The Golden Rice explainer

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Ingo Potrykus on Time cover (source: “Gene manipulation in plantsOpenLearn)

In the year 2000 Time Magazine ran a cover story on something that it had probably never given such prominence to before. It was a grain—a variety of rice. The cover proclaimed that this variety of rice had the potential to save a million kids a year because it was yellow when milled instead of white. In pictures, the grains have a translucent glow as if imbued with saffron or turmeric.

But it contained neither. Rather, the yellow showed the presence of beta-carotene—the same compound that makes carrots orange—synthesized by the grains themselves as they formed inside the spikes of grass. Despite being a purely humanitarian endeavor, it was given the marketing moniker ‘Golden Rice’: a name suggested by Thailand’s ‘Condom King’, who had successfully marketed another, very different, public health product. The inventors hoped that since the human body can turn beta-carotene into Vitamin A, it could help the poverty-stricken rice-eating populations of the world where Vitamin A deficiency is an often fatal problem.

The Time Magazine article warned of controversies to come, and sure enough, in the ensuing 16 years, they have. While golden rice has had plenty of technical challenges to work through, it has also run into a number of regulatory and political headwinds.

This is because golden rice is genetically modified. The original prototype included two foreign genes: one from the daffodil, and one from a bacterial species.

By and large, the foodie public is not yet comfortable with genetically modified foods. Their thought-leaders, the mavens of the new food politics, turned against golden rice almost instantly; Michael Pollan called it the Great Yellow Hype, while Marion Nestle, in 2013, said on her website Food Politics that she could not believe people were still talking about it. The opposition reached an apogee when Greenpeace activists destroyed fields of golden rice trials in the Philippines (while claiming that the vandalism was done by the farmers).

While there is widespread skepticism about genetically modified foods, public opinion is contrary to settled science and betrays several misconceptions. But apart from the general debate, each genetically modified product has also to be understood in its own terms.

The orange hue

Gold—or less grandiosely, yellow-orange—is a color that nature is quite adept at. Pumpkins and carrots come to mind, but there’s no limit to the orange hues: fruits, and petals, and yellow corn, and egg yolks, and butter; leaves during autumn; and so on. When you see the yellows, oranges, or reds out in nature, it is a clue that the plant has been manufacturing pigments known as carotenoids. Each of these pigments, down to the molecule level, is a precise chain of 40 carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms, and sometimes oxygen atoms too, hanging on like amulets on a bracelet.

One of these is beta carotene. A 40-carbon, 56-hydrogen chain with loops at each end, it is a celebrity because of how the liver processes it, if eaten with some fat—it splits each 40-carbon chain into two molecules of Vitamin A. And Vitamin A is crucial for our eyes and immune systems.

But plants do not create beta-carotene in order to nourish us. It is crucial for them, too. It collects light energy and so helps leaves photosynthesize. It plays the role of an antioxidant by intercepting free radicals.

The white on rice

You might ask: if beta-carotene is so important for plants, why did rice need such expensive intervention—why doesn’t rice create its own beta-carotene out in nature?

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Rice grains (source: “Photos of some important cereal grassesWayne’s Word)

But that question would be misguided in two ways. For one: rice does indeed create its own beta-carotene—where it needs it, which is in the tissues that photosynthesize, mostly the leaves. If you look closely, you see a dent in one tip of the torpedo-shape that is a single grain of rice. This dent is where the germ used to sit—the germ that would turn into a new rice plant if sown, that was removed during the milling process. Since the germ has to photosynthesize as it grows, it does have the capability to create beta-carotene and other carotenoids.

But not the surrounding starch—the food for the germ as it grows, which is also the part we eat. This starchy part is very low in micronutrients and contains no beta carotene.

The other reason that question would be misguided is the deeper one: there is no “rice” out in nature. The species Oryza sativa is entirely a cultivated species; its closest relative that it probably arose from, known as brownbeard rice (Oryza rufipogon), is considered a weed when found in rice fields, and, when harvested together, its grains are winnowed out like chaff.

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Wild rice v/s domesticated rice (source: “New tricks for a very old cropEzra Magazine)

The ancients created the rice we eat. Their needs drove early rice evolution: they needed a crop that was easy to harvest, so they selected plants whose seeds didn’t shatter and fall when ripe; they needed a crop that was easy to plan for, and rice adapted in response to ripen all at once instead of in dribs and drabs.

They bred it to yield much more grain than the wild plant they found, and bred starch into the grain. They also bred the red color out. Did they just prefer white grains? Perhaps, but it is more likely that they got white rice as a side-effect of breeding traits they actually cared about, like making the hull easier to remove. Regardless, red rice, as the wild brownbeard is also known, wasn’t red because of carotenes, but rather, the same kind of tannins that give red wine and chocolate their deep color.

The rice crop has seen many improvements since the days of the ancient farmers. Many of these came in the 1960s, under research projects that are given the umbrella term of ‘Green Revolution’.

Though many of the Green Revolution improvements had to do with higher yield, the folks at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), under whose aegis these projects took place, had their eye on nutritional factors as well. A haunting story is often told about Peter Jennings, the legendary breeder: he had hunted for yellow grains of rice out in the fields for decades, hoping to find a rice plant that had spontaneously mutated to create yellowness. He was well aware of nutritional deficiencies that made rice a less-than-ideal staple food.

This isn’t as vain of a hope as it sounds. Occasionally farmers will find an oddity among their crop that has a beneficial trait or two, and sometimes that oddity will be bred into a well-known variety. The story of Cheddar Cauliflower, the bright yellow cauliflower sold in upscale grocery stores, played out this way.

Regardless, the decades-long hunt for spontaneous beta-carotene rice turned up fruitless. This led Peter Jennings to suggest one day in 1984 that if he had his druthers, the science of biotechnology that lay over the horizon would take on the challenge of creating yellow rice. Two researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, took up the challenge.

The beta carotene assembly line

In the early 1900s the Ford Motor Company revolutionized car manufacture with the assembly line: rather than each car being built up on the spot in a bespoke kind of way, its manufacture moves through stages, each of which focus on doing the same step over and over.

As with much else, biology got there first. Within each plant cell, which is essentially a factory, several assembly lines proceed simultaneously, each putting together the chemicals that the plant needs.

One of these assembles the 40-carbon beta-carotene. It is put together from pieces as though Lego blocks were being connected.

One of nature’s most common Lego blocks is a 5-carbon block known as isoprene; it is veritably the 2×4 brick of biochemistry. You might not have heard of it, but if you wander among oak trees on a hot, sunny day, chances are that their leaves are emitting an abundance of isoprene into the air; if you are familiar with the smell of rubber tires in the heat, chances are you have smelled it.

Considering that isoprene is a 5-carbon block, and we want to get to a 40-carbon chain, you would be absolutely justified in relying on arithmetic to deduce that it takes 8 blocks of isoprene. Although it isn’t isoprene itself that takes part in the chemical assembly line, but rather a form known as activated isoprene.

Let’s zoom in on a segment of the assembly line. The cell has already created 20-carbon chains out of 4 isoprene blocks, the steps of which we won’t go into. Where we begin, two of these 20-carbon chains are stitched together to make a 40-carbon, 64-hydrogen chain. This is phytoene, a colorless compound.

Watch carefully, because the creation of phytoene is an important step. It is colorless, but most of the warm colors in nature get their start as colorless phytoene: it is the first step in the creation of a number of yellow, orange, and red pigments.

carotenoid-fruits

Carotenoid-containing fruits and veggies, that all get their start as phytoene (source: Carotenoid Society)

The next step is important too. This is phytoene ‘desaturation’—a word that contains multitudes. It is also the step that results in color. How does this happen? The 40 carbons in the chain link not only to their neighbors along it, but also manage to hold on to 64 hydrogen atoms besides. In this step, the chain relinquishes 8 of those hydrogen atoms, and 8 carbon atoms hold on to their neighbor doubly instead. This is why this is known as ‘desaturation’—it now has unfilled slots that used to be occupied by hydrogen atoms.

It also changes how it interacts with light. Phytoene can only absorb high-energy light from the UV spectrum that is invisible to us. Since it lets all visible light through, it appears colorless. But after desaturation, almost all visible light except the low-energy red gets absorbed; hence what we have now is a deep red compound known as lycopene.

In fact, it is exactly the deep red we know of from tomatoes.

We are almost there. The next step that happens is a looping of the ends the 40-carbon chain. Once again, this step changes how it absorbs energy from visible light; this new form mostly absorbs the blues and cyan, so it appears orange to us. This, finally, is beta-carotene.

The genes

I called out two steps above as having special significance; one was the creation of phytoene, and the other was its desaturation. This is because these are exactly the two steps where rice needed intervention in order to create yellow grain.

In truth, it isn’t as if the researchers had to create the beta-carotene assembly line from scratch. Like we went over before, rice is not a stranger to beta carotene; it is synthesized in all green tissues that photosynthesize. But the assembly line in the starchy part of rice was broken in two key steps.

Faced with a broken assembly line in a modern factory, one frequently needs to tinker with the computer systems that run it, rather than mess with the nuts and bolts; and so it is with the plant cell. The problem lay in the genes.

Researchers had noticed that the starch did accumulate plenty of the 20-carbon Lego blocks I mentioned earlier, but no phytoene. This step happens under control of a particular gene whose name—psy—seems to come out of a spy novel, but really just stands for what it does—control the synthesis of phytoene.

Rice does have a psy gene, but its function is turned off in the starchy grain. But, siblings of the rice psy gene are found in other plants as well. Let us pause here to appreciate a fact that, while it has completely swept the biological sciences since Darwin and Mendel, is still not well understood by lay-people.

There is deep unity among different life forms—whether an ant, a sea urchin, or a palm tree—on the level of the genes. My cells may not make chlorophyll, thus I am not green. But my genes speak the same language as the genes of the palm tree: they just choose different sentences. Among close relatives long snatches of the genetic code are often much the same.

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Daffodils

So when it came to seeking a psy gene to fix the broken step, researchers could turn to the vast library of psy genes available in other plants. They chose the psy from a paragon of yellowness, the daffodil, whose psy plays a part in the lovely color of its petals.

They announced in 1997 that their experiment had been successful. Close to six hundred seedlings of a Japonica rice variety were bombarded with the daffodil psy gene using a gene gun. In the end, they had 47 that contained phytoene and were fertile enough to propagate.

Remember, no color yet, because phytoene is colorless. The second key step—that of desaturation of phytoene, the step that produces the color—had yet to be done.

For this, they turned to an experiment that had been performed by Peter Bramley earlier on tomatoes. He had found that tomatoes could be induced to be twice as red by splicing in a desaturation gene from a bacterial species. This is because twice as much phytoene could be desaturated, producing twice as much red-colored lycopene.

The researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, relied on this same bacterial gene, crtI, in their experiment. It worked—once again, speaking to the unity of three very different life-forms; rice, tomatoes, and—bacteria.

However, instead of becoming red due to accumulating lycopene like Peter Bramley’s experiment with tomatoes would predict, the rice grains seemed to be turning yellow, showing the presence of beta-carotene.

Remember, turning red lycopene into yellow-orange beta-carotene involves the additional step of looping the ends of the 40-carbon chain. Who performed that step?

It turns out that the researchers caught a break. Some parts of the defunct assembly line in the grains still functioned; when molecular robots detected the presence of lycopene, they kicked in and looped the ends, thus producing beta carotene on their own.

They had yellow rice.

The sequel

This is where things stood in 2000, when Time Magazine announced the breakthrough of golden rice. But the amount of yellow in the rice, while of momentous importance in showing that it could be done, wasn’t quite enough to actually help with VAD. As Michael Pollan framed it in the New York Times, an 11-year-old child would have to eat 15 pounds of golden rice in order to meet her daily requirement of Vitamin A. Although this was based on incorrect assumptions (golden rice does not have to provide the entirety of the daily requirement, since no one is at zero or they would be dead), it compellingly relayed the fact that this version really didn’t have sufficient beta carotene.

In reality, the product as it stood then was merely an alpha—a proof of concept—as the software industry calls it, or a pilot, as the television folks might.

The rice they created was a pale yellow in color; if the beta-carotene content had been more substantial, that fact would have advertised itself as a deeper orange hue.

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Golden Rice versions 1.0 and 2.0 (source: “The science behind golden riceThe Golden Rice Project)

A follow-on team from Swiss biotech giant Syngenta achieved this by using the psy gene from corn (maize) to replace the one from the daffodil. Not only is their version of golden rice a deep orange color, it also has enough beta carotene for the child of Michael Pollan’s imagination to meet his or her daily requirement by eating a bowlful.

While the gene from maize met their scientific needs, it is also a perfect choice for illustrative purposes.

Both rice and maize are grasses, so their psy genes are more closely related to each other than the one from daffodil. Perhaps this is why the maize psy was considerably more effective in creating phytoene.

But beyond that fact lie other similarities. Much like the ancient form of rice, the ancient form of corn (teosinte) is not eaten. Much like rice, maize has seen a number of changes over thousands of years to turn it into a crop: the kernels increased in size and number; the yield improved; the kernels lost their husk. Much like rice, beta carotene is not physiologically needed in the kernels of corn: hence the plant never produced it.

(In fact, as Dr. Peter Beyer told me over the phone, nor is beta-carotene physiologically needed by the very vegetable that its name derives from—the carrot.)

But here is the difference: for poorly understood reasons, maize turned out to have a very malleable genome. The Native Americans bred it into astonishing colors and sizes; the maize genome today is massive and has come a long way from the genome of the ancient, inedible teosinte.

In 1779, Europeans came across a yellow, sweet variety that had been bred by the Iroquois tribe. Clearly, an Iroquois farmer at an earlier time had succeeded where Peter Jennings had failed: he or she had discovered yellow kernel plant somewhere out in the fields; which they then decided to favor and breed. This type of chance mutation could very well have turned up for rice, but the fact is, it didn’t.

Though just as absurd from a plant physiology perspective, corn and rice both had the potential to create beta carotene in their grain. Yellow corn was found art. Yellow rice, on the other hand, had to be intentionally sought and created.

(I want to thank Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg for his invaluable help in reviewing and checking my facts.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. Follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- theoddpantry.com. You can also subscribe to this blog here:

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My view on genetically-modified crops

I had been writing about food for about a year when I sort of fell into the subject of GMOs; I didn’t expect to, but there is something about the process of writing that leads to discovery and ferment. It was then, and remains now, a politically-charged topic that I was driven to make sense of.

I didn’t have any expertise to add; but I did come to the subject with a unique perspective. I had two long-standing interests, though merely as a layperson—bio-diverse food, and biology (especially genetics) and have read on these subjects obsessively. Professionally, I am a software engineer, so I bring that perspective—one that is not afraid of technology, is aware of its power, but also, that knows (from the inside) how fallible it is; how infinitely perfectible it is. Over the last couple years I have written much and plan to write more; so it is probably time for a statement of what I believe.

I found that the popular debate around biotechnology betrays many misconceptions and shows no awareness of how either genetics or modern farming work (or why).

The first is a category error: genetically-modified crops are treated as a type of food, rather than a description of the process scientists used to create it. Thus, rather than each engineered trait being judged on its own merits, judgments seem to smear across all ‘GMOs’ equally.

Here is what I mean: any downsides of a particular product—it appears that RoundupReady crops have indeed contributed glyophosate-resistant weeds, for instance—is not only treated as a final argument against that particular product, but it is also made to stand-in for the entire technology. I am sure this is familiar to most readers: articles making claims about ‘genetically engineered crops’—here is one example—that then turn out to be about, say, herbicide-resistant crops specifically.

They are also judged with the yardstick of perfection. So any harm that comes to any genetically-modified crop anywhere is treated as a final nail in the biotech coffin, whether or not the trait had anything to do with it. A recent whitefly epidemic in Punjab that destroyed Bt cotton fields, for instance, was touted by critics as an argument against the use of Bt cotton. This is a bit like faulting vaccines for a bicycle accident a child got into on the way home from getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, any benefits that go towards raising yield, reducing chemical pesticides, or making farming more scalable or safe are treated as illegitimate, even as the poorest among us benefit from the lowered cost of food.

Why is this? I believe that some false narratives have taken over the public imagination; and these make it difficult for facts to break through.

False narratives

One is that most people think of farming as continuous with nature, while biotech as a form of human engineering. And they would prefer that engineers not tinker with nature at all.

In my opinion, this view is based on ignorance. Farming has seen plenty of tinkerers, engineers, and nature-meddlers over the millennia; it is just that when a form of engineering becomes widespread, and gets a couple of generations under its belt, it is seen through sepia-toned glasses as part of tradition. This is exactly what happened to another farming technology that one could more properly consider a Frankenfood; it initially raised fears and caused great discomfort among the cognoscenti, but as it took hold, those fears gradually disappeared.

The fact that people do not expect farming to be subject to engineering causes its own blinkered views. When it comes to human engineering, a certain seeking, spiraling improvement is to be expected; early flaws are to be expected. But nature on the other hand is seen as always perfect and any tinkering with it is seen as a fall from that state of original glassy wholeness. This is why, as I pointed out above, people judge biotechnology with the yardstick of perfection.

At heart too is a public mythologizing of the word ‘natural’ that promotes a false dichotomy: that foods either lie on one side of that divide as entirely untouched by human artifice, or on the other, the side of corruption, with industrial ingredients, impenetrable packaging, and refined to the point of pallor and death.

‘GMOs’ in the popular imagination have ended up on the corrupted side of that divide, and hence their many political problems. But what I found, instead, is that biotechnology can produce benefits that environmentalists ought to favor if they look at it dispassionately.

For instance, genetically-modified cotton, used in India since 2002, has allowed farmers to greatly reduce the amount of spraying that they needed before, increased their yield and their incomes. But Western opinion about GMOs in India has become the victim of a third narrative—that of corporate imperialists devastating an ‘old’ country, leading farmers to suicide.

Narratives are stubborn things, specially when they tweak first-world guilt. Neither studies nor data have budged this essentially false narrative.

Looking at the data is one thing; but I had the great privilege of talking in depth with three farmers who shared their stories with me. All three made earnest requests to earnest first-worlders—who they mostly do not have access to—to ditch their false narrative. It isn’t that they do not have problems: but their problems spring from a two-century-long technological upheaval; and while their use of biotechnology cannot solve their deep-seated problems, it can certainly help.

It hasn’t helped that biotech first sprang into public consciousness with their conglomeration of ‘cides’: herbicide-resistant crops, and those that produce their own larvicide, have made up the vast majority of commercially available GMOs. Any word that ends in ‘cide’ of course raises red alerts in people’s minds. In our fear-based society, what most people aren’t aware of is that what can be called ‘poisonous’ is much dependent on how it is used; for instance, both salt and household vinegar are toxic to mammals at lower doses upon ingestion than glyphosate, which is the active chemical in RoundUp. As for the larvicide produced by the Bt crops used by farmers in India, it is a directed poison, only toxic to larva of moths and butterflies upon ingestion, and is safe for other life.

A related narrative is the widespread distrust of corporations. Of course, it is smart to be on guard and never take corporations at their word: they do not have our interests at heart, and their incentives above all are towards making profits. But not everything is a zero-sum game, and this is why it is intellectually lazy to assume that just because a corporation is pushing for a certain outcome, it must therefore be against our interest.

Monsatan

In fact, from what I can tell, distrust of Monsanto in particular has risen to pathological levels, so much that any mention of it can create a reality-distortion field. I have had smart and serious people tell me that somehow Monsanto’s nefarious abilities are so great that it can reach and entirely corrupt people in every corner of the world in every public office, in a completely secret way, and so elaborately that nothing else in their life changes (they don’t start buying yachts for instance) but they start parroting Monsanto’s lines.

Look, this is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from the fallacy that humans are actually not that good at keeping secrets.

This particular conspiracy requires public officials, farmers, scientists, regulators, etc. to be in on it, in a devilish collusion across the globe. Monsanto is a medium-sized company that hires its lobbyists and attempts to muscle its way like all the rest. But I know it hasn’t invented mind-control techniques that turn humans into programmed robots.

This is not to knock the milder form of this distrust, which even I subscribe to: you have to consider financial incentives before you take people at their word. And it isn’t just financial incentives: a scientist whose life’s work is in a certain field is not likely to be objective about the value of that work. But this is why it is important to include people of all stripes in the conversation, including non-expert food bloggers like yours truly.

Removing trust from the usual arbiters leads to radical uncertainty. One has to keep in mind that the value of watchdogs like regulatory agencies, science journals, news reporters, and the like, aside from the expertise that they offer, is not that they are incorruptible, but that they also watch each other. Their incentives lie in the direction of uncovering corruption in each other.

The danger of radical uncertainty is that it makes people susceptible to charlatans, who are usually skilled at flaunting the right symbols and claiming to be the sole purveyor of truth while spouting utter nonsense. Do I have someone in mind? Yes, indeed, I do.

The future

Proponents of biotechnology have often touted its potential to deal with some of our food system’s pressing problems: world hunger; drought; soil salinity. In return, critics have often pooh-poohed these claims, saying that so far, biotech has done nothing but create herbicide-resistant crops and crops that protect themselves from larval damage. Why should we trust that it can do more?

This critique so much misses the point that it boggles the mind. Biotech is a few decades old. Judging it now is akin to judging the silicon revolution in the 1960s, when the norm was lumbering mainframes that filled entire air-conditioned rooms that one spoke to with carefully-spaced holes on punched cards. We can as little imagine today what biotech might lead to as we could imagine smart phones tucked into pockets in the 1960s.

(My archive of writings on this subject can be found through this link in the header.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. What concerns you about genetically-modified food? What would you like to see me write about?

Or follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- theoddpantry.com. You can also subscribe to this blog here:

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Profile of an Indian GM farmer: high-tech seeds in a traditional farm

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It is already dusk in Nimbhara — a small, nondescript village deep in the heart of India — but early morning for me. I am on a phone call with a farmer named Ganesh Nanote who has lived here all his life. Almost all of Nimbhara’s 500 or so working adults find employment as cultivators. A single road connects Nimbhara to the highway system; it was only built about eight years ago, and is now plied by a regular traffic of bicycles and three-wheeler rickshaws. Nimbhara’s heritage, culture, and industry all spring from its soil — an alkaline black heavy soil, broken down from the Deccan lava flows that might have killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Read the rest here.

The original Frankenfoods

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein tells the story of a student named Viktor Frankenstein who performs a scandalous experiment — so scandalous that he keeps the knowledge of it from his closest family and friends. Broken, repentant, and emaciated at the end of the story, he pours out the tale of his hubris to a stranger. He has discovered the secret of life, he confesses; obsessed with experiments in ‘natural philosophy’, he has been able to fashion a live human from body parts scrounged from graveyards and slaughterhouses.

The resulting demon’s arms are like those of a mummy; his lips are black and dry; his eyes are yellow. Everyone that looks at him, including his creator, turns from him in utter revulsion. Not even given the dignity of a name, his creator refers to him as the fiend or the wretch. As a sutured set of body parts lying on a gurney he was merely grotesque, but when he moves, makes sounds, becomes animated — this is horrifying. He is not whole. No matter that he can speak or move or think, his origin is not natural. He is an unholy mishmash.

Read the rest here.

Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Cotton at the market

Cotton at the market (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I wrote two posts on Bt cotton but I have to admit it left me more confused than before. I went into it expecting to find that Bt cotton had kickstarted an epidemic of farmer suicides. But the closer I looked, the more the claims of Bt cotton devastation seemed to vanish into thin air. What I was left with though, was a list of problems of technology adoption — the kind of list that is very familiar in every industry that tries out something new.

My mistake lay in hoping for an answer to a simple question — is Bt cotton good or bad? But this type of question might confuse matters more than illuminate them. A better question might be — what problems does it solve, what problems does it create? How does it interact with customs and practices in India?

Look, Bt cotton is a technology. It isn’t the devil himself in the form of a seed, nor is it a benediction from the gods. It is a human-made technology. All of us who use computers know what that means. When they work, they are great. But most of us have had the occasional urge to punch a fist through the screen when it doesn’t do what we expect.

Recap

Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002 by Mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto. The prior three decades had been tough for cotton farmers in India due to yield losses from the bollworm. Farmers had to spend a huge amount in pesticides and many had given up on growing cotton entirely.

Bt cotton comes with an insecticide in it (one that is safe for humans), that allows the cotton bolls to grow without being eaten by the bollworm. This makes it so that farmers don’t have to purchase extra insecticide and be exposed to those sprays. Plus, Bt cotton is a hybrid that seems to make bigger bolls.

It does come with strings attached. It isn’t the wild form of cotton that humans discovered thousands of years ago that belonged to no one and to everyone. This one has been through years of research and tinkering in the lab. It is a corporate product. Therefore, the seeds are more expensive. In addition, you cannot save seeds from your harvest. You have to purchase a new set of seeds each year.

Despite these strings attached, many (most) cotton farmers have made the determination that Bt cotton is worth growing anyway. I interviewed Bt cotton farmer Sudhindra Kulkarni, who gave me a precise breakdown of his profits from Bt cotton and a comparison with red gram. Please note the dramatically lower cost of the seeds for red gram, and yet, the dramatically higher profit for Bt cotton:

Bt Cotton Red Gram
Yield per acre 15 quintal 5 quintal
Rate for 1 quintal Rs. 5,000/= Rs. 4,650/=
Total for 1 acre Rs. 75,000/= Rs. 23,250/=
Total expense for input Rs. 27,000/= Rs. 7,000/=
Net profit for 1 acre Rs. 48,000/= Rs. 16,520/=

As a matter of fact, the adoption rate of Bt cotton in India is 90%. Farmers are small business owners, and like any other such, they make a business calculation to see if Bt cotton is worth growing for them or not. Sudhindra claims that Bt cotton lifted his family out of poverty. Much as us urban folks would like farmers to remain guardians of India’s halcyon past, they themselves have practical lives to lead in the present.

What’s the problem, then? Clearly the story does not end there or there would be no debate. Where’s the strum und drang here? Why has the Mahyco-Monsanto alliance aroused fears that India is being stealthily colonized again? What about the epidemic of farmers killing themselves?

Farmer distress

Any media consumer who has not investigated this issue deeply themselves gets a constant drumbeat about Bt cotton having devastated Indian farmers. Words like catastrophe, epidemic, even holocaust are thrown around. But upon talking to farmers, Bt cotton appears as a solution to a three-decade-old problem. What gives?

Here are some articles about the fears of farmer distress. Ostensibly the stories are about how Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow. But one has to read them a little smartly to see that the point being made is more nuanced than that: Bt cotton is inadvisable to grow when there is no irrigation. This makes sense — Bt cotton needs water. Being a cash crop, it can’t be eaten as a last resort if it can’t be sold. Plus, the farmers are being advised to be prudent and rotate their crops; plant non-Bt crops as buffers to avoid the bollworm becoming resistant; to grow lower-profit crops like sorghum as well for backup. None of it should be controversial. What is left unsaid are the reasons why farmers might not be following best practices. Some of those I alluded to in this article, where I mentioned the difficulty of disseminating information in regions of high illiteracy. The other reason is obvious when you look at Sudhindra’s chart above — cotton is a cash crop and has the potential to make a good profit, if things go right. Is there perhaps some excessive risk-taking going on?

But what do I know — I can speculate plenty but I know little. So I talked to a farmer from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, a that region is said to have been devastated by crop failures, in order to get some inside information.

Talking to a Vidarbha Bt cotton farmer

Prakash Puppalwar farms in Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region. It is known as ‘Cotton City’ because of its traditional ties to the growing and manufacture of cotton goods. He has an ancestral cotton farming background. He is one of a group of farmers that got an education in agriculture and came back to their village to farm so he has a good understanding of best practices, and also a handle on the problems that smaller, less educated farmers may face. I asked him a few questions on the phone and on email, what follows is a translated compilation of his answers.

Prakash Puppalwar in Bt cotton farm

Prakash Puppalwar in Yavatmal Bt cotton farm

What problems do farmers face in Yavatmal?

  • Some farms lack irrigation. We sow cotton in June and expect to harvest in October or November. In June it rains each week, without fail. July too. In August, sometimes there are 15 or 20 dry days at a stretch. During this time, we need some extra water. In addition, sometimes there is power-load-shedding at times when we need electricity for irrigation.
  • We don’t get good weather reports at the time of sowing.
  • Everyone knows that the yield of Bt cotton is high. So labor costs have gone up. Out of the cotton cultivation cost 65% goes towards labor. Plus, it is hard to find skilled labor.
  • As far as good government loans with regulated interest, it is easy enough to get a 15-year loan to build a house. But if you are looking for a 5-year or 10-year loan for farming, it is difficult. You don’t get much and you don’t get it on time. [OP:This is why farmers would have to resort to unauthorized money-lenders.]
  • The government has fixed the MSP (minimum sale price) of cotton too low. In addition, some years back they had stopped the export of cotton entirely. Now it has restarted but not at the previous levels.  They should have an import duty on cotton like they have on sugar. For a while the rate of cotton had gone up to seven thousand. Lately we had to sell it off at three thousand.
  • We do not have crop insurance in case of crop failures.
  • Farmers are eager to learn but they lack knowledge about farming with this new technology. They also lack knowledge about marketing.

Do farms in your district follow best practices for growing Bt cotton?
We do rotate crops. We use chemical and organic inputs in the ratio of 60-40. We are also told by the agriculture institute to have a buffer area of non-Bt cotton surrounding the farm and though we try, we cannot always accomplish this.

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

Beehive in Bt cotton (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

You seem to have some practical problems. Why do people blame only Bt cotton?
I don’t want to speculate on their reasons. But if we farmers are the patients, shouldn’t we be asked first what our disease is? Look, 100% of the farmers here grow Bt cotton. Why would we do that? With Bt cotton we have got freedom from an old enemy — the pests. We have surety. Even the lady farm workers know that with Bt cotton we have higher production. We have gone from four to ten quintals. I don’t understand why the whole blame should go on the seeds. The seeds are a small part of our cost. Out of our total cost of growing, 65% goes towards labor. Then there is fertilization, irrigation, marketing. The seeds are only 5% of our cost. Why would we blame the seeds? There are a lot of factors that go towards a crop succeeding or failing. You might have great production but if you can’t sell it at a good rate you would have a failed crop anyway. This year we have had only 33% rain that we expected so far. Smaller farms who don’t have irrigation could be wiped out. Those who have irrigation will be fine. That is a very important factor.

But is it the case that conventional cotton is not as dependent on water as is Bt cotton?
It is all about the boll. Conventional cotton did not grow bolls as big as Bt cotton. Plus the quality of the cotton was not as good. Since the bolls are bigger with Bt cotton, naturally it will need more nutrition, and in turn, more water. Specially in the boll-formation stage. This is not surprising.

Have their been a lot of suicides by farmers in your region? 
No doubt, there have been some. But, one has to keep in mind that the government gives one lakh rupees to the families of the bereaved in case of a suicide. People can be asked to provide any kind of statement to the police. One has to keep this fact in mind. [OP: it was not clear to me what exactly he was suggesting here but I didn’t want to probe too much, as the conversation was getting a little too macabre for me.]

Swadeshi fever

Indians have always had a persistent phobia about being swallowed up by the west (clearly certain events in our history have had something to do with this). I don’t think anyone believes that we will literally be colonized again, but each new cultural encroachment by the west arouses fears of soft-colonization — the kind where we lose our cultural soul; where we become addicts who can’t do much but wait for the next cola-fizzed hit from western corporations.

Gandhi promoted this notion as self-reliance or Swadeshi. I have more than  a smidgen of this phobia myself. The sheer psychic disturbance I feel when I see a McDonalds franchise in a place where a vada-pav stall used to be is hard to put in words. I believe that GMO seeds arouse this fear in a visceral way because it is our very food production cycle that would now involve a reliance on products that are Videshi, not Swadeshi. I understand this fear and I feel it too. The blogger from Curry Leaf, one who I admire for her stories and her passion, expresses this fear in the comments on this post.

As this is an emotional reaction, it isn’t wrong or right, and there is no arguing against it. But let me give you a little glimpse of my own inner dialog around this subject.

Ground being prepared for sowing

Ground being prepared for sowing (source: Prakash Puppalwar)

I feel like the cultural influences we have already absorbed become invisible to us, and we fear the cultural influences that might occur in the future. Gandhi himself was educated in England and wrote books in impeccable English. We are debating this subject mostly in this foreign language as well, on the Internet created mostly by America. When one’s livelihood is involved, like for the farmers I have talked to, it becomes difficult to give primacy to an abstract principle above one’s own flight from poverty. It is often: Swadeshi for thee, but not for me.

And, one has to remember that cultural influence goes both ways. If Indian cities are now heavily dependent on computers, cell phones, software and the rest, mostly from American companies, one has to think about the legions of Indian engineers they hire too. Where GMO seeds are concerned, the enterprise from the beginning was a collaboration of an Indian company with an American company, and, now there are Indian companies doing the research and production themselves.

GMO is not the first interdependence we have with the west and it won’t be the last.

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References:
1. http://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/article.asp?issn=0019-5545;year=2008;volume=50;issue=2;spage=124;epage=127;aulast=Behere
2. http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/research/stone/stone-wd-largerquestions.pdf
3. http://sap.einaudi.cornell.edu/sites/sap.einaudi.cornell.edu/files/Failure%20of%20Bt%20Cotton%20Herring%20Rao.pdf

Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Dear Reader, at this point I’m starting to think that Bt cotton is quite popular among Indian farmers. I got my first hint when I realized that there is a black market for Bt cotton seeds. If you think about it, there isn’t usually a black market for undesirable goods. The second hint came from the reading I did for this post, where I realized that Bt cotton improves yield for the farmers and reduces insecticide use, overall.

The third hint came a couple days ago, but this time it was bigger than a hint, it was more like someone setting off an alarm clock in my ear, kind of like this:

That was this. A Bt cotton farmer from Karnataka state contacted me after seeing my post and wanted to tell me his story. I had a half-hour long conversation with him in Hindi (second language for both of us) and he gave me permission to put his story on The Odd Pantry. Not to put too fine a point on it, he LOVES GMO cotton.

Background:

Sudhindra Kulkarni is a farmer in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka state. He sounds like a progressive and savvy farmer who has improved his lot far beyond the grinding poverty of his ancestors, all of whom were farmers. In 2012 his name was recommended by someone, he doesn’t know who, to join the Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. He was also sent to China as a progressive farmer by the Karnataka government. He had a lot of difficulties communicating because his English is not strong but it sounds like he did make a few good contacts there. He sent me this letter, that he calls his autobiography. I’m not sure why he wrote it, but it is also found on another website, exactly as the one he sent to me.

Interview:

(OP is The Odd Pantry, SK is Sudhindra. His answers translated by me)

OP: How long have you been farming?
SK: This is our family trade. I have been farming since my childhood. In my father’s days we grew wheat, cotton, sorghum. We also kept bullocks [OP: Indian cattle]. He practiced traditional farming methods and faced a lot of poverty. I stayed in the farming line when I grew up. My brother is an entomologist in the Dharwad University. I supported him with my farming. He himself was hardworking and smart and got scholarships. I learnt about modern farming methods and was able to pay back debts. I also built a pakka house for my family [OP: Pakka house is a cement house as opposed to a hut].

OP: How much land do you farm and what do you grow?
SK: I have 25 acres that I inherited from my forefathers and I lease about 25 more for Rs. 8000/= per acre per annum. I grow Bt cotton then rotate with pigeon pea and chickpea. I also grow sorghum for cattle feed [OP: I’ll take some too, please]. I have bullocks.

OP: How did you learn about modern farming methods?
SK: I learnt from my interest in improvement. The government has agriculture programs. I learnt from watching programs on TV. I leveled my land and got better yield. Now I use micronutrients for the soil and urea, potash and DAP. But I use organic methods too. In April we spread cowdung on the fields for manure. I used to practice purely organic methods but I had to give that up. In the old days we never tilled the soil, now we do. But we are still completely dependent on the monsoon. Four or five months of the year we get canal water. The rest of the time we depend on the rains.

Sudhindra's Bt cotton farm

Sudhindra’s Bt cotton farm

OP: How has your experience with Bt cotton been?
SK: I have been growing Bt cotton for ten years. It gives me excellent yield. I get one-and-half to two tons per acre. A farmer that I know is getting excellent yield with Bt cotton with purely organic methods. My cattle eat Bt cotton plants with no problems.

OP: Who helped you write your letter in English?
SK: My brother helps me with English. My 9th standard daughter helps me with Facebook and email. My language is Kannada. I don’t speak English well so it is difficult for me to get my message across.

OP: What is your message for my readers?
SK: My message is this. I have a sincere request. Please think about the economic condition of the farmer. Without good yield a farmer is nothing. Without good yield, a farmer cannot survive. My family would be destroyed. Without good yield, we are zero. Please do not listen to all the stories about farmer suicides. This is not just my story, it is the story of my whole village. [OP: He repeated this request five or six times throughout our conversation.] I don’t have good English so I cannot convince anyone. All this talk that the farmers will become slaves, this is all wrong. We need good yield.

[OP: He ended the conversation with inviting me and my family to stay at his farm, as is the Indian way. Perhaps someday. Then, I sent him one last question by email because I could not understand on the phone. What follows is his answer verbatim, not translated by me.]

OP: What difficulties did you face while practicing organic methods?
SK: # Ans: Animal Manure & cow dung not easily available ( Jeevaamruta )..varmi compost . pest control not possible..because environment not help # After that yield not getting..what we expected.. # Cost of production,overheads..all expense..after calculation..i didn’t get rate. # For me not possible to store my agri products till high rate,because i have also financial commitment .whatever rate i should sale.

Thoughts

So there you have it. Before I talked to him on the phone, my husband and I wondered the usual things one has to: like, is he telling the truth? Has he been coached? Or bribed? Once I talked to him, I immediately felt ashamed for wondering those things. He is clearly an intelligent and committed farmer. To think that he must have been coached to have certain thoughts smacks of condescension. Even to think that he is coachable smacks of condescension.

But in a sense, I am surprised at myself for being surprised at his story. The main beneficiaries of agricultural technology from the start have been farmers. This is true for GMO as well. American farmers have certainly voted with their feet to buy these seeds. Indian farmers are not that different, I guess. We are not Martians, after all.

Obviously, he may love Bt cotton for the high yield it gives him and it could still have other problems. The bollworm could develop resistance to it. Or there could be ripple effects in the environment. Or perhaps there really are no other problems, or if there are, they are better than spraying general insecticides. All or any or none could be true. That would be a different post, however.
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GMO cotton and the Indian farmer

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton farmer Warangal district (source: Flickr user Jankie)

Cotton is a light and breathable fabric but it sure does get itself into some very contentious debates. It has been a central player in colonialism in India, in the American Civil War, in the practice of slavery, and now, in the GMO wars.

I remember my mother recounting some history from the British Raj days. Can you believe, she would tell me, we grow cotton in India, but we are not allowed to make cloth from it. They ship it to England, it comes back as cloth, and then we have to pay expensive rates to buy it from them. It’s our cotton!

Gandhi at his charkha

Gandhi at his charkha

Mahatma Gandhi championed this viewpoint more than anyone else. He promoted the use of the charkha, the spinning wheel from medieval times. This was his method of thumbing his nose at the Raj. He intended to have every Indian make their own cloth the tedious way, by hand, and thereby collapse England’s profits. He knew what he was doing. Weaving khadi cloth at home became a political act. (Interestingly, today khadi has become a fashion statement.)

One could argue the opposite side as well. As egregious as it seems, England’s business model made sense. The cotton plants (India’s genetic asset) and their growing and picking (India’s manual labor) were only part of the story. Who would pay for the intellectual asset — the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and other such picturesquely named devices that made much finer quality cloth, more tightly woven, and many times faster? These are not devices to be sneezed at. These inventions and others like it powered the Industrial Revolution.

A similar debate now rages over genetically modified cotton. The quixotic Gandhi who stands in the way of Progress is Dr. Vandana Shiva. Gandhi spoke up for the imperfect, but diverse, home-weaving industry. Dr. Vandana Shiva speaks up for the unimproved, diverse strains of cotton that haven’t gotten any love from biotech companies like Monsanto.

Is she right? Was Gandhi right? I don’t know, but I want to explore. Let’s talk about Bt Cotton.

Insecticide

I wrote about Roundup Ready crops some time ago. Bt crops work in exactly the opposite way. Roundup Ready crops make it so that you can spray pesticide without concern for your crops — clearly, you can see how they might incentivize more spraying of pesticide. While Bt crops are not immune to pesticide, they come with pesticide in them. So you can see that theoretically they should not need any pesticide sprayed at all. The pest in this case, is the bollworm — the caterpillar of a certain moth.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a statement like ‘your food contains insecticide’ I start to smell the wonderful aroma of the Flit product from my childhood. There couldn’t be a better way to ruin my appetite for good. Now here we are talking about a plant growing with insecticide in its cells? Are you serious?

It’s not as bad as that. Let me explain.

I adore insects. But one has to admit, sometimes they work at cross-purposes to us — whether it is cockroaches in the kitchen cupboard, mosquitoes buzzing on a summer evening, or bedbugs making lurid bloodstains all over the sheets. Humans have spent a considerable time time trying to control them.

But we are late entrants to the game. Plants have been indulging in their own battle with insect pests for half a billion years. Since they can’t get up and walk over to the store, they need to make their own. And they do. Plants fight pests silently (to us) but with astonishing vigor. No quarters given.

"Who, me, insecticide?!" the Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

The Neem tree, looking innocent (source: Wikimedia commons)

You know those lovely daisies that little girls make daisy chains from and put them around their pretty little heads? They produce pyrethrum, a compound that attacks the insect’s nervous system. Jicama — that recent favorite of Californian foodies (of which I am one, I guess?) — the root that one cuts into sticks and puts in salad — the stems of jicama produce rotenone, a chemical that attacks the energy-production of cells. It is extremely toxic to insects and fish. The Neem tree is famously antisocial, by which I mean it is anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory. Neem’s special contribution is azadirachtin, a chemical that prevents insects from growing, and while they remain stunted, it makes them lose their appetite to the point of starvation. Diabolical. But they actually need to eat the plant tissue to get the poison, so insects that care only about the nectar and pollinate the plant are not affected.

What one looks for in a ‘good’ insecticide is the following: it must not kill indiscriminately — in particular, it must not be toxic to mammals. It should only kill insects pests, not be poisonous to the pollinators, nor to the predators of the insect pests. It must not hang around in the soil for long, i.e. it must biodegrade, but while it is hanging around it must not slosh around and get everywhere.

Bt

Bacillus thuringiensis (source: http://bacillusthuringiensis.pbworks.com/)

Bacillus thuringiensis (source: http://bacillusthuringiensis.pbworks.com/)

In these ways, a certain bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis makes pretty much the ideal insecticide. This insecticide protein is called ‘Cry’ and that is probably what the insect does upon ingesting it. It works by perforating the insect gut walls full of holes. It can be very specific, as in, there are strains that will affect only beetles that chomp on some Bt, and others that will only affect moths. It is very, very safe for all other animals including us; this is because it cannot work in an acidic environment, which our bellies are, in general. Any Bt left over on leaves will simply degrade in the sun.

Bt has been known as an insecticide since the 1900’s. But no one understood why it killed only moth larvae sometimes and only beetle larvae other times. No one understood its mechanism. Only in the 1980’s, when consumers were souring on wide-spectrum synthetic poisons like DDT, did industry start to take a look at developing biological insecticides into products. Chemical companies across Europe and the US divided up the Bt strains between them — some focused on killing mosquitoes and flies, some on moths, and some on beetles.

Bt crops

Bt had been a sleeper in the insecticide world but its qualities made it a celebrity. Pretty soon scientists understood it down to the gene level, and at that point, given the advancements in gene modification, it was a matter of course to insert that gene into plants.

I mentioned above that Bt spray, when applied to plants, degrades in the sun or simply washes off. While that is one of its beautiful qualities (that it easily biodegrades), it does mean that one has to keep reapplying it. Wouldn’t it be great if the plant cells actually contained Bt inside, so it wouldn’t just disappear in the sun or wash off? Hello, Bt crops.

Bt Cotton in India — Seeds of Suicide?

Cotton with an inserted gene that produces Cry came into the Indian market in 2002. It protects cotton from its main predator, the bollworm. Before 2002, even though cotton was one of India’s main cash crops, the yield was one of the lowest in the world. Pests were a huge problem, and farmers spent more money on pesticide for cotton than for any other crop.

Bt cotton came with the promise of not needing pesticide at all, because it would inherently fight back the bollworm. Before the government approved it, Bt cotton had already created a buzz and seeds from Monsanto had been smuggled in to sell in the black market. After it was approved, by 2010, more than 90% of cotton growers in India used Bt cotton. But while Bt cotton was being widely adopted, activists raised the alarm. Dr. Vandana Shiva in particular called it the seeds of suicide.

Anyone (like your humble servant, The Odd Pantry) asking a simple question  — ‘so, how is it working out?’ — is immediately assaulted by a battery-pack of confusing assertions. Yields have gone up! No! Farmer suicides have gone up! Spraying of insecticide has reduced! No! The bollworm has developed resistance to Bt and aphids have attacked cotton! What is true? What is not? I did a lot of reading the past week to get answers to some basic questions. I may not find the Truth but I can certainly throw my lasso around some facts.

Q. Has Bt cotton improved yields overall? A. Yes. Overall, so far, from 2002 onward, yields have gone up a lot. Not all of the increase is due to genetically modified seeds — other factors have mattered too. But, 19% of the yield increase is because of Bt cotton.

Q. Has it cut down on the amount of insecticide that needs to be sprayed? A. Overall, yes, the use of Bt cotton reduced insecticide use by half in the ten years after it was introduced. This could change as the bollworm develops resistance to Bt or other insect pests start attacking cotton. But in the meantime, yes, insecticide use did go down. An added benefit here is that farmers have reported many fewer cases of pesticide poisoning.

Q. Has the Bollworm developed resistance to Bt cotton? A. Yes, indeed, it has, in some places. It has been 10 years of Bt cotton use in India and considering that 95% of the cotton grown now has the Bt gene, the bollworm has a big fat bull’s eye to evolutionarily aim at — the target being resistance to Bt, and the enormous benefit being that it doesn’t die. In 2010, Monsanto admitted that they had found bollworms in Gujarat that were resistant to the first generation of Bt cotton crops.

Q. Have other pests attacked Bt cotton? A. Nature seeks balance. If Bt cotton crops have become pretenaturally safe from bollworms, other insects will surely be emboldened to attack it. Have they? Yes. In recent years a new pest of cotton called the mirid bug, rejoicing in the absence of the bollworm, has been feasting on cotton (story from China). This did not happen directly because of Bt cotton, but because the farmers had massively cut down on spraying general insecticides on their crop. The rise of the mirid bug is eroding some of the benefits of Bt cotton by forcing them to run out and purchase insecticides anyway.

Q. Did sheep die after grazing on Bt cotton? A. Starting in 2005 shepherds in Andhra Pradesh reported that sheep that grazed on the remains of Bt cotton for 3-4 days seemed to pick up a disease and die. Surprisingly, no one seems to have gotten to the bottom of this claim; was Bt cotton to blame or not?

Activists claim that this is obviously GMO poisoning, but the case is not as clear-cut as that. There were cases of pneumonia mixed in with the sheep that seem to have been poisoned, which makes it hard to separate. And, some investigations found pesticide on the leaves, so it could have been that.

The authorities on the other hand, claim that this is just hearsay, that the sheep simply could not have died from any Bt cotton toxicity, and the tests they have done prove it. But, there actually haven’t been any tests done on sheep (there have been tests on buffaloes, goats, chickens and cows). Also none of the tests involved fresh plant material, they just involved cotton seed meal. It is also possible that the toxin came from the non-Bt parts of Bt cotton. So far, it seems like the authorities in India have failed to get to the bottom of this.

This article is very detailed but is a good account of the sheep deaths.

Q. Have farmer suicides shot up due to Bt cotton? A. Now we come to the most incendiary claim — that the use of GM crops have led to growing numbers of farmers taking their own lives. There is no way to discuss this that isn’t going to sound callous. But let’s try.

There are two ways to look at this — as statistics, or as anecdotes. This paper looks at the question statistically. They chose to use statistics from the crime bureau rather than the ones collected by the state governments, because the ones from the crime bureau are more accurate (and higher). What they found is that farmer suicides have not increased, overall, since the introduction of Bt cotton, although they found local variation.

This paper on the other hand, looks at the question anecdotally, although it doesn’t choose to word it that way. I don’t say this to knock it. Anecdotal accounts may bring tragedies to light that get elided into a blip on a curve when you look at it as a statistic. It seems clear that some farmers did face GM crop failures; and for some of those it meant digging deeper into debt. People in wealthier countries where one can declare bankruptcy might wonder why unpayable debt is a reason to take one’s own life. In India, among the poor, this can be a disaster. They mostly do not have good, regulated microcredit available. I’ve known loan sharks to send hoodlums out to their delinquents for beatings; having their meager possessions auctioned off is a regular occurrence.

If it was indebtedness, can it be blamed on GMO? Well, perhaps it wasn’t the Bt toxin itself. But the GMO seeds they obtained come with a context — a high price, marketing, regulations followed and not followed. I will explore that in the next section.

GMO in the Indian Context

Look, after my week of reading everything I could lay my cursor on, I think I am free to make a qualified claim: so far, overall, Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers. It has helped them, overall, get better yields and make more money. But, it has not been a uniform success. The Indian context in particular has had a bit of a culture clash with the more modern economy that Monsanto usually operates in. When Indian farmers have crop failures, this is often a life-destroying event.

What kind of culture clash? The rural population in India has high rates of illiteracy. Many farm workers cannot read or write, let alone get on the internet to look up seed laws. In this environment, hearsay will always have more influence than the latest official dispatch. Instructions from Monsanto about planting buffer areas with non-Bt cotton were not well understood, or, the farmers didn’t have the luxury to ‘do things right’, leading to some places where the bollworm developed resistance to it. In Andhra Pradesh, some farmers didn’t understand that they did not need to spray insecticide anymore, therefore cutting into the profit they might have had.

They are not jaded with years of marketing-speak and haven’t learnt to discount it. Farmers believed the most inflated talk about yields that they could expect from Bt cotton, and probably did not have the cynicism needed to know that this was advertisement. They might have taken more risk than they ought to have given the high cost of the seeds based on this marketing-speak.

The concept of intellectual property is not well understood either — I know this first-hand, because when I was in India we pirated software with abandon, not really understanding that there was something wrong with this. When we bought grain in bulk, some of the small-time vendors adulterated it with stones. Piracy, the black market, adulteration, these are ubiquitous, specially for poorer farmers who are price-conscious and have no consumer representation. There are several cases of unauthorized Bt cotton being sold in the black market, which is usually adulterated with cheaper conventional cotton. Clearly this crop is not going to be as resistant to the bollworm as the pure variety.

The practice of buying seed from a catalog for each new season, very familiar for American farmers, is a bit of a culture shock to Indian farmers. Monsanto’s seeds lose their vigor after single growing season; farmers who have become trained in the practice of growing GM crop have a high dependence on the private sector and are subject to their price whims.

It also seems like Monsanto and their Indian collaborators have not always chosen the best varieties of cotton for the Indian situation. Some of the initial hybrids they chose were not drought-tolerant; this is fine for modern societies where irrigation is a given, but in India, most farmers are still heavily dependent on the monsoon. Some of the GM crop failures in Andhra Pradesh were because of this. Other times, the hybrids they chose grew fine but had a shorter staple length and did not bring in as much profit as the farmers had counted on.

The Good, the Bad

On the plus side, Bt cotton has the potential to drastically cut down the use of pesticides. Not only is this a health benefit for farm workers (they can’t afford safety equipment like masks while spraying, or really, even shoes, so some exposure is guaranteed), it is also good for the environment. Recently, natural predators of insect pests have had their numbers increase. Also, if cash crops are less prone to be eaten by pests, this is a benefit in and of itself.

Let’s talk about the bad. With an engineer’s hat on, the problem of a pest on a cash crop has a simple solution: find a good insecticide and have the plant produce it. Done.

With an ecological hat on, one wonders about the system one is tampering with. The simple solution starts to look like a silver bullet. In general the scientists believe that a GM crop like this comes with a natural life until the target pests develop resistance to it. I’m not smart enough to think through this very well, but here is a question. We know that Bacillus thuringiensis produces insecticide, but we don’t quite understand its role in the ecology. What happens when these creatures develop a resistance to it out in the wild — what does that do in the environment? What balance does it wreck? I don’t think anybody understands.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because these ineffable concerns will never trump the immediate need for profit and predictability, and that might just be the story of industrial farming.

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The GMO debate as a fable

IMG_2365[1]The other day my daughter and I did a fun kitchen project which had nothing to do with food — we made beeswax hand lotion at home. Never having done this before, I found myself a little befuddled. I had to stir in stuff while the beeswax was still melted. But how to keep it warm and not let it stiffen up while the whisking is going on? Luckily, my experience with a completely different recipe — chocolate frosting — helped me. I stole a step from that very different recipe. I set up a double boiler and kept the beeswax warm in that. It took a while but it worked.

I hope that did not raise any eyebrows. How dare I steal a step from one recipe to another? Did my hand lotion start to smell chocolatey? Of course not, I didn’t add any chocolate to it. Is my hand lotion now forever tainted as being somehow impure? Or unnatural? No — I demand that my misbegotten hand lotion be given its proper place in the pantheon of hand lotions. I ask that my hand lotion be accorded the same respect as other hand lotions, which means, please judge it on its traits. Does it smell good? Does it make your hands feel soft? And so on.

What does this have to do with genes? Everything.

DNA

DNA is a recipe. It isn’t really a recipe for living beings — it is a recipe for proteins, which in turn are a recipe for us. Sometimes biologists stress that all life on earth is related. So every weed you see growing in a sidewalk crack, or every bacteria that you can’t even see — is your cousin. Mostly we know that because all of our DNA’s are written in the same language.

I’m going to call this language Dnaelic, just to irritate my science readers and my Gaelic readers in one stroke. Where English has 26 letters, Dnaelic has just four: A, T, C and G. Words in Dnaelic are made up of 3 letters and are called codons. So CCC is a codon, TGT is a codon, and so on. Just like a sentence in English is a sequence of words that expresses a complete thought, a gene in Dnaelic is a sequence of codons that expresses a complete protein. Dnaelic even has punctuation marks like English to mark the start and end of genes.

Gene splicing

OriginalHandLotion

DNA for hand lotion

Imagine if the chocolate frosting recipe had been written in say, Choctaw, while the hand lotion steps were in English, I would find it pretty difficult to transfer steps from one to the other. Since they were both in English, it was easy. In fact, I will show you what I did.

On the left is my original recipe. I’m going to call it the DNA for hand lotion. Now I am going to ‘cheat’ and drag in an instruction from the DNA for chocolate frosting.

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Can you spot the difference? My DNA for hand lotion now has an instruction spliced in. It will make better hand lotion, I promise. It will be softer (because the ingredients mixed in better) and will be way easier to grow. Sorry, I mean, way easier to make. And you will certainly be able to sell more of it.

I’m going to call that dragged in step the trans-step. As you can see, it does not look any different than any other step. Theoretically, I could have just thought it up out of the blue (mutation) or, possibly, I might have got that inspiration to use a double-boiler by watching other hand-lotion makers at work (cross-breeding). Nevertheless, I got it from chocolate frosting, and to mark that special history, I will call it a trans-step.

GMO on the Interwebs

No doubt the example I gave above is a bit of a fable and much simplified. But as I read the commentary on GMO all over the Interwebs I find a weird dichotomy; the debate between the science folks proceeds at a very sophisticated level, while the debate between laypeople shows no understanding of the basics of genetics. Once in a while when there is cross-communication between the two communities, the debate devolves into accusations of idiocy and political hackery. The two communities cannot speak to each other! Our DNA’s may speak the same language but we certainly don’t.

As laypeople, we need to understand the basics of this very important debate. We are all voters. So let me reframe some common GMO debates in the light of my hand lotion fable.

The Debate!

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods have not been proven to be safe or healthy. You keep asserting over and over again that they are safe, but that does not convince me.”

Scientist: “I only keep saying that because I want to keep things simple. In reality what I mean is, ‘genetically engineered food’ is not a useful category. It is like saying all recipes that have borrowed steps from very different recipes are suspect. This is not a useful way to look at it. One has to study each genetically modified creature on its own to see if the introduced traits are good or bad (and, we have). In the hand lotion example, the borrowed step made a good hand lotion. But we could have as well borrowed a step that ruined it — say, a step that said ‘now throw it down the drain’. That would make a terrible hand lotion or actually, not make a hand lotion at all.

“There are many genetic engineering research projects ongoing. Let’s judge each on its merits. Here is one that will control the mosquito population to prevent them causing malaria. Here is one that could help Vitamin-A-blindness in the tropics. Aren’t those good things?”

Educated layperson: “I do actually think that genetically engineered food as a whole is something to worry about. I worry that you don’t understand the recipes of living beings well enough to be tweaking them. What if you put in a gene and it produces a protein as expected but it also has another unexpected effect? I also worry that your actual process is not very precise.

Scrambled instruction

Scrambled instruction

Transgene

Transgene

What if instead of the clean splicing that you showed in the hand lotion above, the spliced gene actually goes in scrambled (left) or like this (right) where the transgene is ‘loose’ inside the DNA or somehow different? What if you are introducing proteins into a creature that has never had a protein quite like that before — does it matter? It is as if you put in a step in the hand lotion recipe to add something no hand lotion has ever seen before — like, say, I don’t know, Coca Cola. Would that cause allergies? Would it still be hand lotion?

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Good points, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on each of your concerns.”

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods are unnatural. Nature should not be meddled with.”

Scientist: “I find it amusing that you are typing this out on a keyboard and sending me this over the Internet. Did that not strike you as ironic? Everything natural isn’t good. The dinosaurs were wiped out by a perfectly natural asteroid that they would have loved to have meddled with.

“You seem to have insufficient respect for how much humans have meddled with nature already, even before GMO.

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

We have turned corn from this (left) to this (right) with just conventional breeding (and some help from nuclear technology). No, I’m not joking.

“On the other hand, you have insufficient respect for the tricks that nature gets up to already with DNA. The usual thing of a mother and father mating to produce offspring is one thing. But our DNA is being constantly altered by completely random mutations, most of which are fatal. Did you know that while scientists carefully selected a bacterial gene to put into corn for a specific purpose, nature does this all the time? Bacteria not only transfer genes to each other (without mating), but have known to transfer genes to insects, and even humans. In a completely random, unpredictable way.”

Educated layperson: “You are right, Scientist. Nature is vaster than any of us can imagine and calling something ‘unnatural’ is, well, childish. But I will rephrase my concern. My concern is that GMO foods do not promote biodiversity, on the contrary, they promote an extreme form of monoculture. The corn example you gave — yes, I am aware that we have bred teosinte into corn, a huge distance (and not always for the good). But you know what? The breeding didn’t happen in a lockbox. Corn was always free to spread its pollen far and wide as plants will do. Wild species and cultivated species could mate. With GMO, it is single strain that is expected to be grown in a lockbox and not share pollen with other plants. I’m sorry to go back to that word, but this is unnatural.”

Scientist: “That’s not me demanding that strains of crops grow in a lockbox, that’s Business.”

Educated layperson: “True, but all the fun you have in the lab doesn’t really come to us except through Business.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “You are on fire today, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on what the problem with monoculture really is, since you didn’t really explain it.”

Layperson: “GMO foods contaminate the environment.”

Scientist: “Oh, that again. Look, I agree with Educated Layperson above that GMO plants will want to cross-breed with wild plants. But whether that counts as ‘contamination’ — doesn’t that depend on whether the GMO plant has good traits or bad?”

Educated layperson: “Good for what, and bad for what? A plant may do exactly what it is engineered to do, for example have insecticide. But if it escapes or mates with wild plants, you now have insecticide plants growing all over (think: superweed). They are going to be quite invulnerable, don’t you think? And what about the decimation of the insect population that might occur? It seems to me that you often ignore the second-order ecological impact of the plants you build.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Oooh, ‘second-order ecological impacts’. Mind if I steal that? Another post, I guess. I better get busy, I have a lot of posts to bore my readers with.”

[Disclaimer: all characters are fictional and not meant to represent any real person. I will admit to having a special fondness for Educated Layperson, though.]

GMO case study: Roundup Ready crops

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

If you walk down the aisle of any American grocery store, around four-fifths of the packaged food available for sale to you has some genetically engineered ingredients. And of those ingredients, most have been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. So this particular trait is very pervasive, not only in our grocery aisles, but all over the American farmland: most of the corn, almost all of the soybean, most of the cotton is grown to be Roundup resistant. In a sense we are having the debate about whether to label GMO foods quite late; the barn door has been open for a while, the horse has not only exited the barn but is romping around the landscape making daisy chains.

In this particular case, it isn’t the genetically modified seeds that are the issue, but the behavior that those seeds incentivize. The crops have been made invulnerable to Roundup, so that that particular weed-killer can get squirted around with pretty much wild abandon. What does that do?

Roundup

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Glyphosate is a plant poison. It was developed by Monsanto in the 1970’s and, combined with other ingredients (some disclosed, some not) sold as a formulation called Roundup. As a herbicide, it was safer than the others that came before it. The earliest in the 1940’s was 2,4D which formed one half of the ingredients of the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam. Then came Atrizine, which is known to be an endocrine disruptor, and is often found as a contaminant in drinking water.

Glyphosate was a blessing when it was discovered. It works by blocking plants from creating certain kinds of amino acids. Since humans and other animals do not have the ability to synthesize these amino acids in the first place (we must get them from plants), glyphosate simply does not have the power to harm us.

There was another reason why farmers must have rejoiced to have an herbicide like Roundup on their shelves; it is non-selective. A huge variety of plants, whether grasses, leafy plants, woody plants, or conifers, are affected by it. Stepping around on a lawn with Roundup-stained soles will in a few days turn those footsteps into brown patches.

The scientists also found that it generally sticks to the top few inches of soil  and doesn’t easily run off to pollute groundwater. Microbes are able to break it down while it is bound to soil. A miracle herbicide!

Safer but is it safe?

That is the theory. Reality is usually messier. For instance, given a big enough storm, the soil itself (with bound glyphosate) can run off into ground water, and there, microbes cannot break it down. Once in the water, a study showed that it induces changes in frogs by making them stressed as though there is a predator around, even when there isn’t.

Plus, all the studies that talk about the safety of glyphosate miss the point, because the Roundup formulation contains a long list of other ‘inactive’ ingredients that Monsanto is not required to reveal, that are actually more toxic.

A preservative in it — Proxel — can cause dermatitis. Roundup also contains a surfactant called POEA — this chemical allows Roundup to be properly wet, so that the plant can absorb it all the way to its roots — that has been shown to be toxic to fish. It also was found to kill human cells in a test tube, its power magnified by working in concert with glyphosate.

Glyphosate itself has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto’s rejoinder to that study was basically that the association was weak, and that it proved correlation, not causation, ignoring the fact that while judging the toxicity of chemicals it is difficult to actually prove cause-and-effect without unethically exposing people to high levels of the stuff, just to see what happens.

Plus, one has to remember that while animals don’t create these amino acids, microbes do. So glyphosate has the obvious potential to harm good bacteria in our guts the same way in which it kills plants. In fact, a study found that glyphosate is implicated in celiac disease due to its impact on gut bacteria.

This factsheet from the Oregon state government is a good summary of harms from Roundup.

Despite all this, weed killers have their uses. Environmentalists, forest-management folks, people with the best of intentions, have used Roundup to remove invasive plants and preserve biodiversity. (There is no reason to use it on your ornamental lawn, however. None.) These folks, and farmers, have gotten by with a judicious application of herbicide where needed. Judicious, judicious, judicious, one must emphasize in the manner of realtors.

However, when Roundup Ready crops came on the market, judicious application of Roundup began to sound a little quaint.

Roundup Ready crops

Conventional crops are just as vulnerable to Roundup as any weeds might be. So farmers could not use it with impunity. They couldn’t use a ton of it or spray indiscriminately; for another thing, they couldn’t use it while their crops were growing, it had to be done before they have germinated. Since they didn’t have a magic bullet, they had to use a mix of weed management methods: a mix of herbicides, a mix of crops, and other ways of controlling weeds.

In the meantime, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup expired in 2000, which must have caused quite a bit of fretting among Monsanto’s business centers. They came up with a very ingenious new product that they could patent. They were able to create seeds of soybean, corn, cotton, etc., that weren’t affected by Roundup the way most plants are. How was this done?

It turns out that bacteria need to produce amino acids as well. But the enzyme they use for this purpose is different than the ones most plants use. Different enough that it doesn’t get affected by glyphosate, but similar enough that it can produce the needed amino acids. Scientists were able to take a gene from these bacteria that produces this slightly different enzyme to put into seeds to turn them into glyphosate tolerant crops.

It made the farmer’s life a lot easier, because they could spray Roundup all over without concern for the crops. It was Roundup and only Roundup, and a couple sprays all over did the job. Some called it agricultural heroin for farmers.

For Monsanto, this meant more sales of Roundup and a near-monopoly on sales of seeds.

For farmers, it meant convenience and certainty, at first. But, notice, they are subject to this rather pincer-like business practice of Monsanto — you have to buys seeds from the same company that sells you the spray, and neither can work without the other.

For consumers, it means that we are consuming a lot more herbicide. All samples of GMO soy were found to have residues of Roundup in a study published by Food Chemistry.

What does it mean for the environment? To examine this, we must forget about the marginal toxicities of Roundup that are the subject of endless debates and look squarely at what Roundup is advertised to do.

The missing monarchs

In the insect world the monarch butterfly is a bit of a prima donna. It is not only the showy good looks, but also how exacting it is in its needs. Eggs must be laid on a milkweed plant, because the emerging caterpillar will eat nothing else. Without it, the caterpillar will simply perish. Every year, monarchs migrate down from Canada to Mexico flying over the Midwest where they seek out milkweed. In recent years this population has dwindled down by 81%. The monarch is such a star that people noticed. Not only does it drive tourist business in Mexico, but is also the state insect for several American states.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have now found the cause to be the rampant spraying of glyphosate across farmlands in the Midwest. Milkweed happens to grow in those ignored areas that us humans don’t have much respect for — on the edges of farms, along highway shoulders. An edge of farmland that looks scrubby and pointless does not get the same respect as say a forest would. Since the advent of Roundup Ready crops, milkweed has declined by 58% with predictable devastation of the monarch population.

I want to emphasize that people only noticed the decline in the monarch population because of its glamour. There very well could be many other species that have been affected because of glyphosate use doing exactly what it is advertised to do — kill weeds.

Superweeds

When I’m pulling weeds in my garden I often find that some weeds have deviously designed themselves to escape me. One such is the dandelion. Its leaves lie flat to the ground and spread out, which makes it hard to get a grip under the plant and pull it. If you manage to, you realize that it is anchored to the ground by a thick ropy taproot with a grip of death. Then as I tug on the root, it breaks off easily, leaving a part of it still underground ready to spring up into a new rosette when I’m gone.

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Weeds are called that because they are escape artists. They have developed traits that let them survive whatever weed management you might use on them. If it is a lawn that is often mowed, they might lie flat against the mower (again, like the dandelion). If you mostly get rid of them by pulling, they might give you a false sense of security by breaking off easily but leave underground bulbs behind (like Oxalis, Bermuda buttercup). This is why we are forced to use several tricks to adapt to their adaptations; some by pulling, some by letting loose caterpillars that might feed on them exclusively; some by solarization.

With Roundup, it seems, farmers were not this nimble. With active encouragement from Monsanto they came to depend entirely on spraying of glyphosate since the Roundup Ready crops came on the market. While glyphosate use grew a lot in the years since 1997, the use of other herbicides fell.

Well, that was nothing but an invitation to weeds to independently develop their own resistance to glyphosate. Those farms were basically sitting ducks.

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Two such weeds — pigweed and waterhemp — have become huge problems in the cotton and soy farms of the Midwest. Because of these and others, farmers were forced to use even more glyphosate, based on advice from Monsanto’s scientists, as says this statement from farmer Troy Roush.

Monsanto’s business practices are culpable here. In their 1993 petition to the US government to deregulate the use of Roundup Ready soybean, they insisted that weeds developing resistance to it was “highly unlikely” (the 1993 petition, page 56), mostly because no weeds had become glyphosate-resistant until then. They assumed that there was something about glyphosate that made it hard for weeds to develop resistance; also since glyphosate does not hang around in the soil, they would not have the time. Were their scientists trying to delude the government, or were they deluded themselves?

Nature is nimbler than you think

This ought to be a lesson to both sides — those that insist that GMO is contrary to nature, and those that insisted (above) that nature could never pull off what Monstanto’s smart scientists had taken ten years of intensive research to do. The trait in question — resistance to glyphosate’s ability to block creation of amino acids.

Interestingly, the first discovery of nature’s glyphosate-resistant weeds did not happen in a corn or soy farm, but in the backyard of Monsanto’s chemical factory along the Mississippi river. There, in ditches where glyphosate residue was often discarded, plants had been fighting this particular enemy for a while. By the 1980’s some weeds had already developed resistance to glyphosate in Monsanto’s own backyard and were growing happily in the sludge. When the scientists bothered to look, they found examples of Roundup Ready genes made by nature in their own ditches that did the job far more effectively than the gene they had spent ten years developing.

Yes, nature was easily able to pull off creating resistance to glyphosate. It just needed a reason.