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.

cs-rice-grains

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.)

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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.

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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My Parathas turned Purple

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I have a huge amount of respect for nutrition scientists. But one can sense that in food, they have met a worthy adversary.

Carbohydrate, fat and protein

WHO Food pyramid

WHO Food pyramid

There were the days when they confidently issued proclamations about ‘food pyramids’ that could be rendered in the colors available in a child’s crayon pack. There was carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Various experiments were performed on unsuspecting dogs and rats that led them to believe that out of the three, protein was the one true nutrient.

Then came sailors and prisoners who were given protein enough, but were afflicted with swollen gums, purple spots, and finally, death. This disease was called scurvy. This disease had been known since the Roman times, and had often been treated with herbal cures such as lemon juice. Another time, a sailor stepped ashore and ate some cactus fruit, and found that it had curative properties too.

The vitamins

So what was it about lemon juice and cactus fruit that had the magical property to cure scurvy? Surely, they thought, since scurvy was a disease of ‘putridness’, whatever that means, and clearly, acid cuts ‘putridness’, it has got to be the acid in lemon juice that does the trick. So they began dosing sailors with diluted sulfuric acid and vinegar, to no avail. This acid treatment went on pointlessly for years, apparently, until a doctor named James Lind had a forehead-smacking moment and realized the sulfuric acid was doing more harm than good.

James Lind feeding citrus fruit to a scurvy-stricken sailor aboard HMS Salisbury in 1747 (Artist: Robert A Thom)

It was through such nightmarish means that scientists were forced to accept that the complexity of nutrition went beyond the big three of fat, carbohydrate and protein, and the ph dimension of alkaline and acid. By the early twentieth they had identified nutrients that were given the name ‘vitamins‘ which meant ‘force of life’, or something. Vitamin C cured scurvy while Vitamin B cured beri beri and pellagra; others were discovered too.

So food science climbed up the ladder of complexity, but you can tell how many nutrients they expected to find in food, because they started naming them after the alphabet. There may be ten, there may be twenty, surely it would not go beyond A through Z, right? They found 13 vitamins.

Phytonutrients

The farther one goes, the farther behind one gets. Now they have identified so many nutrients that this layperson (me) has lost all hope of catching up.

Phytonutrients‘ is the name used to describe all kinds of nutrients available only through plants. They help plants perform all their planty duties: fight germs, fight aging, fight toxins, stay alive, in other words. They give the plants their colors; their smells; their pungency. When we eat plants, we get the benefit of these chemicals too, for surprisingly similar functions.

Now there is a type of phytonutrient that is a pigment that gives plants a purple color (anthocyanins). There is tons of tantalizing research about how beneficial these pigments are for us. There is evidence from folk medicine — hibiscus has been used for liver dysfunction, while bilberry has been used to cure night-blindness. There is evidence from the test-tube that the purple pigment prevents the growth of cancer cells. There is evidence from tests on rats that the purple aids in cardiovascular health.

The pigments have antioxidant properties, so that is one reason why they might have so many benefits. But scientists are now alive to the dangers of accepting the simple explanation. These pigments belong to a set of 4000 other compounds called flavonoids; plants use all of them in concert to perform various functions through their lives. So it is not just this or that chemical that provides this or that benefit; it might be any of the 4000 thousand put together that does it. So it isn’t the purpleness itself; it is the army of its cousins working together in the plant.

That makes sense — plants do not live on vitamin supplements. They use whatever they’ve got in whatever combination they can, to do the things they need done. If we eat those plants, we ingest those chemical complexes and gain similar benefits.

We have come a long way from the time scientists dosed sailors with vinegar. Now one can imagine them shaking their fist and saying, ‘Just — just go eat purple food.’

Well, that’s easy.

My purple parathas

I love stuffing cauliflower or potato into rotis to make parathas. Eating them with plain yogurt is soul-satisfying. But on this day, I made them purple.

Ingredients for the roti:

  • Have a look at this recipe (Rolling the Roti) and make as much as you need. I made 2 potato parathas and 8 cauliflower ones = 10 rotis total.
  • Oil or ghee as needed.

Ingredients for potato filling (for 2 parathas):

  • 1 medium purple potato
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • 1 small green chili sliced, or substitute with half a teaspoon red chili
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala
  • Salt to taste

Ingredients for cauliflower filling (for 8 parathas):

  • About 4 cups purple cauliflower florets
  • An inch of ginger, minced fine
  • 1 – 2 green serrano chilies
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 – 3 teaspoons chaat masala
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • Half a teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
  • Sprinkle of asafetida (optional)

Method for potato filling:

Microwave the potato until it is soft. Mash it, peel and all. Mix in the other ingredients, squeeze it into a sort of dough, and divide into two disks. The filling is ready, each disk will go into one paratha.

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Method for cauliflower filling:

Grate the cauliflower, mince the ginger and chili. Heat the oil in a large thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. When it shimmers put in the asafetida and the cumin. When they sizzle put in the ginger, chili, and grated cauliflower. Stir to coat with oil. Add the salt and the chaat masala. Raise to heat to nicely dry the cauliflower. It is very important to get the cauliflower to be as dry as possible, or it will make your life hell while rolling out the parathas. When it is dry enough, turn off the heat and let it dry.

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Method for composing the parathas:

Roll out a roti about 6 inches in diameter. Place the right amount of filling in the center. For the cauliflower it is about 3 heaped tablespoons, for the potato filling it is about a 2 – 3 inch disk of potato. Gather up the edges of the roti and give it a squeeze. Flatten the pouch into a disk and start rolling it flat with the filling inside.

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While rolling parathas the ever-present danger is that the filling will come squeezing out like toothpaste out of a tube. One must learn to avoid that. One way is to use a very gentle hand while rolling — you don’t want a few long, weighty rollings, instead many quick, darting, gentle rollings. Use dry flour as needed to patch up holes.

The ideal paratha, when rolled out, has such a thin roti cover that one can see the filling peeping out in various places, but it doesn’t actually fall out. Keep your eye on that ideal.

Meanwhile have a cast-iron griddle or tawa going on a medium-high flame. Slap a prepared paratha on. After 30 seconds, the top surface will seem a little set. Flip it over. Wait 30 seconds. Now spread a bit of oil or ghee over the top surface and flip it over for another 30 seconds. Repeat. In total, each side has been cooked dry twice, then cooked with oil twice.

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While one paratha is cooking, did you think it was time to stand around and have a coffee break? No, my dear, get busy rolling out the next one. When one gets practiced one can have two griddles going at once.

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Have it with some plain yogurt on the side, nothing else is needed.

Curds and whey

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I have before rather blithely thrown around assertions about how easy it is to make yogurt at home. Room temperature, time, blah. blah. So, madam, how about you put your money where your mouth is, hunh? Hunh?

Fine. Let’s do it. And in the process, get answers to a few persistent questions.

Those of you who hire a house cleaner — you know how easy it is to have your house cleaned, right? You prepare the house and leave. They come over, do the job while you are out working, whooping it up, or waiting watchfully outside the door. Come back home and enjoy your clean house.

Did you do any hard work? No — you waited. Of course, you had to hire the cleaners and set things up for them. But you didn’t actually dust a single chair or sweep a single room. Someone did though.

Delegation! That is what making yogurt is about. We delegate the making of yogurt to the lactic acid bacteria. We ourselves do nothing but wait while they are about their task. Of course my analogy breaks down somewhat because the lactic acid bacteria are not really hard at work with their dustpans and brooms, but rather simply enjoying a meal. It is as though you hired house cleaners to come over and dine at your house, and magically when they were done eating, your house sparkled.

Yogurt-making process

Yogurt-making process

The picture above describes the process.

  1. Milk is full of two kinds of proteins floating about in the liquid — casein and whey.
  2. It also has a special type of milk sugar called lactose
  3. We add in yogurt starter, which contains lactic acid bacteria. They simply love to dine on the lactose
  4. As they do so, they give out lactic acid
  5. The lactic acid amount in milk builds up over time, turning the whole thing somewhat acidic (sour) — you see how it turns yellow?
  6. In that acidic (sour) environment, the casein knots of protein relax and spread out into long strands. Once they are all open they knit with each other into a web that traps the whey proteins and the liquid in milk. This is why the curds are jelly-like.

The experiment

Enough theory. Let’s get to action. In my home in Bombay we made a batch of yogurt every night. Most times it was delicious but every once in a while we would have a runny mess that us kids refused to eat. What went wrong? I have also made yogurt at home in California many, many times. Sometimes with spectacular success. Other times not. Why?

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The ideal yogurt recipe is this: Heat milk to 185 F (scalding), wait till it cools to 110 F (warm). For each cup of milk, add a tablespoon of whipped yogurt and stir. Keep it warm for about 8 hours.

But what happens if you add less starter? What if you skip the step of heating to scalding first? Will room temperature work, just take longer? Time for…

The experiment! I made 7 cups of yogurt:

Cup 1: Left at room temperature to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 2: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 3: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 4: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 5: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 6: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 7: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

The Results:

The most important factor that good yogurt depends on is warmth while leaving it out to set. In my home in San Francisco room temperature is around 70 F. The first 3 cups, that were left out on the counter to set, turned out terrible. It took 2 – 3 entire days for them to set, and those that eventually did, had by then developed off flavors. Cups 1, 2 and 3 ended up down the drain. To avoid that fate, yogurt must be set in a warm environment!

The second factor that mattered was whether milk was scalded up to 185 F first, then cooled, or was it just warmed up to 110 F directly. Funny thing is, yogurt formed either way. But the yogurt that formed when milk was scalded first was firmer with a more even texture. The reason for this is: when milk is scalded, some of the whey proteins get relaxed (denatured), and they help the casein proteins form a more even web, rather than clustering together. The actual effect of this is that when milk has been scalded first, the yogurt is firmer and more even, while if it hasn’t been scalded, the curds are more clumpy and separate from the whey.

The third factor — whether we used one or half tablespoon of starter, hardly seemed to matter at all. If the other two things were done right, you could not detect a difference. For the borderline cases, one tablespoon helped it some. It did not solve all problems though.

The Ideal Yogurt:

Now I am equipped to give you the most ideal yogurt recipe as tested by my household.

Start with whole milk. And if you are starting with store-bought yogurt, make sure it says ‘live cultures’. Warm up an measured amount of milk till the point it starts to rise and foam up. Turn it off. Wait till it cools down to just lukewarm. If you want to be precise, the first temperature is 185 F and the second temperature is 110 F.

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Fine. Turn on the oven to about 150 F or so. Turn off as soon as it reaches that, and turn on the oven light. Leave it on. Put the milk in the jar that you want the yogurt to set in. For each cup, put in a half tablespoon of stirred yogurt and stir to meld. Cover and leave in the warm oven for at least 6 hours. In 8, 10 or 12 hours, it will turn more and more sour, so it depends on your preference. Store in the fridge thereafter.

I have often woken up in the morning and, completely forgetting I have yogurt setting in the oven, turned it on with melted plastic lids, ruined yogurt and other disastrous results. So now, I use oven-proof glass Weck jars, and put a sticky note on the oven to remind myself.

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No more accidents. Just good creamy sour yogurt which is not accidental at all.