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.

Bloody red tape (Rant)

The centre is holding interviews today and we’re short-staffed since today’s officially a holiday. I was asked to help out with office work. Shouldn’t be hard, should it?

One part of the office work I was assigned was to look at train tickets for reimbursement. Interview candidates are given sleeper class fares for train/bus journeys from wherever they currently study/reside to Hyderabad and back. In order to make sure that this provision isn’t misused, the rules say the journey has to be made by the shortest route. You’d think that the “shortest” would be interpreted liberally. After all, train journeys between the same two locations can be shorter in one direction than the other.

For instance, a sleeper class ticket from Bombay to Hyderabad is Rs. 345. A sleeper class ticket from Hyderabad to Mumbai is Rs. 350. There seems to be a small difference in the distance travelled (8km or so) and an even smaller difference in the fare. What would you say is the reasonable response to this?

One response is to say nobody is trying to cheat anybody, and the difference of five bucks hardly matters. The time it would take to check whether the train the candidate took was indeed the shortest journey (there are 15 trains between Hyderabad and Bombay) is worth more than the five bucks that the centre would save by skimping on the reimbursement.

The other response… well, you can probably guess what the other response is. We’ve all been to government offices at some point. Unsurprisingly, I got told to go away for arguing this point. Typical.

Sydney Brenner on science

Scientific institutions and risk in science.

Sriram sent a bunch of us an interview with Sydney Brenner,one of the discoverers of mRNA. In the broad-ranging interview, Brenner talks about the thrill of making a scientific discovery and the joy of seeing your predictions come true. He talks about how institutions of science are run today and how they might be made better. The entire interview is well worth the read, whether or not you in the end agree with what is being said.

Of interest to me, since this is relevant to what I said about graduate school the last time, is Brenner’s take on taking risks in academic research. In fact, his idea of institutionalising risk, and I’ll say more of why I call it this, reminds me of something that’s said of/to drivers in formula one–somebody who doesn’t once in a while walk back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands simply isn’t trying hard enough.

Batting for unconventional thinking in science isn’t new. In as much as economics is a science, Paul Krugman’s views on how to do economics better are in the same vein. Brenner says we must stop scientific research from becoming the gigantic machine that makes cogs of graduate students, both by protecting them from financial hardship, and by encouraging independent thought. I wrote the last time about how the Indian research establishment is willy-nilly doing this.

The interviewer also mentions something else that is now disturbingly common: the increasing use of adjunct faculty members, who, even after teaching courses for decades at the same college, are paid little money and have no job security.Several Indian universities do the same thing with adjunct members of teaching faculty as American universities. Government-aided colleges in Karnataka that teach basic science and arts undergraduate colleges haven’t hired permanent members of faculty for something like 25 years. And privately run colleges find it easier to just hire temporary teachers and pay them a pittance.

Brenner also talks fondly of the college system of Oxford and Cambridge and how it allows not only people from different scientific disciplines, but people from different disciplines to sit at the same table. This again is sadly something we haven’t got right. The best institutions in the country focus more and more on smaller and smaller scientific disciplines; science isn’t for us, it seems, to be polluted by mixture with the social sciences or, god forbid, the humanities.

Brenner’s idea of a “Casino Fund” in science — i.e. money that the institutions funding science should allocate for long-shot ideas and basically write it off — is a way of making risk a part of the firmware of science and its institutions. We should allocate a small fraction of all funding and give it to people with a proven record of gambling successfully, he says; this is the only way to ensure that the big risky ideas that might revolutionise science see the light of day. But not everybody agrees. Were the 1950s a golden age for science? A lot of good work was done. But we also know that the 1950s weren’t at all a good time for women in science.

Entirely aware that the extent of my expertise at running an institution of science is to have managed somehow to keep my PhD work afloat, may I venture that perhaps a better implementation of Brenner’s idea of institutionalising risk is to make sure that institutions of science are inclusive? I put it to you that it’s a greater, to say nothing of nobler, risk to take to ensure that science is inclusive. Scientists, being human beings, are products of their time. Could there be anything more limiting than excluding entire categories of people from the humanist endeavour that is science?

Of depressed graduate students

Notwithstanding what you may have read, PhD students in Indian universities are paid about 4 times the median per capita income in the country (and from what I can make out, about twice the median income in cities, which is perhaps the more relevant figure), and this income is pretty well guaranteed for the duration of our research.

Kavitha pointed me to this The Guardian article about how common mental illness is among PhD students. The article paints a grim picture of what it is to be a graduate student. I am by no means an expert, or perhaps even a typical case; but I do have first hand experience of both mild depression and graduate school (not at the same time, though) and I thought I’d compare my experience with what the article says.

The author of the article is the head of the student counselling unit of some university. The article doesn’t disclose the identity of the author, but I think it’s safe to assume that this is some university in the US.

In short, the author makes the following observations about graduate students from her experience:

1) Many PhD students often work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness, and maybe also think that this isn’t just fait accompli but is also a necessary part of training in academic research.

2) Supervisors are by and large unsympathetic to the plight of graduate students, mostly because people who become professors are usually those people that either did not go through this, or were able to cope.

3) Graduate students and professors view developing a mental illness as an admission of defeat, as a blemish on their career.

They do all this, notes the article almost in passing, while also going through significant financial trouble.

I doubt there are numbers to be found on the prevalence of mental illness in Indian universities, but I do not doubt that students and professors in India are as oblivious to the reality of mental illness as they are in the US. I also have no doubt that there are cases, varying in the degree of severity, of burnout among graduate students with attendant consequences .

In a very important way, however, Indian universities and research centres are different from most universities in the US: notwithstanding what you may have read, PhD students in Indian universities are paid about 4 times the median per capita income in the country (and from what I can make out*, about twice the median income in cities, which is perhaps the more relevant figure). This income is also pretty well guaranteed for the duration of our research, in stark contrast to the constant struggle for funding that defines academic life in universities in the US.

The fact that I have a steady income regardless of what I do with my work makes a world of difference, I think. Is this enough to make the issues the The Guardian article raises irrelevant for Indian universities? I don’t know. I work for professors who have taken all my problems–academic and personal– in stride; but I also know of professors that range from simply uncooperative to downright mean in their treatment of students. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that this could drive a student nuts, and a proper support system would then be necessary and invaluable. My experience has been that the problem cases are few and far between, but I am willing to be corrected on this point.

* How did I get this? The wikipedia page says about a third of India’s population lives in its cities and produces about two thirds the GDP. Even if we assume that all this GDP is equally distributed among the people (and not taken, say, by corporations), this means the average urban dweller makes twice the national per capita income.

On science meeting art, and travel-safe tablas

C.V. Raman did this work while he was an accounts officer in the British government, and that this work got him elected to the Royal Society.

I have written in the past about Sir C.V. Raman’s work on understanding the Indian drums–the tabla and the mridangam–and their peculiarity at being percussive instruments that can achieve harmonic overtones. The secret is the black patch that is seen on every tabla or mridangam that makes the centre of the circular membrane denser than the periphery. In fact, CNR Rao points out that Raman did this work while he was an accounts officer in the British government, and that this work got him elected to the Royal Society.

This is all good. However, as the percussionist U. Sivaraman and Dr. T. Ramasami, Director of the Department of Science and Technology of the Govt. of India explained in the thirteenth ISRO-Satish Dhawan lecture at JNCASR on October 16th 2012, the materials that are traditionally used to make these drums do not satisfy phytosanitary constraints–island nations will not allow you to carry untreated leather without decontaminating it first. Fumigation effectively destroys the stuff that holds the black patch together — usually something like cooked rice.

The solution, then, is to use materials that reproduce the properties of traditionally used materials while meeting safety norms. Simple enough? Not even close: the traditional materials have been fine-tuned over millennia. And nobody knows exactly why the peculiar combinations of materials used in the making of these drums work.

The drum-heads have three layers, two of which are annuli. The layer that is entire is made of goat-skin. Goat skin from Bengal is preferred to goat-skin from Rajasthan. This layer also has the black patch on it. The black patch is iron oxide, silica and manganese held together by some adhesive. The silica and manganese are provided by river-bed sand. River-bed sand from Tanjore gives the drum a different sound quality compared to sand from Varanasi. The three layers are held together by ropes made from buffalo hide that tie the membrane down at exactly sixteen equally spaced points on circumference. The shells that these membranes are mounted on are made of particular types of wood–jackfruit tree wood is the best kind.

All of these things are necessary. Change any of them and the result is bad sound. Unless you know what each component does. U. Sivaraman and T. Ramasami have spent a decade looking for the answers.

The annular layers are there to cut out the highest frequencies, while still retaining up to nine overtones. This particular detail is actually due to CV Raman and a 1935 Indian Academy of Sciences paper.

Untanned goat-skin is used in the mridangam because it has the highest strength (per unit thickness). The annular layers are usually cow-skin.
Also, monitor-lizard skin is used in the kanjira, U. Sivaraman pointed out. But monitor-lizards are endangered, and we now use something else.

The shells are made of particular types of wood because these types of wood have the best sound radiation properties.

With modern materials, and Fourier analysis, Dr. Ramasami and company have managed to make novel versions of the Indian drums that reproduce the sound quality that connoisseurs enjoy, while also keeping the tabla travel-safe. This even includes reducing temperature-sensitivity letting musicians play in air-conditioned halls. They haven’t been able to make the drums humidity-resistant, though, which is an important shortcoming.

In which I send you off to read an article in The Caravan. Mine.

And Anjali Vaidya’s. It was her idea. She was very nice and included me in it.

The article’s called Shelved AwayIt’s about Select Book Shop in Bangalore. It’s only one page or so and features in The Lede. Do read. I’ll start you off with the first paragraph:

JUST OFF BRIGADE ROAD in central Bangalore is a quiet store, remarkably removed from the nearby bustle. This is Select Book Shop, a name familiar to many book lovers in the city. The store overflows with books old, new and rare, and the two men who will direct you to the treasures within are the owner KKS Murthy, and his son Sanjay.

Questions, comments, bouquets, brickbats and so forth are welcome.

Me and my peabrain

“I sometimes think”, writes Stephen Fry, “that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: ME AND MY BIG MOUTH.” Fry wrote this in apologising for remarks he made about an antisemitic and homophobic political party in Poland. His remarks themself are irrelevant here.

Fry writes further that, over the course of a week and a half, he declined every opportunity to apologise. Surely they must be “mischeviously misconstruing” his remarks. After all, nobody could possibly think he had meant what he said that way. I know exactly what Stephen Fry must have gone through. My brain is nowhere near as well exercised or popular as Fry’s mouth. If you asked me right now, not even I am a fan of my brain.

Before you read on, I ask that you take a look at this print from this t-shirt:

 

In the morning today, friends of mine gave me this t-shirt as a going-away present. I posted a picture on Facebook. We all had a hearty laugh.

There was a ‘Women in Science’ seminar held at NCBS in the evening. Rama, my professor, and Shobhana Narasimhan, a professor at JNC — scientists and women, both — would be speaking at the seminar. NCBS is about a 20-minute cycle ride away from JNCASR. I had to rush from JNC just after another talk I had to attend.

Here’s where my peabrain comes in. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I wore the t-shirt to the ‘Women in Science’ seminar? Think of all the laughs!” I would like to think that given enough time to think, I would’ve come to the conclusion that I can sometimes be a blithering insensitive idiot. Whether or not I give myself more credit than I am worth is moot. The fact is that I didn’t think about it. I changed into the t-shirt, got a cycle and left for NCBS.

Was I right? Would it be funny and nothing else? Friends of mine — people I know to be reasonable — had found the idea of a ‘stalker t-shirt’ funny. Does the context matter at all? Was this only a bad idea because I wore it to the ‘women in science’ seminar? Or is there something wrong with this humour to begin with?

After making a fool of myself in the eyes of people I like and admire, I’ve come to realise that context does matter. The late great Molly Ivins, a humourist and a political commentator of spectacular wit and more humanity than I can claim for myself at this moment, put it best:

Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, […] it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

The reason rape-jokes aren’t funny, the reason this t-shirt isn’t funny (outside of my group of friends where the butt of the joke wasn’t the stalking so much as, well, me) is because the humour is directed not at somebody powerful who can defend themselves or laugh it off, but at somebody who is already a victim.

As is usually the case when somebody points out one is wrong, I dug my heels in when first Anjali, and then Shobhana, pointed out that the t-shirt was a bad idea. They’re just being overly sensitive, surely. “Would the t-shirt be okay if the man and the woman reversed roles?” I asked Shobhana. I am aware, now, of how stupid that sounds. Shobhana, of course, pointed out that stalking isn’t funny whoever does it.

Somebody else present added that it is also never going to happen that the woman is shown stalking the man. “Molestation shouldn’t be called eve-teasing,” she said as she walked away.

Of course it shouldn’t. Why is she telling me that? You know what popped into my head next: “I’m one of the good guys.”

Even somebody in my state of mind then should realise that appealing to the argument from one’s own personal integrity is a sure sign that one has fucked up somewhere along the way. And I did. This is me admitting to fucking up. I am sorry. Thank you for reading.