Tag Archives: GM mustard

Source: YouTube

Feroze Varun Gandhi’s innovative prescriptions for Indian S&T

Where Feroze Varun Gandhi writes about “forging a culture of innovation” in India:

We need to push beyond metrics, papers and patents to focus on providing solutions to development and economic challenges. A focus on building an innovation culture is necessary, particularly giving the transformative shifts under way in sectors critical to India’s economy — from electric cars in automobiles to insourcing in IT services, the economy is exposed to significant job losses and a fall in exports over the coming decade. Our innovation policy has to shift beyond a focus on increasing R&D spending to inculcating a mindset of “out-of-the-box” thinking in our universities, start-ups and corporates. India’s educational policies need to be redesigned, with a focus on building cognitive abilities, beyond rote learning and focus on quantitative subjects.

Dear minister, did you speak to a scientist before writing this? (Alternatively, did your ghost-writer speak to a scientist before writing this?) K. VijayRaghavan was just appointed PSA; I’m sure he’d have been happy to take your call.

Because I’m getting tired of pieces in this template, where authors drop a bunch of numbers we’re so familiar with that many of us have memorised it, and just keep saying “India needs to do better science and better tech”.

In fact, I doubt Feroze Varun Gandhi even wrote this piece. It’s quite easy to write because it offers no new information, no new perspectives and no new insights. Obviously India needs to be better. We all already know that.

So what is this piece about? It’s FVG putting on display the fact that he too can write about science and tech. It’s FVG putting on display that he can think rationally about science and tech spending, irrespective of his party’s often-stupid claims. It’s essentially FVG saying #notallpoliticians.

But as a Bharatiya Janata Party MP, what’s expected of him if he’s going to write about science is something else. It’s about nitty gritties (tell me something I don’t know!), about what he’s doing to change his party’s mindset about “ancient India”, about his efforts to participate in policymaking in science, translational research, tech and research-funding.

But none of these items feature in his piece. Instead, FVG seems content about drawing comparisons to South Korea and the US, quoting from their budget reports, and drawing B-grade parallels to a country whose uniqueness our leaders often like drawing attention to.

By disregarding this uniqueness – of research culture, traditional knowledge, etc. – when talking about scientific research and technological development, people like FVG betray their failure in understanding that scientists are people, too. By ignoring the cultural and political contexts they negotiate, FVG assumes that Indian scientists are simply not thinking hard enough, out of the box enough, etc.

Most of FVG’s piece focuses on downstream activities; when it does turn upstream, it’s only to talk about R&D spending (itself a nebulaic description) or improving “cognitive abilities”. I predict his next oped is going to be about eradicating tuberculosis by 2025, with the following keywords: MDR TB, XDR TB, masks, vaccines, private healthcare and medical insurance. After that, I suspect it’s going to be nuclear fusion.

There’s not a line in FVG’s piece about

  1. Facilitating collaborations
  2. Addressing a monumental language barrier
  3. Women, transgender people and LGBTQIA+ scientists
  4. School students
  5. Reforming grant-disbursal
  6. University autonomy
  7. Preserving safe spaces for intellectual discourse
  8. Research ethics
  9. Setting up schemes on a consultative basis
  10. Making government bodies transparent

Also, science is not divorced from the social sciences. Assuming (wrongly) for a moment that science is neutral and reflexive on short timescales, technology is inherently political. It’s going to create new jobs but get rid of older ones; it’s going to divert resources, redistribute value and require new regulation. A government has to deal with such changes through affirmative action, protecting the livelihoods of the underprivileged and the rights of all its citizens.

If genetically modified crops – a powerful example of the “new technologies” that FVG mentions – haven’t been adopted in India even though scientists are clear that they’re safe, it’s because the government has disenfranchised farmers in the past, slipped up on crop insurance and fixing sale prices, treated public resource management with kid gloves, kept genetic testing data out of the public domain and dealt with agricultural distress according to what will win them a nearby election.

The effects of such botch-ups will be felt upstream, the place that FVG is looking at as if it were an eclipse. Recently, Devang Mehta, a biologist at ETH Zurich, recently wrote a moving piece for Massive about how he was quitting GMO studies because he – like many of his peers – never agreed to put up with the acerbic activism against the technology. IMO, such acerbity is necessary to deal with the Government of India.

Seriously, let’s get over the “numbers are the problem” routine. As a Member of Parliament, FVG doesn’t get to throw his hands up in the air and say, “Here are the numbers, and this is what we need to fix.” There’s a cultural crisis underway in India’s educational and research institutions. Admittedly, it’s a lot of information to process and opine about. If FVG can’t talk about them, he should just not.

It’s perfectly fine. For every moronic utterance that ancient India invented everything, another minister’s silence is worth volumes. It’s a low bar but I’m sure the more cynical among us will take it. It’s obviously important to keep conversations about science and research going in the public domain, but an overwhelming number of those in power appear to be stuck at simply acknowledging a bird’s eye view of our research and development woes, and never really getting into the thick of it.

What’s worse is opeds like FVG’s are taken to be some kind of expression of commitment when they’re not. “Fixing” science is an arguably riskier, stinkier task than “fixing” most other sectors because of the ubiquitous, but eminently fixable, cluelessness. Every new oped that advertises such cluelessness by sticking to the data that FVG has is a proclamation that the author doesn’t give a damn. If the author had, this wouldn’t be the piece they’d be writing.

If this piece had been pitched to me, I’d have rejected it for the reasons above and because publishing it would’ve given the impression that politicians care. They don’t care – not if this oped is anything to go by. It’s a puff piece. My suggestion is to drop the incessant oped-writing and pay attention to the ‘March for Science’ on April 14.

Featured image: Varun Gandhi. Source: YouTube.

GM: confronting contradictions

There was a rash of articles published online recently – such as this one – about how the adult human mind, when confronted with information that contradicts its existing beliefs, does not reorganise what it knows but rejects the information’s truthfulness itself. During political conversations, this aspect of how we think and learn is bound to influence both the way opposing parties argue and the effects of propaganda on people. However, this notion’s impact seems to me to be more dire w.r.t. the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Even when confronted with evidence in support of GM crops from the scientific literature, anti-GM activists reflexively take recourse in the deficiencies inherent in the scientific method, even if the deficiencies themselves are well-known.

In the specific example of GM mustard, there is no clear answer: the variant developed by Deepak Pental & co. has lower yield than some non-GM varieties but higher pest-resistance and is easier to breed. As a result, any single discussion of GM mustard’s eligibility to be a food crop (it hasn’t been released into the market yet) should address its pros and cons together instead of singling out its cons.

It would seem anti-GM activists are aware of this pressure because whenever scientists raise the pros of GM mustard, the activists’ first, and often last, line of reasoning is to quote even other studies. They are in turn rebutted by more studies, and the backs and forths go on until the entire debate becomes hinged on disagreements over minutiae. Granted, allowing bad GM crops to be commercialised can have deadly consequences. But this is also true of a score other enterprises in which we are happy to go along with approximations. Why the selective outrage?

It can’t be that farmer suicides touch a nerve because they are driven not just by crop failure but also by crop insurance, grain storage/distribution and pricing indices (such as the differences between rural CPI and MSP). Estimating these three factors is a task ridden with inaccuracies, many ill-supported assumptions and, frequently, corruption. However, we don’t seem to have raged against them with as much intensity as we have against GM mustard. We should have because of what Harish Damodaran eloquently expressed in The Indian Express on June 1:

Why is there so much opposition to a technology developed, after all, by Indian scientists in the public sector? Yes, the original patent for the [Barnase-Barstar-Bar hybridisation] system was filed by Plant Genetics Systems (now part of Bayer CropScience), but the CGMCP scientists improved upon it, for which they obtained patents (three US, two Canadian, one European Union and Australian each). Yet, we see no value in their work. The opponents — from the so-called Left or the Right — haven’t even bothered to visit the CGMCP, most accessibly located in Delhi University’s South Campus, while taking time out for anti-GMO jamborees in Brussels and The Hague. All this opposition is reflective of a unique Us and Them syndrome. For “us”, nothing but the latest would do. But farmers will have no right to grow GM mustard and assess its performance on the field.

The persuasion to constantly reject one study for another and our hypocritical stand on the ownership of GM crops together suggest that the pro/anti-GM debate is going to be settled by neither of these tactics. They are both the effects of a common flaw: ideological stubbornness. Even I – being pro-GM – am inclined to consign some farmers’ opposition to GM mustard to fear-mongering by activists. Sometimes I can find something easily refuted but at others, I struggle to change my mind even if the facts are evident. Anyway, while I can’t think of what it is that we can do to make ourselves less stubborn (each to her own, perhaps?), I do think it’s important we stay aware of our biases’ impact on our public conversations.

PS: If my post seems one-sided, addressing the behaviour of only anti-GM groups, one reason is that anti-GM expression in the mainstream as well as social media overshadows pro-GM expression. I’m also biased, of course.

Featured image credit: WikimediaImages/pixabay.

GM crops, etc.

There’s been a flurry of stories in my inbox since India’s GEAC cleared a variety of GM mustard, developed by Monsanto, for commercial utilisation in India. It’s an important step, bringing a potentially valuable – as well as potentially damaging – crop closer to being introduced in the market. However, thanks to disasters associated with previous GM foodcrop introductions like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, the introduction of GM mustard isn’t going to go down smoothly. Then again, if a writer doesn’t want GM mustard to be introduced, then the burden of proof is on her to convince me, or any reader for that matter, either that GM mustard is bound to fail as a crop or that it is being introduced in a manner that’s become typical of the Indian government: through half-measures and seldom in a way that suggests the state is ready to face all possible consequences, especially the adverse ones.

On the other hand, how does it make sense to grate against Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in order to discourage the introduction of GM mustard? Doing so suggests an immensely pessimistic determinism, an assumption that we will never produce the perfect genetically modified crop. Notwithstanding Monsanto’s transgressions in the past, I do think that GM is the future – it has to be to keep feeding a planet of more than 7,000,000,000. And apart from optimising food storage and transportation, the demand for food is bound to grow with more people coming out of poverty. To insist at this point to switch to organic farming, which involves methods that may be locally sustainable but doesn’t have the mass-production capacity of conventional agriculture that this world has become addicted to, en masse and abandon GM options is nothing but foolish.

Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, we’re faced with some very difficult choices, but let’s start making decisions that go beyond the local ecology and local impact – not by abdicating local economies and people but by doing all of this in a way that no one loses out. Again, not going to be easy. I’m not sure anything in this sphere can be. Finally, yes, I’m aware that I’m speaking from a position of privilege; I stand by my comments. Oh, one more thing: The Wire‘s science section has also imposed a moratorium on non-reported GM pieces. I’m really keen on taking the conversation forward, not drowning a platform with The Wire‘s import in volleys exchanged between pro- and anti-GM camps.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.