Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

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

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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.

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.

 

Your consciousness differentiates into boundless belonging

We exist as atomic ionization. To traverse the vision quest is to become one with it.

Nothing is impossible. This life is nothing short of an ennobling uprising of spiritual empathy. We must develop ourselves and enlighten others.

It can be difficult to know where to begin. Although you may not realize it, you are dynamic. Being, look within and unify yourself.

We are at a crossroads of chi and ego. Our conversations with other beings have led to a summoning of ultra-sublime consciousness. Humankind has nothing to lose.

As you grow, you will enter into infinite growth that transcends understanding. The akashic record may be the solution to what’s holding you back from an unimaginable oasis of serenity. You will soon be aligned by a power deep within yourself —a power that is Vedic, powerful.

Greed is the antithesis of growth.

Without grace, one cannot believe. Yes, it is possible to disrupt the things that can exterminate us, but not without chi on our side. We can no longer afford to live with yearning.

It is a sign of things to come. The transmission of potential is now happening worldwide. Soon there will be a deepening of power the likes of which the planet has never seen.


This blogpost was generated by reionising its electrons. See also the random Deepak Chopra quote generator.

HT: Pharyngula.

Sam Harris defends profiling. Poorly.

Should people be profiled according to race or religion at airports? This might be politically incorrect, but is it not effective? If Osama bin Laden showed up at the airport in his traditional garb with his wives in tow, should he not be screened thoroughly? Sam Harris thinks he has answers.

Airport scanners are notoriously useless, and it isn’t difficult at all to fool airport scanners. Sam Harris says as much and provides an instance where he got live ammunition past airport security while the security personnel were busy checking the nearest pre-schooler.

While we were inadvertently smuggling bullets, one TSA screener had the presence of mind to escort a terrified three-year-old away from her parents so that he could remove her sandals (sandals!). Presumably, a scanner that had just missed 2.5 pounds of ammunition would determine whether these objects were the most clever bombs ever wrought.

I have some experience of this myself, although what I carried had nothing to do with ammunition – not being American, I have neither the means nor the need to possess firearms. In fact, say experts, the only improvement in air-travel related security in recent years has been to reinforce cockpit doors such that nobody can gain control of the aeroplane. The rest is just the world reacting to something that happened last week.

Several other people have also made similar points about airport security and its ineffectiveness, most notably a former head of the Transportation Security Administration in America. This being the case, Harris argues, surely, letting the old and the infirm and children get through security without hassle isn’t the worst thing to do? I am tempted to agree; however, the former head of the TSA, Kip Hawley, makes the point that

the second that you create a population of travelers who are considered “trusted,” that category of fliers moves to the top of al Qaeda’s training list, whether they are old, young, white, Asian, military, civilian, male or female.

And then Harris’ article goes completely off the rails. He first argues that people who ‘look’ like terrorists should be screened more thoroughly. A simple search (for ‘domestic terrorism in the US‘, for example) will tell you that there have been several acts of terrorism committed by people who do not at all match Harris’ profile. And since any of these idiots could have decided to blow up a planeload of people, screening airports for people who ‘look like’ Muslims or have Muslim names is a fool’s errand. This is to say nothing of the possibility that Al Qaeda may simply recruit people who don’t ‘look’ like terrorists (from Kip Hawley again):

The men who bombed the London Underground in July 2005 would all have been eligible for the Registered Traveler cards we were developing at the time. No realistic amount of prescreening can alleviate this threat when al Qaeda is working to recruit “clean” agents. TSA dropped the idea on my watch—though new versions of it continue to pop up.

After this, in what I can only assume is an attempt to not seem racist, Harris states that he would be bound by the same rule because he vaguely looks like some known terrorist post a shave. Needless to say, this argument is a non-starter. Harris’ prescription of screening people based on possible resemblances they might bear to known absconders from the law would only lead to longer queues and a skyrocketing number of false-positives: we all look like somebody else. This is especially disappointing coming from a neuroscientist who should know about the cross-race effect.

To answer the questions I rhetorically posed at the beginning of this post: profiling isn’t simply politically incorrect. It is ineffective, and would be a needless addition to already useless airport security systems.

Indian rationalist to get arrested for busting the Church’s chops

Slashdot.org report that Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who might be familiar to people for subjecting himself to a Tantrik’s ultimate-death spell on live TV — the operational (and funniest) part of the ‘spell’ was admirably reproduced in PZ Myers’ Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikili. Sanal Edamaruku must’ve been tickled, because he simply laughed — may get arrested.

Sanal Edamaruku went to Bombay recently after he was invited by TV9 to try and find why a statue was dripping water. The statue has apparently become a pilgrimage of sorts.

But Sanal Edamaruku spoilt this prospect. Within minutes, he clearly identified the source of the water (a drainage near a washing room) and the mechanism how it reached Jesus feet (capillary action). The local church leaders, present during his investigation, were far from pleased. See the investigation in detail on YouTube.

And then he went on TV and argued that the Church should stop this sort of miracle-mongering.

There’s apparently going to be police action against Sanal Edamaruku for ‘causing hurt to the religious sentiments of a particular community’. The Indian Penal Code is arcane and outdated at its best (think of adultery: if a married man cheats on his wife with an unmarried woman, it isn’t a crime; but if a man sleeps with a married woman, that is. The reasoning is obvious: married women are their husbands’ property, and adultery is a crime against the husbands).

But when it comes to religion, the IPC is downright reactionary. Basically, anybody who does anything at all to discomfort religious people and question their belief may be subject to legally sanctioned harassment by the thin-skinned idiots. That there are such laws is bad enough, but that they are applied in the 21st century really is appalling.

How I wish we would simply grow the fuck up, and leave the 19th century behind (the IPC was written in 1860 – not a typo – and most parts haven’t been revised since).

Of irrationality and compartmentalisation

Forgive the sesquipedalian title. A surprising email-debate erupted in the EMU recently. This mail-a-thon started with something RR shared about the ‘you will get 72 virgins in heaven if you follow the quran‘ belief of Islam, from wikiislam – the online resource on Islam (yes, such a thing apparently exists).

Which led to some of us arguing that this stupidity of Islam is only symptomatic of what is wrong with religion in general. I commented that even somebody as seemingly moderate in his religion as Gandhi believed in the power of semen. This observation, which I naively assumed would clinch the argument, was only confirmed when RR volunteered that he believed in the power of semen too, and commented that I shouldn’t simply oppose the idea for the sake of opposition. RR also volunteered that he believed that people could survive without food, and that he personally knew somebody who has done it.

Lots of sarcasm and satire followed.

Which was all fun until ‘I-am-a-professional-centrist’ SS came along and started to defend the idea that human beings can live without food as being plausible. He even brought along references from medical literature. (Oh, never fret: while the research is perfectly fine, even the authors themselves dismiss the idea of human hibernation… right in the abstract. More about this research article here. [Update(12/4/2012): link added])

Now, both RR and SS are entirely sensible people… most of the time. But, in this case, they both took positions which – to put it gently – required serious mental gymnastics on their part.

Which brings me to the title. It has been my experience that otherwise competent and intelligent people can be irrational when it comes to some ideas. This cognitive dissonance requires that people compartmentalise – keep our rational minds from analysing some ideas we’ve invested in, and we do it very well indeed. This accounts for why, even among scientists, a significant majority are theists (this statistic changes if you ask only scientists from the very top of their fields, but never mind that).

Cue Jesus and Mo!

What we do this for is a complicated question to answer. It seems to me that social pressures are a factor. The ideas which one wants to keep out of reach of rationality are a function of one’s social milieu. The renowned biologist Ken Miller is known to believe in the literal trans-substantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. Why could this be? It isn’t a stretch to argue that this is precisely because Miller was brought up Catholic. Francis Collins, the director of the human genome project, is known to be a kook when it comes to the positions he will take (on when in the process of evolution human beings attained the ‘image of god’, for example). It isn’t hard to see that this is because his faith in the belief that ‘man is made in the image of god’ is important to him.

I would even argue that people can defend a position even when it is patently irrational, simply because others in their peer-group hold the position. There are experiments which show that people ‘fell in line’ with an obviously wrong answer because other people (who were planted in the experiment by the experimenters) before them gave that wrong answer. But I think this phenomenon can be even more subtle. It seems to me that putting up a defence of one’s friends is important to people. Some of us do it overtly, some not so overtly. It seems to me to be important to us that our friends are right.

I’d like to end with a caveat. They say the worst thing you can do in a debate is to psycho-analyse your opponent, which seems to me a reasonable thing to keep in mind. Also, it is important to me that one doesn’t have to be on guard about what they say among friends – people deserve friends who will try and not judge everything that is said. So, if you don’t already know who RR and SS are, their identities are none of your business.

[Update (April 9, 12pm): The last two sentences in the last paragraph strike me as being hypocritical, given what this post is about. By all means, discount them. Lesson learnt.]

The Bible needs no sugar

Srikanth T. Rao sent me to this article at CNN’s religion blog. While the general point that we’ve become a race of euphemisers is well taken, The rest of the article is full of crap

Srikanth T. Rao sent me to this article at CNN’s religion blogs.

The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without them.

Yet despite that, it seems like Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really is. They feel the need to tidy up God.

For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.

And let’s not talk so much about Jesus being naked on the cross, and let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the Greek would more accurately be translated.

[…]

God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet.

[…]

I believe that Scripture includes such graphic material to show how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves.

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism.

And that’s what he gives us throughout Scripture, telling the stories of people who struggled with the same issues, questions and temptations we face today.

[…]

Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited.

[…]

Only when the Bible seems relevant to us (which it is), only when the characters seem real to us (which they were), only then will the message of redemption become personal for us (which it was always meant to be).

We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives.

Read the comments for some amusing takedowns of this rubbish (sorry, I mean ‘crap’. I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat anything).

While the general observation that we have become a race of euphemisers is valid (here’s George Carlin’s take on this; nobody does it better), the rest of the article is full of crap.

Reading religious scripture literally is the quickest way to making people atheists. However, the more likely explanation for why scripture includes the graphic stuff is that the people who wrote god’s lines needed to wank off once in a while, and to do it without getting called wankers.

The ‘Bible’ has no ‘original version’. It’s been a work in progress for two millennia. And ideas get progressively more refined (and less stupid) with time. People are eventually going to realise that you don’t have to tell stories of how entire towns were raided, the men and boys killed, the women raped, and the girls kidnapped, in order to instill morality in your children. In fact, morality is best instilled entirely devoid of religion; but if that isn’t your cup of tea, surely the rapes and murders are better left out than in.

And whatever else is true about our failings, the human race has (or at least most parts of it have) come a long way from the age of the middle-eastern shepherd from two thousand years ago. We do not struggle with the same issues and temptations as people then did (“the Old Testament includes vivid descriptions of murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice.”). Not everybody has to constantly fight the temptation to torture, murder, dismember, and eat the person next to them. And the only complaint people today should have about erotic sex is that they don’t get enough.

Sugar, anyone?