Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Brief 40: Communicating Crop Biotechnology: Stories from Stakeholders

The human race has always been a storytelling species. From cave paintings outlining a successful hunt, to fairytales and the Brothers Grimm on our bedside. We have always been captivated by the spell of word weaving, conjuring up nitty gritty stories which bring us tales, fact or fiction, which are beyond our experiences in life. We love reading and hearing of stories which bring up experiences of others vividly, capturing us spell-bound, and bringing us knowledge from afar, enabling us to think and imagine out of the box of our daily grind and accept new knowledge from the experiences of others. The most recent ISAAA Brief captures this sentiment, on the communication of crop biotechnology by divulging and intimating the stories of various stakeholders and how it came to pass their involvement with crop biotechnology.

The Brief was written in a global cooperation between various knowledge centers under ISAAA, including MABIC, whereby Maha and I interviewed 9 individuals from various stakeholder groups to give a comprehensive overview of the effects of biotechnology in Malaysia. When we set out to write the articles for the brief, it was determined that the first priority is to vet the language used so that it would not be too academese for lay people, and not too simple that it would lose the information that would be conveyed.

The work ended up being a delicate tightrope where the outcome was a series of articles which should be considered as another part of the factual storytelling that we have as a culture.

The brief is downloadable from the ISAAA website, here.

Please also enjoy the short Youtube clip that we have created for the brief below. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finding a Common Language between Ulama and Scientists on Agribiotech

MABIC just organised an international workshop for Islamic scholars “Islam and Agribiotechnology: Finding a Common Language between Ulama and Scientists”. The workshop proved the existence of a wide communication and information gap between the two groups. More so, among the religious scholars and officers where there is lack of understanding of biotechnology. Scientists remained guided by their knowledge on religion and ethics, however, as technical knowledge is only gained through formal education, the religious group requires assistance and basic training in this area.

The workshop was an eye-opener for many religious scholars and officers on basic molecular biology such as “what is a gene and DNA; and how GM crops are developed”. Foreign delegates mostly, both scientists and scholars seemed to be more at ease with the technology compared to the Malaysian counterparts. Many were also amazed to see the progress of GM technology in Iran and the advancement of their home-grown technology. The progress in Pakistan, India and Egypt were equally impressive.

The workshop indicated a number of issues:

  1. Malaysia is clearly lacking behind many other Muslim countries in terms of GM technology – both in research and commercialisation
  2. There is a crucial need for Malaysian religious scholars, especially at the officer level to be exposed to biotechnology
  3. Personal views, sentiments and emotions cloud the process of decision making, especially among the middle management, where there is a lack of proper understanding of both Islam and biotechnology. This proved that little knowledge can be really disastrous
  4. Biotechnology does not seem to be priority for religious agencies
As I always preach for a sector to be developed, all areas should be given importance, not just the key areas such as research, development and commercialisation. The peripheral areas are even more important as it can take us off guard just as the technology is ready to be launched. For example, what is point of having successfully developed a GM crop, when the market is not ready to accept it, or when our religious authority is not fully equipped with the right knowledge to assess it halal-ness?

The peripheral areas such as public communication, awareness, science literacy and trust among the public and other stakeholders has to be developed. This does not just rely on one ministry or agencies, but the effort should be a coherent one from various parties. Are we ready to take up the challenge to work together and forgo the territorial behaviour rampant among our institutes?

As GM crops are gaining more acreage and Malaysian is a big food importer, better understanding of biotechnology among religious scholars must be given a priority if Malaysia wants to ensure informed decisions are made on the halal-ness of GM food.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, July 6, 2009

Enzymes and the pseudoscience heresy

A previous post of mine spoke about how one could conduct scientific research in the kitchen, with everything from tissue culture to molecular biology. However, one must always remember that these suggestions and comments actually come with a pre-condition of a good knowledge in science and a sensible head on ones shoulders.

One of my favourite phrases, “detox” is one of the most commonly used term among pseudoscience junkies. Somehow, the idea of the body being so full of bad chemicals and harmful elements due to our daily consumption, from the sound of if, probably as dangerous as a Chernobyl, that one needs expensive, “organic” (another 'favourite' pseudoscience term of mine) foodstuff to keep our bodies “clean”. Of course, most of them forget the most basic of their biology classes, the part where our kidneys and liver cleans out all waste products in the body.

However, recent developments in the country has caused me quite some concern on my previous suggestions, especially with the current “enzyme-making” fad and other related pseudoscience claims. Phrases like “natural live enzymatic components”, “enzyme drink for health and well-being”, etc. When none of the claims have any factual basis in science.

Hence, the recent fad of “creating” enzymes in the kitchen, 100% home-made, despite the fact that all recipes provided require you to buy certain overpriced products from direct-selling companies, are just nothing more than a less informed attempt to DIY. Let's all face it, one would not be able to DIY and make an antique-stained, chestnut wood cupboard without knowing how to wield a hammer and saw, despite what certain furniture companies would like you to think. Buying ready-made furniture, and putting them together with an allen key and crowing about how you DIY-ed your kitchen sink is just plain pure misguided.

I shudder to think what is currently brewing in the kitchens of most people “making enzymes”, primarily the literature being provided does not give much prominence to the necessity of sterile conditions. What is being sought out is a monoculture, may end up with a whole rainforest of bacteria, fungi and yeast. Similarly, the literature does not provide explanations on the necessity of various procedures and equipment, but instead just provided a recipe-book manner of instruction. Let's not forget how most home cooks have a tendency to substitute certain items should they find lacking. The whole exercise may be a living, ticking pathogen time bomb!

Hence I cite the example of a family friend who was “making enzymes”. She ended up having the cola bottle exploding in the kitchen coating the ceiling with gunk because no one bothered to inform her in the manual that it is important to allow gas to be expelled during the fermentation process. Instead, generic instructions on the importance of using glass/ceramic bottles/jars were provided without a science-backed explaination.

I am disgusted by how retailers actually prey on the gullibility of the public, and how uninformed the public are, and even more disgusted at consumer associations and related NGOs actually following such fads without a basis in science. I'm interested to see how many more explosions in the kitchen one can have before the public begins to wisen up.

-KC Liew