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Saturday, October 4, 2014

The genetics and politics of genetically modified foods: Has science been put on the chopping block?

European commission’s decision to ban genetically modified foods

            Few years back, the European Commission allowed its member states to decide on the decision to ban genetically modified (GM) foods. This decision was widely seen as EC’s ambivalent stance on the acceptance of GM foods, and allowing politics to overcome science and ground realities of mass food consumption and demand. This has been also widely seen as a trade dominance issue by the US based big Plant Biotech companies (like Monsanto, Inc.) over the European Union. Mainstream media and press have found it convenient to bash GMOs. Are genetically modified foods harmful? In the wake of this continuing dispute and some recent decisions by the EC to allow the expiration of the ‘reasonable period of time’ (RPT) of their compliance with the WTO rulings in the EC-Biotech dispute, the following article tries to look at the genetics and politics behind the GM foods; and some lessons that need to reckoned with while dealing with the issues of GM foods.     

Pertinent facts about GM foods…

The harm from genetically modified foods is not as much as the harm resulting from the economics of food trade and the incomplete dissemination of relevant data to farmers and general public. The issue arises when it comes to protecting and harnessing the perceived profits, simply because of the economies of scale involved.

However, countries showing resistance to GM foods have to realize a few facts –
1. There is no such thing as harmless or harmful GM foods. Caution often needs to be taken in cultivating practices e.g. greater requirement of water or nutrients.
2. Even simple plant breeding techniques involve genetic modifications. This is how better crops have been created in the past.
3. GM foods are inevitable if one has to address the growing food needs in the world.
Varieties of Corncobs - Image source: Wikiepdia

There are few kinds of GM foods – 1) Those that give increased yield 2) Those that are disease resistant. 3) Those that vary in color, shape, taste etc. The biological effects and the cultivating requirements will vary in each case. In this regard it is very pertinent to know that the practice of selective breeding to get better crops has existed long before genes and genetics were discovered. It is just that the issue has become more accentuated after the advent of modern biotech companies that have vied to capture the world market, often at the cost spreading relevant facts and/or adopting best practices in their science R&D.

Some long-term approaches

One needs to develop and craft a sound non-market strategy that addresses the concerns of the farmers and general public, before the negative trend spreads in Europe. While doing so, it must also drive home some mentioned below:

1)      GM foods are the future given the current population trends. If it is not a Monsanto or a Cargill or a Syngenta, there will always be someone else. When it comes to feeding more mouths and aiming for a hunger-free world, you either make better crops OR change your staple food. Even then, GM foods will eventually become inevitable when it comes to mass production of this new staple food. Hence, the problem lies in the incorrect planning and implementing the economies of the trade. In other words this also means the overbearing of the big multinationals who start influencing the most basic needs of our life – food. In their rush and excitement to harness their mass ‘streamlining’ capabilities (to maximize profits), it is the science that often falls on the chopping block. The R&D is purely geared to quickly churn out results that seldom have open standards of safety testing or whose current standards are not fully whetted out. A typical example is a case where a new crop variety has been generated that vastly improves crop performance (either in terms of yield or disease resistance). However, it nutritive and cultivation requirements largely go untested or the nutritive properties of the crop undergo only a convenient rigor. In other words, the new crop could fulfill the basic purpose i.e increasing disease resistance but not necessarily the human capacity to retain the same capacity to assimilate its nutrients. Any different variations of this scenario can be played out. This not only means developing comprehensive standards to pass the human consumption tests but also re-evaluating the long-term strategies to locate geo-specific markets to target its variety of products. This in turn means creating an international consortium to create and maintain a set of core online-networked databases/knowledgebases that contain strategic information about crops for human consumption. Information contained therein should include, but not limited to, documented human effects of crop consumption, changing biogeochemical information on arable lands across the globe, etc. Such a venture can and should also be taken privately by the R&D of these big Plant Biotech companies and create a highly curated and researched database of farmland characteristics across the world e.g. soil type, precipitation pattern, and affordability to purchase new products. This will greatly help to selectively targeting new crop varieties/biotech products to those farmers and countries whose growing fields and resources can afford the new technology. This will also remove the necessity of aggressive marketing strategies that are often insensitive to the local needs of the farmers, e.g. its recent history in precipitating farmer’s suicides in India (arising out of bad pricing, huge debts incurred and the negative effects on field). 

2)      There is no single statement to describe GM foods as harmful or harmless. Creating a new variety with increased yield is all about telling the plant to make a product it always knew (except on a larger scale). However, creating a disease resistant plant means that it has a new injected gene to encounter a disease that it never knew how to deal with. This means a lot of changes in its metabolism. In simple words, every act of creating a GM crop is case dependant and it requires more than a Codex Alimentarius to set the ‘overarching principles on the risk analysis of foods derived from modern biotechnology”. Quite often, negative press for a product (and the company) results from the lack of an independent information source that disseminates information on each GM agro product released in the market. One may well consider setting up an independent non-profit body that would assess the quality of every newly developed agro-product and disseminate this information through highly visible medium e.g. internet and electronic media. This should clearly include advice to the farmers (first level consumers) on the ideal kinds of soils and land suited to grow its new GM products.

A cornfield in Liechtenstein. Image source: Wikipedia
3)      A simple act of creating better strains through age-old practices of selective breeding is also a GM crop and it is a well-established practice across all countries. This is how crops have evolved through ages. Just holding a test tube and inserting gene does not make it a GM food/crop. In fact, successful adaptation to environment requires ‘evolution’ to occur and this means being involved in the process of attaining a better genetic make-up. Does modern-day science have the wherewithal to claim complete mastery over this – NO. But will it ever reach that state – DEPENDS on how we are prepared to define it. Till then it always pays to reconcile to the fact that genetic modification of foods is more of a necessary evil until one comes up with a more economically viable concept of feeding the world.

Some short term steps…

1)      Given that GM foods are going to be around for a while, maybe longer, countries all over need to realize how they could also make their own varieties and command their own market. The big plant biotech could also pay a role by promoting research in these countries and let them be a part of the intellectual property rights arising out of such discoveries. It is useful in this regard to understand the repercussions of the IP dispute in regard to the ‘Neem’, ‘Turmeric’ and ‘Basmati’ case that made India realize the importance of protecting its own crop varieties and consider looking more favorably at complying with the TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). By showing the risk of losing its native medicine to business interests outside, India could realize the potential of protecting and upholding its biodiversity. Going along similar lines, European member states like France can be encouraged to create their own business interests in making GM foods. For example, promote local farmers to come with their own new varieties that have their unique market, and allow them to create their own brand entities. This could also allow them to independently stand up to the big multinationals on an even platform.

2)      Big Plant Biotech companies must be strongly urged to adopt and project a stronger farmer-centric image in Europe (besides the rest of the world) where traditional farming practices may be very relevant. Setting up training camps for local farmers and educating them on best practices would greatly help in this regard. Centrally managed ‘certification programs’ by an independent body would further enhance the efficacy of this approach. Investment in this direction by the big plant biotech companies would reap great rewards in the long run. An educated farmer who knows to use the right kind of seeds will not benefit himself but also the brand being used. After all, one has to understand that farmers represent the first level of consumers for these companies and a happy farmer means a happy economy. 

3)      EC has member states that differ in their approaches to cultivation and consumption of GM foods. For example Spain is beginning to be an emerging player in production of GM foods and looks more favorably at developing GM crops. This creates an environment for healthy competing economies that could benefit EC as a whole. A whole new market remains to be tapped if major EC players like France also become more open GM foods albeit in a way that is more well thought out. To begin with local farmers can be made to realize the benefits of planting some new GM crops through promotional distribution of well-tested varieties.

Feeding the future 

The growing demands for mass production of agricultural crops or livestock is only likely to further increase. Unless there is a change in food habits and preferences, the demand for staple crops and livestock will continue. Research in plant biotechnology and genomics has unfortunately fallen a prey to the exacting demands of the big companies who vested needs often overtake the global needs and its well-being. Oddly enough, it’s probably the lack of more such big plant biotech companies (and their investment) that results in the existing MNCs bereft of enough man and brainpower. This in turn leads to such companies having to make hard choices and madly push for better crops without fully testing them. Funnily enough, the answer to address this dichotomy probably lies in the creation more such multinationals who need the load of the back of the current breed of MNCs. Hence if it is not the EC, the burgeoning economies in Asia, South America or others will have to come to the fore and create their own multinationals to answer such growing global needs.  China has been already developing the world’s largest plant biotechnology capacity outside of North America. Countries like India and Brazil will not be far behind either. Hence in a crunch like situation like this, not only the EC but also countries all over need to come together with other economies and actively support better means of crop development. Not just the EC but also governments across the world with agrarian based economies need to urge their private sector and encourage them to set up more R&D and business enterprises and remove the current bottleneck to address the growing global needs.

Note: This article was written a few years back as a part of a classroom exercise and lots of things have happened in between. The core thought process, however, remains roughly the same. 

© Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author – Natarajan Ganesan

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Indian-origin Physicist with roots from Chennai, who wanted to play cricket, up for this year's Nobel?

He had hopes of becoming a cricketer when young (and a wicketkeeper at that!), and even got into serious league level playoffs. However, fortune had different plans for Dr. Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a Professor at UC Berkeley. He ended up making great contributions in scientific research and getting international acclaim for his work on complex materials, more specifically in the area of complex multifunctional oxide thin films, nanostructures, and hetero-structures.

A graduate from Vivekananda College, Chennai, India, he got a further degree in metallurgy from the famed Indian Institute of Science, where he briefly worked on superconductivity. Later, he went on to get his PhD from UC Berkeley in Material Science and has never looked back since. Some of the implications of his work have led to materials used in Solar nanotechnology, Memory drives used in computers, and other similar products.  
Dr. Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Center), one of the leading contenders for this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Image source: Thomson Reuters
Currently his name is one among this year’s top seven possible Nobel contenders in Physics, according to the annual list of citation laureates prepared by Thomson Reuters. They have, so far, accurately forecast 35 Nobel Prize winners since its inception in 2002. The annual Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates Study mines scientific research citations to identify the most influential researchers in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine and economics.

In an exclusive video-chat with Dr. Natarajan Ganesan, a Biomedical research scientist and founder of 'Scientists of Indian Origin', Dr. Ramesh spoke at length about his roots from Chennai, his journey to the United States in pursuit of higher studies, and eventual entry into the world of science that has ranged from magnetic materials to high temperature superconductors and beyond.

“Keep your ears open”

“My impression is… the actual discovery is accidental. You just have to be ready for it” said Dr. Ramesh while trying to elaborate on the process of discovery.  When asked if the discoveries he made so far were accidental OR a matter of observational co-incidence he said, on a contemplative note, that it’s a combination of both; and that it was quite hard to separate the two.  Focusing on the need to be aware which area to further pursue while working on a phenomenon is also very key to the process of making new discoveries, he said. For example, his monumental work on the phenomenon of ‘Colossal magnetoresistance’ (CMR), was a result of shifting the focus from working on the oxides of some metals to their properties on ‘colossal behavior’.

When asked specifically about reports of his contributions to the development of better memory drives used in computers, he went back to his days in the early 90s with Bellcore (now Telecordia Technologies) when he was working on ways to expand upon his theoretical work. Having also been an engineer for the better part of his career, one of his motivating factors was ‘what cool things could one do if your research work was successful’. Working on real world problems such as the reliability of data storage systems, one thing led to another when he started getting ‘right kind of data’ for not so right hypothesis. “You just got to look out” he said casually.

For the younger generation

Dr. Ramesh was very unassuming when asked for any specific words of advice to the younger generation of researchers wanting to get into scientific exploration. “Doing science is a lot of fun” he said and added further that, “sometimes you got to work long hours” but “in the end the process is very rewarding”.  However, he also gently reminded that “we do not make too much money” “but we enjoy what we do”.

Indian roots and the guiding philosophy

Dr. Ramesh had his basic education in Chennai, India before moving to United States for further research. Originally hailing from Thanjavur (near Mayavaram and Kumbakonam), his parents had a high school education. He also has a sister who has a PhD in Microbiology. However, his busy lifestyle has not made him lose his connections with his family and cultural roots. In fact, he equates the molecular nature of his work on complex materials to that of Indian families, with “million different cousins, grandmothers and aunts”. Though remarking in jest, he goes on to give the exact nature of the analogy with ease.

With an apparent interest in Carnatic music, he equated the discovery process to the discovery of a new raga. To illustrate further he said, “Let me give you an example… If you are a Lalgudi Jayaraman (who passed away not too recently)… you play the instrument 8 hours a day”. He went to add that In the process of such a rigor and training, if one were to keep the ears tuned, you either discover a new raga OR a new phenomenon (as was in his case). When asked about the possible nomination for this year’s prize in Physics, he remarked philosophically ‘Karmanyevaadhikaaraste…’ (कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते…) (Quoting from the Bhagavad Gita), thus summarizing his entire attitude towards research and not expecting much from the fruits of his labor. On a professional level, he continues to maintain connections with his research colleagues and scientists back home in India, sometimes on a daily basis.

(c) Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author - Natarajan Ganesan

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bringing science closer by 2030, one endeavor at a time...

Image Credits: Adapted from Wikipedia
and with permission from Endeavorist
I clearly remember the Y2K happening, and wondering what lay ahead, as the century was giving way to another. Suddenly, more than a decade passed by, and we are nearly getting to half past the next. Lots of things happened in that span of time; from world events like ‘September 11’ and ‘Arab spring’, to tech booms that changed the world, like iPhonefacebook and #socialmedia. In the meanwhile, I moved on from lab research to doing things on my own, making stuff on the web for genetics and #genomics-research. Today I see the globe connected in ways more than I could have ever imagined as a grad student. People are already beginning to talk of #2030now as the next milestone.
So that leads me to think...(and you may join me in this thought process). By 2030, what positive things would have happened that we wouldn't have dreamed of by now? What will today's smartphones, apps and video games give way to? How are we going to further harness the power of social media than exchanging quotes from Warren Buffet and his likes (OK! I meant it in jest. I actually admire him). How can we gather more hands and minds to do cool new things? The power of technology is evidencing itself in more ways than I could have imagined. Yet, I see the need to do more relevant things.
One among the next wave I see, is the power of #crowdfunding. Social media is quickly getting to be a thing of the past. Crowdfunding is the future. In case you didn't know what this word meant, just search the internet. You will quickly gather how it represents the power of each cent and dollar, using the reach of social media, from each person around the globe. These efforts are beginning to see many small projects fruitioning to the level where bigger investors can step in. Thanks to the #2012JobsAct, a wider pool of investors could now be able to participate with lesser restrictions. Yes! This needs further fine-tuning, but this is one positive change I see, which is beginning to define the next couple of decades.
What does all of this have to do with Science? Well... science is more than just making new medicines or space toys. It could also be things that are more mundane, yet so relevant. A school teacher somewhere may wish to build a model for his project; another person somewhere in the world might wish to build a well for his village, while another may dream of preserving the local flora and fauna by creating an info-base. A researcher like me could think of making a cool newinteractive app for cancer patients to assist their near and dear in making more informed decisions (something I badly needed not too recently). All these could benefit greatly from the power of crowdfunding. Recently, I chipped in my own couple of dollars to fund a school project called Aera, from Stamford, CT. The project wanted to use high altitude balloons to both study high altitude life and encourage the pursuit of aerospace science. Just that! A dream by two high school students. Nothing big here! However, all these #endeavors go a long way in kindling that scientific temper. All this, through the power of crowdfunding and social media. Not just any crowfunding platform, but something powered by the #endeavorist (I like that word) in each of us.
And, that brings me to science-centric crowdfunding. All of us love carrying out or supporting those cool little projects like what I described above. But, what if I needed something beyond money? An extra pair of hands for a community science project; some mentor-like support from experts whose profiles I already checked out? Suddenly, we are talking of blending social media, crowdfunding and professional networking. This is where I see some trendsetting approaches happening, and very soon too. Like I used the word before, 'Endeavorist' is an emerging platform that aims to blend these experiences together. I expect platforms like these to make a more positive difference around the globe. Now, that might make some Miss World like hopes and statements a few steps closer to reality.
These are just some of my thoughts for #2030now. What are yours?

(c) Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author - Natarajan Ganesan

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Open access vs Paid access in scientific literature: Can there be a middle ground?

image source:

Recently Prof. Michael Eisen, the founder of PLOS One and an open-access science-publishing evangelist, made a rather startling revelation in his blog post[1] as to why he, as a founder of such a model, is seeing the merit in reverting back to the paid-access model; and admiring the haloed halls of big names in scientific publishing like Nature, Science and Cell.  YES! He made an April Fool's prank and made me bite into it !#%$ :D. Jokes apart, the article did tend to bring about the whole issue of access to scientific literature and the business model (yes there is one!) surrounding it.

To aspiring scientists and researchers, getting access to published paper simplistically relied on the institution where they worked. Who cared who paid for it, right? Well! As we all know there is no free lunch. But then, it leads us into the whole thing behind the rising costs imposed by the publishing houses, their conventional stronghold and the whole movement that led to the current level of open-access publishing. It’s a long discussion and I would leave that to the discussion in the comments below. Yet I can try to summarize it.

Frankly, this is a very touchy issue. The ecosystem of access to published literature and scientific publishing is not the same as it was back in the day. Biol. Abstracts/Chem. Abstracts/Current contents anyone? Someone paid for it and it was a painstaking process to spend long hours in the library. Today, a personal computer in the lab and access to Pubmed and Internet has changed everything.

I got a chance to understand scientific publishing early on when I tried to start a concept journal at Georgetown University. In the process, I quickly gathered the rudiments of the world of scientific publishing, the major publishing houses and the way scientific world blissfully, yet precariously, hinged upon. I was seeing the growing wave of open access publishing and had my own points to grind. I realized a few important things

  • It cost to publish. Even in an online world somebody had to maintain the servers and 24/7 accessibility. This is besides the cost to maintain the editorial team to maintain a semblance of presentation and readability.
  • The peer-review system was paid nil. Yes! Nobody ever realizes that they form the bedrock behind the whole edifice of scientific publishing. Even being an editor was not so financially rewarding. Tell me how many of us have been paid by a journal for peer-reviewing (besides having an ego trip). Even being an Editor has not been such a financially rewarding one for many.
  • Yet, it also cost the institutions their arm and leg to have institutional access to haloed publishing names. Not every University or research institution could have access to major journals. So, if a post-doc from an under-funded institution could not access a paper, he had to suffice with the ‘abstract’ from Pubmed and make his argument. So much for integrity in scientific publishing.
  • Internet publishing was beginning to boom and driving down the costs of publishing. Suddenly every academic could dream of being a self-appointed ‘Editor’.

  • So this kind of laid the basis behind the open-access movement and its evangelists. With the boom of internet and cheap publishing online, every wannabe had to be an open-access. Just borrow some server space and quickly assemble an editorial board (easy right!). After all, many languishing academics are waiting there. Peer-review system got killed. They were always the unpaid yet overworked group while being the most crucial in the line of defense against biased work. Remember! Just instruments and data don't make up science paper. Evaluating the claim in the paper calls for a separate skill altogether. Speaking of which, the peer-review system has been virtually hijacked. Be it the publishing houses that keep their roster of ‘resident experts’ (who searches and maintains an unbiased panel do you think) or open-access houses which are yet to develop any standards in maintaining one. Any wonder why the general public is skeptical about any ‘scientific’ claims!

    This is a ranting that can go on. But a solution has to be worked upon. Remember a couple of crucial yet counteracting points...

  • Funded work needs to be accessed by everyone (at least affordably). Also, if it is funded by the taxpayer, then everyone should have access to it.
  • Nothing comes without a cost. OK... that was a ‘duh!’ kind of philosophical thing to say and yet so very real! Remember it also costs to maintain a good peer-review system besides sucking up the publishing costs.
  • Technology changes and will hence greatly affect the access to scientific literature

  • So where does that leave us? It is armchair logic, yet so relevant, to say develop a business model that does not bleed the underfunded labs while sustaining the publishing houses and its haloed peer-review system.

    But, it is not so hard after all. An open forum consisting of academia, publishing houses has to set open-industry standards that adapt to changing times. Whatever has happened in such a name has been closed doors and informal, and has not got us anywhere. Period. Let a discussion like this focus on these points (and ones I haven't yet brought up) rather than simplistically arguing open-access vs. paid-access. Science demands it! I am trying to keep the points crisp simply because a whole thought process gets underway.
    [1] ‘Why I, a founder of PLOS, am forsaking open access’ – Personal Blog of Prof. Michael Eisen, Univ. Berkeley –

    (c) Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author - Natarajan Ganesan