general public and destroy their trust in the robust regulatory framework governing scientific innovations through spreading misinformation. Having enormous funds to support their well-coordinated campaign across the world, especially in countries that have limited capacities and evolving policy and  regulatory frameworks, these entities work tirelessly towards shaking the foundations of ‘License to Operate’ for any industry sector. Obviously, these unscientific claims and misconceptions gain traction faster than truth supported by scientific evidence particularly on social media, wherein sensation sells more than science. 


What-is-true.jpgScience vs Sensation


While the plant science industry is working hard to find innovative and sustainable solutions to feed the world of 9 billion by 2030, the true cost of these kinds of counterproductive propaganda is enormous. Generally, cost of doing business particularly, regulatory compliance increases. This is true only in case of those responsible players who have the responsibilities to fulfil their ESG mandates and go beyond. For example, it takes over 11 years and more than US$ 800 million (from discovery to commercialization) to bring an agrochemical product to the market. Similarly, innovations like Golden rice can truly benefit millions of underprivileged particularly, children with Vitamin A deficiency. However, due to unrealistic, borrowed ideologies and unjustified negative propaganda, several beneficial technological innovations are delayed or do not see the light of the day at all. Genetic engineering and the myths surrounding it is one of the classic examples.


These entities with vested interests vociferously spread their ideology-based pseudo-science propaganda among unsuspecting public with zero sensitivity towards real issues. Sometimes the real problem is different from what is perceived or propagated by these entities. They neither offer any sensible and workable solutions to solving the greatest socio-economic (hunger, malnutrition, and poverty) or ecological problems (e.g., depletion of natural resources, soil degradation) nor they can justify their claims with strong scientific evidence. 


In the recent past, Sri Lanka gained global attention with its aspiration of doing away completely with chemical fertilizers. However, whether the decision to move away from using chemical fertilizers to organic farming practices is supported by scientific evidence and whether this misplaced emphasis has led the country into the current food crisis remain debatable. 


(to be continued)


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Source: AgroNews

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