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! 

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