Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. Vandana Shiva raises none of them.

G. Padmanaban, the former Director of IISc and a biotech administrator and activist if there ever was one, gave a talk at JNC about the promise of genetically modified crops–and necessary precautions to take in their use. Padmanaban pulled no punches, and laid out the pro-GM position as clearly as I’ve heard it. (Disclosure: I changed my position on GM crops about a year ago on the basis of the scientific consensus on their safety. I do not think GM crops are a cure-all; the ecological impact of every new GM crop should be assessed carefully before widespread use is authorised.) His talk cleared up several misconceptions I had about GM crops simply because of where I (mostly) got my information from.

Vandana Shiva is a high profile opponent of globalisation in general and Monsanto’s monopoly over Bt cotton (and Bt brinjal, if the time comes). She says that the government should “control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds”. This on the eve of an expected announcement from the central government on GM crop royalties. Her article is typical of articles written against GM crops, in that it’s vague, argues circularly, and would probably misinform the unwary reader.

OK, I’ll assume some explanation is necessary.

Monsanto added the gene from Bacillus thuringienesis(Bt) to the cotton plant’s genome, creating Bt cotton. Monsanto ‘owns’ Bt cotton, in that only Monsanto can decide who (else) gets to make or sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto charges such seed companies a royalty for using their technology. The companies presumably pass this on to farmers who buy seeds from them.

This is much like somebody making a song or a movie, and charging licensing fees for you to use them. (Several Indian) seed companies have licensed the Bt cotton ‘technology’ from Monsanto Mahyco, the subsidiary of Monsanto that owns Bt cotton rights in India.

The Indian government decided, in May this year, to cap prices for seeds. They also decided that royalties should be capped at 10% of the seed price for the first five years, and should decrease after that. The order also said that any company that wants to produce Bt seeds should be given a licence (much like the compulsory licensing for life-saving drugs that India enforces). The Indian government then withdrew the order, presumably under pressure from the industry, and said they’ll tell us what they’ve decided in three months, i.e. some time this week.

A wide range of positions on intellectual property is possible in a democracy, and the government will find some middle ground, as governments do. That the government used the essential commodities act instead of something else has been called into question, with people pointing out that seeds constitute about 5% of input costs for farmers and that setting royalty limits only serves the intermediaries between Monsanto and the farmers.

The misinformation about GM crops, on the other hand, is staggering. Vandana Shiva’s article, for instance, is an incoherent muddle. Her central point that the Indian government should control the price of seeds is clear enough. But her article doesn’t even mention seed companies, consistently making it seem as if farmers are directly indebted to Monsanto!

The article is rife with bad arguments and specious analogies. I made a list:

1)

300,000 farmers have killed themselves because of seed royalties.

About 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. But no clear link exists between farmer suicide numbers and the adoption of Bt cotton. If it’s true that seeds are 5% of the total input cost, though, a link seems unlikely.

2)

By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.

Monsanto claiming ownership of the seed because it had the tools to shoot a gene with a gene gun into the cell of the plant is the equivalent to a doctor who has facilitated in-vitro fertilisation claiming parenthood and ownership not only of the child thus born, but of all its descendants in the future. Society will surely reject such a claim.

I wouldn’t blame you if you came away from Vandana Shiva’s article thinking that farmers owe royalties to Monsanto, crop after crop, season after season. This is, as far as I can tell (and I’d happily stand corrected; down with the evil corporation and all that), absolutely untrue. Farmers do have the right to save their seeds and replant them. That the next generation of hybrid Bt cotton won’t be quite as resistant to bollworm as the first generation is called the loss of hybrid vigour, and is a feature of all hybrids, not just GM hybrids.

3)

By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, such corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds which have now become their property.

Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing. They multiply and reproduce.

If the assertion is that patents related to living organisms should be regulated differently from patents for other things, I think that’s all right. But it is a line-drawing exercise. Experiments on animals are allowed for example; certain kinds of experiments on human beings aren’t. We can debate where the line should be drawn for patenting.

On the other hand, “plants can evolve on their own” is only a valid argument against patenting Bt cotton if cotton plants could somehow evolve a/the gene that provides bollworm resistance.

4)

In Argentina, a judge rejected Monsanto soya bean patent, saying: “The writer of a book cannot claim to be the inventor of a language.”Monsanto is not writing the book of life. It is just scrambling the letters in total ignorance of what its “genetic modification” means at the level of the organism, the seed or the eco system. Claiming patents on seed and patents on life is therefore equivalent to claiming destruction as creation, ignorance as innovation.

The writer of a book has rights to what he’s written. That’s intellectual property. We can decide democratically whether, and how strictly, we want to enforce IP rights. But saying “the writer didn’t invent those words” in defence of plagiarism, say, is laughable. There’s a clear legal distinction between what’s patentable–the technology to add the Bt gene into cotton–and what isn’t–cotton itself.

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. If GM crops turn out to be invasive, what ecological impact would that have? Sans proper farmer training/education, are we risking pesticide resistant super-pests? Vandana Shiva raises none of them in her article.

Abdul Kalam

Snark is easy.

Among the most visited posts on the blog is a flippant piece on a speech our late President APJ Abdul Kalam made. In the post, I make fun of Kalam’s flubbing some grammar; I make fun of the circular nature of his prescription for world peace. I make fun of his earnestness.

I made fun; it’s easy to make fun.

Most of the pushback has been equally childish. “Go kill yourself” is not an argument, to say nothing of being ironic coming right after ‘how could you say such mean things’?

The true test of a man is in how he treats those he has power over, goes the saying. I work for somebody who saw first-hand how Kalam treated subordinates. Kalam saw right through people, RN says. He saw who could or couldn’t do what, and didn’t put hierarchy before knowledge. He made you feel special for being part of his team. RN’s words, as best I can remember them, were “if you could do what was necessary to get the project to work, he’d treat you like the most important person”. As a recruit into DRDO and then ISRO without a PhD, it took other great men–Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai (and Raja Ramanna, I think)–to see Kalam’s potential. Kalam’s contributions to the Indian missile defence programme dwarf those of anybody else any of us can name, PhD or not.

All of which is to say I’m thinking of writing again. The first post on my return has gone well. But one does not simply walk into mordor pick up where one left off with no indication of having introspected, of having seen time pass by.

I’ve made apologies for doing dumb things before. I daresay I’ll make them again. Let’s not call this an apology; perhaps that’s too strong a word. Let me say only that the point some commenters made on the original Abdul Kalam post that snark doesn’t always show wit or cleverness is well taken, and will be remembered as I try and get better at whatever it is I’m doing here.

No, “Many Indians” aren’t interested in PV Sindhu’s caste

NewsMinute’s numbers are off. Way, way off.

After the Brexit vote results came out, several news agencies (as well as the “fake” newspeople Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee) focussed on the fact that people were asking google “What is the EU?” the day after voting ended. It turns out that the number of people searching “what is the EU?” was about 1000–i.e. essentially zero compared to the 35 million people who voted one way or another in the Brexit referendum.

I think something similar is happening with a recent story in India on PV Sindhu, India’s silver medallist in Badminton in the Rio Olympics. NewsMinute is running a story that google searches for PV Sindhu’s caste have spiked after she won her silver medal. This is true, and can be checked quite simply by using Google Trends. But, as in the Brexit case above, a spike means very little unless accompanied by absolute numbers.

Newsminute provides one graph on absolute numbers, showing that 150,000 people searched for PV Sindhu’s caste in June 2016. They claim that, based on the recent spike, millions of people are searching for PV Sindhu’s caste. If that number seems suspect to you–as it did me–that’s because it appears it is.

pvsindhu_caste_newsminute

Here are my results from Google AdWords. First, the number of people who searched for “pv sindhu”, and “pv sindhu caste”:

pvsindhu_1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

pvsindhucaste_2

 

There were about 15,000 searches a month for PV Sindhu, and 170 searches a month for her caste over the last six months. Where newsminute got their 150,000 searches from I do not know, but that number is clearly rubbish. About 1% of all searches for PV Sindhu asked for her caste. This ratio holds even with the recent–and bloody well earned–spike in interest in her, as you can see below. If we accepted the NewsMinute number of 150,000 searches for “pv sindhu caste”, it would mean, with a factor of 100 for the spike, and a factor of 100 between the two search terms, that there were 1.5 billion searches for “pv sindhu”. Bullshit. [Edit (11PM): I realised after I posted this that the 150,000 is per month, whereas the hundredfold spike may have been per day. That means that my figure of 1.5 billion may be wrong. If so, it would mean, however, that on the day of her silver-medal win, there were (150,000/30) * (100 * 100)  = 5 crore searches for PV Sindhu. Which brings me back to: ‘Bullshit’.]

pvsindhu_caste_trends

Now, 1% in India is a lot of people, and NewsMinute could be forgiven for saying “many Indians” given that about 20,000 people have searched for her caste. But they have to explain why their numbers are so far off.

 

Net neutrality nuance

Net neutrality should be inviolable.

However, when Mark Zuckerberg says “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” I agree with his definition of net neutrality.

Allowing companies to pay ISPs so that customers can access their websites for free is not different from allowing companies to set up toll-free phone lines, and does not violate net neutrality. Here’s what would be a violation of net neutrality:
Airtel stops a certain company from signing up for Airtel zero; Or
Airtel charges one company more per unit data than another; Or
Airtel speeds up loading times for one company’s website compared to another;
Or–and this is something they’ve already tried to do once–Airtel decides to charge users extra for data used for VoIP calls.

If the complaint is that people will tend to use the free websites more than competitors’ websites, that’s a question of monopoly, not neutrality. The great thing about the internet, of course, is that it doesn’t cost all that much to sample the field, and the costs are only going to decrease. Ask yourself: if hotmail were made free and gmail continued to cost bandwidth, would you switch (back) to hotmail? If myspace were made free, would you switch (back) to myspace?

This is not to suggest, at all, that companies should be allowed to police themselves. A regulator exists and should be empowered by law to enforce net neutrality strictly. But it helps nobody to confuse terms.

The colour-perception wars

Blue and black or white and gold? Maybe this will explain it.

No, I don’t mean race. Although that does bring to mind Woody Allen’s quip that people will always find something to fight about (HT Meenakshi for this line).

There’s this picture of a woman in a dress doing the rounds, and apparently starting huge arguments. People are freaking out, and what not.

black_blue_white_gold

Here’s something I haven’t seen suggested anywhere else: try a pinhole camera. Take a piece of paper (it works best if the piece of paper is thick and opaque). Punch a small hole–an actual pinhole is likely too small; try a paper-punch.

I see black and blue. Which I assumed was because of the lighting. So as I figure, using a pinhole should take away effects of the lighting and show up the ‘true’ colours in the picture. So what I expected when I tried this was that I would see hints of gold and white. Which happened.

But wait! There’s a twist. If my explanation above is right, people who see white and gold unaided should continue to see white and gold through a pinhole. This is NOT what happens, apparently (admittedly I only have an anecdote to go by). Why don’t you try it and tell me?

What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

“Thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.

As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


Footnotes:

1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions

 

Net neutrality in India, or what Airtel will do next

Internet access is a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you.

At 10% 20% (footnote 1), the fraction of the population of India that has (regular) access to the Internet may not be as high as in the developed world, but 20% of 1.2 billion is a significant number and India already has the third largest internet user-base in the world. And with the kind of penetration of mobile telephony that India has, it is only a matter of time before that fraction shoots up. In fact, it may already have started doing this: that fraction has doubled in the last three years.

A fifth of the country now has regular access to the internet. Internet access is, therefore, no longer a vanity; it is what might be called a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you. This has long been the argument of supporters of a free (not as in beer) internet, activists for net neutrality.

The flashpoint recently was Airtel’s decision to start charging for using its network to make VoIP calls. Unsurprisingly, Airtel wants its customers to talk over their mobile telephony network rather than use their network to make calls over the internet. It looks like they were only testing the waters, though, because they’ve now rolled back the proposed tariffs. About which, two thoughts:

1) Like the article at medianama says, they’ve possibly only done this to force TRAI to make a decision, and you can imagine how good they feel about their chances to do something like this.

2) What airtel did here was both a clear violation of net neutrality and something that would cost the end-user money. The more insidious threat to net neutrality will come when airtel (or some other company) partners up with skype – make calls on skype free, but you’ll have to pay for any other VoIP service; I don’t know if we’ll see the same kind of backlash from the public then as we’ve seen now.


 

*fn1: The numbers I remembered were 5% for the world as a whole and 10% for India. Good thing I decided to look up the numbers, then.