Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Modern superstitions, Biotechnology,GM crops etc.

Modern Superstitions, Biotechnology, GM crops etc. 
My first-cousin, Dr.T. Ravindranathan who was an authority in Synthetic organic chemistry and had retired from the National Chemical Laboratory Pune, as Deputy Director a few years back, suggested to me that I should perhaps write on Superstitions outside the traditional realm of religion. The reason was that both of us have independently come to a conclusion that a lot of effort by governmental and non-governmental organisations are being wasted in eradicating conventional superstitious beliefs, rituals and customs though they are far from being of any significant influence in our society anymore, barring, say, among a lunatic fringe consisting of stray individuals. At the same time there are new superstitions coming up and spreading virally on the strength of their association with the so-called “scientific views”. For this reason they are far more dangerous of the superstitions of the ignorant and emotional people. We need to attack these modern superstitions more vigorously.

Many would agree with me that after Independence, thanks to the long freedom struggle organised by leaders who were political activists-cum-social reformers, the worst evil prevalent in the majority community of Hindus who comprised 85% or more of India’s population - the caste system – had begun to crumble. The philosophy of caste-system was almost destroyed, leaving only the morphology. But the dynamics of Indian democracy in the later years revived the caste system as a political tool in the hands of the “brown raj” with its own “divide and rule” policy to garner votes. Now caste system is defended as the be-all and end-all of social justice! A system of reverse discrimination is firmly in place as described as “scientific” and politically correct to boot.

What I meant by describing above was that progress can produce its own retrogression. I am worried that it is spreading to areas outside the realm of politics and sociology. Science appears to have generated its own regressive clones which are potentially as harmful to humanity as the other variety I touched upon. Environmental Science has a deadly clone of superstitious ‘environmentalism’ with its hair-splitting pseudoscience and illogicality currently trying to undermine every aspect of development in the world. From Dr.Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar to innumerable compatriots of mine in Kerala (most of them without any science-education), ‘practice’ in this field spreading “under-cooked” and ill-digested information, many indeed generally scaring people away from even fruits, vegetables and of course, soft-drinks but almost carefully ignoring the non-vegetarian fare and sometimes even promoting consumption of cow’s meat in the name of valuable nutrition for the poor and under-nourished, unmindful of whether the animals are diseased or not!

I regularly come across reading material from KP Prabhakaran Nair, a former boss of Monsanto thrashing biotechnology to hurt Monsanto mainly, and have wondered at his assertions bordering on total lack of faith in biotechnology unless it is contributing to development of GMO in China, not known so far for any serious concern for environment as against economic development! Monsanto ignores him, though. Latest I read in the genre was an interview in Sunday Times of 2nd November 2014, by Suman Sahai who heads the NGO ‘Gene Campaign’, and notably a geneticist and someone who has also won the “Norman Borlaug Award” (an award given to recognize exceptional, science-based achievement in international agriculture and food production etc.?) winner! Norman Borlaug was n American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called "the father of the Green Revolution", "agriculture's greatest spokesperson" and "The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives", Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the World Food Prize as we know him. He had developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential. Suman Sahai’s problem is that she suspects or believes in the toxicity and allergenicity in GM foods, and worries about the   interruption in the natural process by biotechnology in this pursuit!

But man has been applying biotechnology since the dawn of civilization! Modern biotechnology is simply using living systems to give society better or drugs, foods and other products. Unfortunately, there is much misinformation, misunderstanding and confusion about biotechnology, giving rise to needless anxiety. The situation also obscures any real hazards that might exist as well as possible means of controlling them. A basic understanding of the techniques and goals of biotechnology research is important for deciding the merits of concerns and proposed solutions. Our understanding of science, especially genetics, has advanced currently to the extent we can optimize specific genes and traits to provide even greater benefits while reducing or eliminating undesirable features. Removing toxicity and allergenicity are basic in any serious GMO research! Biotechnology, based on recombinant DNA (rDNA), is called Gene Splicing, Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM), giving rise to genetically modified organisms (GMO) such as Bt Cotton, Bt brinjal and so on. Seeds are developed in laboratories and field-tested for long periods of time to ensure that the plants eventually enhance nutritional value or resistance to drought, disease and herbicides. Molecular plant breeding can provide higher precision to increase crop yield and nutritional enhancements at little or no additional cost. There are other carefully tailored improvements like better flavours and longer ripening period etc., all possible in shorter time.

A study by noted scientist Charles Benbrook of the Washington State University published in Environmental Sciences Europe claiming substantial use of pesticide use in the US since the introduction of genetically modified crops many years ago is perhaps the source of similar claims by various people in our media because I am not aware of any serious study into this area in India. After the controversial Seralini GM maize study (originally published in Food and Chemical Toxicology (Elsevier) in September 2012 which the scientific community generally considered was without proper statistical refereeing, and also using obscure methods and reporting) and questions about the safety of foods made from genetically modified crops, Benbrook’s was another line of attack on biotechnology claiming that GM crops were environmentally unfriendly, interestingly by the fierce critic of crop biotechnology that he was, who claimed that the public data showed pesticide use steadily increasing in the US since GM crops were introduced in the 1990s.

Media coverage of the Benbrook study comprised selective presentations from anti-GM journalists; some at organic publisher Rodale. It was a pity the context provided by more mainstream sources like Reuters, which uncritically echoed a report under the title “GMO crop technology backfires” was very damaging. Interestingly, a former University of California Davis scientist Steve Savage, had reached astonishingly at a far different conclusion from the alarmist view, and while confirming a very modest multi-year increase in the use of some less toxic versions of pesticides than the ones used earlier, he viewed it as a sign of significant environmental progress! It seems the horrors Benbrook arrived at came from subjective estimates of herbicide use from data provided by the US National Agricultural Statistics Service which didn’t differentiate between GM and non-GM crops! Well, breaking down Benbrook’s numbers some researchers have also found that pesticide use is actually falling on a yield per hectare basis—aligning with what biotech proponents have predicted would happen! More specifically, Graham Brookes of PG Economics, a UK consultancy firm(Dorchester) crunched the almost identical data and published a peer reviewed report that found GM crops possibly reducing worldwide pesticide use by 9.1 per cent!

A responsible newspaper like the Time of India should have weighed and contextualized the view provided by Ms.Sahai. For instance, Ms.Sahai is suspicious of the refined Soya oil India is importing, ignoring the scientific fact that cooking oils from GM corn, soy or canola will provide lower saturated fat content, and making it possible for us to eat French fries with fewer calories. GM potatoes with enhanced starch content absorb less fat during frying. Ms. Sahai says high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is unhealthy and associated with metabolic disturbances; but HFCS is basically the same as sugar, in terms of composition as well as in the number of calories they contain. Since HFCS and sugar are so similar, the human body absorbs them the same way! She has probably read a 2004 study which had misunderstand chemistry, and draw erroneous conclusions. (A former CPM Member of Parliament once wrote an article in Mangalam Daily extolling the virtues of the alcohol manufactured in Cuba from molasses-fermentation, topping it with a fantastic nonsense like its energy output being higher than the alcohol we produce in India using the same process! I wrote to the paper, but they would rather believe the influential politician than me; and I stopped subscribing to the paper!) Ms.Sahai should also know that sensitive new testing kits can detect tiny amounts of potentially harmful toxic contaminants in foods and India certainly has the competence in this field.

The most successful defender of GM food I have heard was a young woman scientist in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram: she vanquished in about five minutes three vociferous GMO-haters thumping French & American books and holding forth before a sympathetic anchorperson on a TV programme. It is a pity that institutions like hers do very little public awareness activity. However, gradually there is an environmental consensus emerging on relative safety of GM crops, irrespective of well-publicised alarmist opposition to GM crops that GM crops do not pose unmanageable environmental threats. It is agreed that crops bred for a natural resistance to pests harm biodiversity less than conventional crops because glyphosate, the pesticide used in conjunction with GM crops, is less persistent in the environment and less toxic to animals. In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature called for a halt to the release of GM organisms, but its 2007 report said that there was “no conclusive evidence of direct negative impacts on biodiversity of GMOs that have been commercially released”. By 2010, the once sceptical US National Research Council Reporter agreed that “Generally, GM crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GM crops produced conventionally”; the European Union report summarizing 10 years of research, also concluding that GM crops were not ”per se more risky”.

If farmers see emergence of new weed varieties, or resistant new weedicides like glyphosate, remember, that is a problem in conventional agriculture from time immemorial. The worry about the “Superweeds” is perhaps only a temporary reflection of the current market reality that farmers have a limited menu of GM crops to choose from. With a larger variety of crops using different pesticides, resistant-specific weeds are less likely to emerge. New plant varieties developed using biotechnology and biologically protected against insects and diseases are now on the world market helping farmers hard-pressed to maintain efficient production with fewer chemical pesticides etc. Leaner meats will come from cattle and pigs improved both directly and through improved feeds. As the knowledge of molecular genetics increases, the ability to improve the foods and farming will increasingly benefit farmers and consumers alike. As the farm economy will improve, removing hunger from the world, and consumers will benefit by more diverse, more nutritious, more abundant and less expensive food.

Now let me ask you, are people like Ms. Sahai deliberately spreading misinformation, ignorant, or superstitious in a “scientific” way? I searched Wikipedia for getting a little more information on Ms.Sahai’s claims to fame to be interviewed by the Sunday Times. I was astonished to gather that “In April 2013, Sahai was shown to have committed plagiarism in her habilitation thesis in human genetics which was submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 1986(Sahai, Suman: Elucidation of the role of neurotransmitter glutamate in normal and abnormal mental function) On 14 April, 2013, the University of Heidelberg confirmed that plagiarism had taken place, that Sahai has no right to call herself a professor of the University of Heidelberg, and that in consequence Sahai had agreed to renounce her venia legend. In addition, she was accused of presenting herself as being or having been a professor at that University, without ever actually having occupied such a position. Now is she a winner of the Norman Borlaug Award? As per The Hindu report she was winner of the 2004 award bestowed by the Coromandel Fertilizers along with one I.V.Subba Rao, a soil scientist; and repeats the grievous error that Ms.Sahai was Professor at Heidelberg! 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A speech I would like NaMo to make at his inauguration
Gurujan, bahujan, brothers and sisters,
With your votes and blessings I am here, working my way up from very small beginnings, with no legacy behind me for support. Patriotism, my Party, passion, & hard work helped me gain your esteem to reach this position that gives me more capacity to serve you better.

This is no time&place to say anything controversial. But then there was a concerted, planned effort lasting a dozen years to smear and demonise me, death threats to me to this day to end my political career, banish me from Gujarat, not to speak of stopping my ascend to this august office, I have a few things to tell the whole nation: I have been sinned against. I did not deserve the unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity that transgressed the boundaries of the “political correctness” in vogue. While my political rivals blamed me for the Gujarat carnage of 2002, they chose to ignore innumerable similar or fiercer riots that flared up  with obvious regularity during earlier regimes. They ignored that Ahmedabad incident followed another unforgivable carnage in Godhra. The whole thing was programmed carefully to bring down NDA which ruled the country under the leadership of Atalji. Ahmedabad riot of 2002 was no one-way street, and from the death of rioters belonging to both communities, you can see the State government took fast and proper action. Never afterwards the communal situation worsened in Gujarat though we have a porous border with Pakistan and any time thousands of Bangladeshi’s whose intentions are not clear are swarming Gujarat too like the rest of the country. We have the determination to establish peace.

The Supreme Court of India was directly supervising investigations against Gujarat government, Modi the CM, and his colleagues in Govt and party with respect to a range of allegations from inaction to collusion with respect to the 2002 riots; and a reputed former CBI Director of unquestionable integrity headed the SIT that eventually found me innocent; my government prompt in action. Nobody claims riots were not unfortunate. But to blame it all on me, BJP and RSS is unfair in the light of all evidence to the contrary. But our political rivals need a handle to whip us, the professionally outraged minority activists and the NGOs do not want to see anything other than what would help them get funds from abroad and from inside the country on “humanitarian” grounds. The media either do not want facts get in the way of a hot controversy, or do not travel where truth lies in the open.

Instead of giving Indian voters something to believe in, the “secular” politicians and their friends in the media give them someone to hate: Narendra Modi vesting him with a bogus and negative political identity. The Grand old Party or the family that owns that party runs on “progressive”, communal and caste paranoia, and recently gender paranoia was added to it (“empowering women!”) They have been obsessed with portraying BJP as a Nazi cult; and Modi worse than Hitler. Some propaganda consultant told them: don’t be stingy, lay it on with a trowel and pile up thick, so that some of the muck will remain on them; don’t be vague, give numbers: so they said if I become PM 22000 Muslims will be killed! But this time around they went wrong in assuming that a majority of Indians are gullible people.

So, Narendra Modi has traversed toughest terrains to stand before you, you helped me, and your blessings give me more strength, determination and passion to serve Bharat Mata. I promise you good governance on behalf of my party, allies and my team of ministers and civil servants. I will not fail you. I have deeply held ideals about governance, my country’s development & its stature in the international community of nations, about Indian peoples’ destiny, justice, social consensus and OUR future. Some of you would have read our manifesto: it is not a policy document but a declaration of guiding principles, describing broad outlines of a vision. Good governance I promise means corruption-free administration, food security, health facilities, affordable housing to the economically weak, jobs for the unemployed and under-employed through agricultural, industrial and trade development; better roads, universal access to electric power, greater availability of water, burgeoning direct investment, and rapid economic growth in general. I will not talk about 100 days or 200 days of to do a certain amount of work, but my team will be on these activities from day one, till we accomplish what has to be done.

All sorts of fears and anxieties are created about the NDA. Congress Party had always been creating and exploiting Anxieties in the minds of minorities and Dalits.I repeat what I have been saying earlier, and throughout the Lok Sabha election campaign: my rulebook for governance will be the Constitution of India. We are not in the business of ruthless cultivation of vote banks in the Grand old Party’s style. The Nationalist government led by Narendra Modi is not going to be acting on centuries’ worth of grudges against Muslims and Hindu ambitions. My Hindutva defines all those who are Indian and say “Bharat Mata ki Jay”are Hindus. Our party, alliance and its government led by me is committed to ensure that caste, community, regional, linguistic solidarities will not overwhelm our Indian Nationhood. My government will have the political spine to back up words with deeds, I can tell you.

Our political rivals have done a lot of damage to India’s reputation as a secular democracy by propagating the view that Hindu nationalist agenda includes excluding the minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians from India’s mainstream. The propaganda through outgoing and incoming delegations, political exchanges, public outbursts abroad by Cabinet ministers, religious organizations, the publicity apparatus Central Government assiduously created for such activities, and more importantly, a hostile media. India’s old society and ancient values are subjected to relentless indictment thanks to their combined work. On Gandhi assassination we are well into the seventh decade of fake knowledge and spurious narrative of RSS involvement dominating media discourse. Proponents of Hindutva are cast as bigots and efforts increased to rule their perspective altogether out of the realm of acceptable public discourse. The oldest party in the country that ruled India for most of the post-Independence 6 decades has so much propaganda on “secularism” that the expression has unpleasant connotations now. In their enthusiasm to keep minority communities in India as their exclusive vote banks; to the extent they don’t want Hindus living in peace side-by-side with Muslims n Christians. Recently a famous British magazine openly advised Indians who to vote or rather who not vote. The overall tenor of the magazine article was as if India has been a nation of close-minded bigots requiring the intervention of a Congress government to force them into tolerance and diversity! I promise everybody that no one in my party, our alliance and my team is parochial, and prone to put self (and re-election) before country, or incompetent at fulfilling her or his basic constitutional responsibilities.
Remember, when Atalji’s government went ahead with Pokhran-2, the then opposition, erstwhile rulers of India for several decades were gloating about the possibility of Western economic sanctions destroying Indian economy. All those who disliked our nuclear independence came around to see reason and Indian economy was un- affected. I have read somewhere that history isn’t made by nations defending international law, but acting on their own imperatives. My government’s foreign policy will support that view to some extent. We cannot afford to have permanent friends or permanent enemies, but we must, and have indeed, permanent national interests. Come what may, India will not pursue fruitless negotiations that hostile neighbours are likely to exploit. We want friends in our neighbourhood. Like parents, you cannot choose your neighbours. But unlike hostility, friendship cannot be unilateral; it has to be bilateral.

We have been in the opposition, in States and at the Centre and also in power in the states and at the Centre; and hence we understand the complexities of Centre-State relations. To the States ruled by BJP, allies or others, all I have to say as India’s Prime Minister is just what Sardar Patel told the Sates “We are all knit together in bonds of blood and feeling no less than of self-interest. None can segregate us into segments; no impassable barriers can be set up between us”. Our concept and my personal conviction too is that Bharat Mata is an indivisible entity. The whole of India is one and divided for the purpose of administrative convenience. If a CM asks for financial assistance beyond the Central Plan allocation to it, I shall not ever deny it saying “money doesn’t grow on trees” even if that State is ruled by our political rivals.

We have a lot to do to keep our promises. Where can the money be found? We'll have a tax regime that encourages compliance perhaps would more Indians under the net and earn much higher tax revenues. Apart from expanding the base, collection can improve enormously with corruption-free and more efficient collection systems. As an interesting aside, I would mention an income tax official who quit his job to enter politics and eradicate corruption, in good company, realising that corruption after all, was less important than communalism, the whipping boy who always came to the rescue of the corrupt politicians!Congress party and families of some top leaders seem to have become a self-perpetuating aristocracy of wealth whose dimensions now appear to have exceeded all previous accumulations of financial power. The UPA governments have been sitting on some vital information of illegal money accumulated abroad by Indians from Pranabda’s time in the Finance Ministry. Believe me, a Congress leader appears 21st in a list of 24 people in the world living in luxury! Recently hearing a petition by former NDA law minister Ram Jethmalani to retrieve Indian black money hidden away in foreign banks the Supreme Court sought immediate action. Global Financial Integrity reports speak of amounts worth Indian Rupees 60lakh crores! According to an 8yr-old report of Swiss Bankers Association Indians are hiding $1.2trillion in Swiss banks are No.1 in whitewashing black money. Professor Vaidyanathan of IIM-Bangalore says the amount abroad is equivalent to Rupees 70lakh crores. My government will investigate all these, carefully collecting evidence and do our best to bring as much of this money as is humanly possible back to India, with the help of foreign governments and overseas Indians.  
I don’t have to remind you how mother India is described in the revolutionary song ‘Vade Maataram’. We promise you that our endeavour will be to make Mother India “Sujalaam, suphalaam, malayaja sheetalaam.. rich with hurrying streams, bright with orchard gleams, cool with thy winds of delight, Green fields waving Mother of might, Mother free of all woes, her children living together as a huge extended family, happily hereafter...I can see your hope and mine smiling from the threshold of the years to come, Whispering 'it will be happier'!