Ronald J. Herring
Cornell University

Much of the literature on agricultural biotechnology is agro-economic. How material facts on the ground relate to a unique set of politics determining deployment of the technology is less discussed. This article begins with the global rift over biotechnology in agriculture generated by national and transnational political forces. Rival sides of the rift evoke radically divergent positions on potential, performance, and outcomes. India has been influenced by and contributed to both global discourse and political forces. India’s national experience helps in understanding the relative roles of ideas and interests in driving politics around rDNA plants and regulatory outcomes: what can be legally grown where and under what conditions? Ideas have been especially important in a distal and enabling way by legitimating regulatory law that subjects GMOs to a politics of risk, in which normal science is vulnerable. Nevertheless, despite distinct political advantages, risk politics as driven by ideas of threat and danger confront material economic interests. Interactive effects mutually drive outcomes, critically mediated by political structure where regulatory power is located within the state. Limits to risk politics are clearly illustrated in the brief history of Bt cotton in India, in which farmer interests overcame both regulatory precaution and campaigners organized around ideas of risk and rural catastrophe. Hypothetical or anticipatory risks did, however, block India’s second transgenic crop—Bt brinjal (eggplant)— despite approval by state science, not because of retail politics but rather because of the structure of regulatory power consistent with precautionary logics prominent in international risk politics.

Key words: Agricultural and natural resource economics, environmental and ecological economics, biotechnology, risk, innovation, technology, India.