Friday, May 23, 2014

Vermont – the First State in the US to Label GM Foods

Vermont was the first state in the US to abolish slavery. Today it became the first for passing a mandatory GMO labelling law. It is really unclear how this move will help consumers. In fact, it will certainly increase food price as labelling exercise would involve a lot of monitoring and testing procedures throughout the agriculture supply chain.

                                             Enjoying a GM corn in the US.

With or without GM labelling, food price is already increasing. GM labelling law will only escalate the rise.
In some cases, the price might remain the same with some essential ingredients being omitted. One example is Post’s Grape-Nut cereals. After going “GM-free”, the recipe has been modified and it no longer includes Vitamin a, Vitamin D, Riboflavin and vitamin B12. Consumers are being short changed for the price they are paying. But are they aware of this?

While I don’t condone GM labelling, it might even be a blessing in the long run.

If we start checking our shopping carts at a grocery mart, almost everything in there contains at least one GM ingredients. High-fructose corn syrup; soy, corn and canola oil; lecithin and other soy isolates; oils, fat and shortening from GM corn, soy and canola; and any derivatives from soy and corn are found in almost all our foods.

Dairy products can be made of milk from cows injected with rBST – a recombinant hormone that makes cow produce more milk. GM corn and soy are fed to almost all poultry and livestock animals. That would leave us with a hand-full of non-GM foods. So, it looks like almost all our foods will carry a GM label, or the food producer will resort to using non-GM ingredients and then increase the price.

Finally, consumers will just get so used to GM food that the label will no longer bother them. GM foods will be the mainstream food. I just think this is inevitable. It is just a matter of time. The anti-GM activists might have won the battle but they will eventually lose the war.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Media against Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh

Bangladesh took a wise step in Jan 2014 with her approval of Bt brinjal for cultivation, putting India and the Philippines to shame after years of research.

Now that there are happy farmers who do not have to spend thousands for pesticides, the media is at work to discredit the performance of Bt brinjal. The Age reported that the biotech plants did not grow up and came under attack of different pests.

The truth was revealed when Mark Lynas visited the same farm. It turned out that the media has not grown up – no professional reporting, unbalanced views, spinning the truth – all of which is against the very basic principles of journalism. 

The plants yielded healthy fruits. And the farmers confessed that they did not have to use chemicals.

Some farmers feel the chemical companies are behind the propaganda. But as usual thanks to NGOs who are partners to this crime.

Scientists are often bashed when they collaborate with the industry. However, the chemical companies and organic industry that fund anti-GM movement get off scot free.

My observation: NGOs hardly speak to the farmers or have stepped into a farm. Their stories are based on their imagination, themed by their donors’ goals.

                                                      Watch this video by Mark Lynas.

The same farmer and his neighbours who The Age claimed their plants were not growing up. (Photo by Mark Lynas)

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, May 9, 2014

Socioeconomic and Environmental Impact of GM Crops

These are the highlights from the recent report of Dr Graham Brookes, PG Economics.

·         GM crops have led to reduced release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This is due to less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2012, 27 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was saved. This is equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the road for one year;

·         Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2012) by 503 million kg (-.8%). This is equal to the total amount of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the EU 27 for nearly two crop years. As a result, this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 18.7%

         The insect resistant (IR) technology used in cotton and corn has consistently delivered yield gains from reduced pest damage. The average yield gains over the 1996-2012 period across all users of this technology has been +10.4% for insect resistant corn and +16.1% for insect resistant cotton;

         The herbicide tolerant (HT) technology used in soybeans and canola has also contributed to increased production in some countries; by helping farmers in Argentina grow a crop of soybeans after wheat in the same growing season, through higher yields and improved weed control;

         Between 1996 and 2012, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 122 million tonnes of soybeans and 231 million tonnes of corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 18.2 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.6 million tonnes of canola;

         GM crops are allowing farmers to grow more without using additional land. If crop biotechnology had not been available to the (17.3 million) farmers using the technology in 2012, maintaining global production levels at the 2012 levels would have required additional plantings of 4.9 million ha of soybeans, 6.9 million ha of corn, 3.1 million ha of cotton and 0.2 million ha of canola. This total area requirement is equivalent to 9% of the arable land in the US, or 24% of the arable land in Brazil or 27% of the cereal area in the EU;

         Crop biotechnology helps farmers earn reasonable incomes for their work. The net economic benefit at the farm level in 2012 was $18.8 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $117/hectare. For the 17 year period (1996-2012), the global farm income gain has been $116.6 billion;

         The highest yield gains were obtained by farmers in developing countries, many of which are resource-poor and farm small plots of land;

         The total farm income gain of $116.6 billion was divided equally between farmers in developing and developed countries;

         Crop biotechnology continues to be a good investment for farmers around the world. The cost farmers paid for accessing crop biotechnology in 2012 ($5.6 billion payable to the seed supply chain) was equal to 23% of the total gains (a total of $24.4 billion inclusive of the $18.8 billion income gains). Globally, farmers received an average of $3.33 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds;

         Farmers in developing countries received $3.74 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds in 2012 (the cost being equal to 21% of total technology gains), while farmers in developed countries received $3.04 for each dollar invested in GM crop seed (the cost being equal to 25% of the total technology gains). The higher share of total technology gains realised by farmers in developing countries relative to farmers in developed countries mainly reflects weaker provision and enforcement of intellectual property rights coupled with higher average levels of benefits in developing countries.

Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan in a GM cotton farm in Hyderabad.

Full report can be downloaded from

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Scientists Going Public

A scientist carries out rigorous experiments for years and finally completes a breakthrough research. Eureka! A new invention, solution or product is developed or invented. Series of papers are published in high impact journals and presentations made at prestigious conferences. End of the day – the breakthrough is made known to the audiences – the peers.

The scientists feel the job is done and but now the whining starts:
-          Why there was no media interest in that research?
-          Why industry does not come forward to bring the research to the market?
-          Why the public does not appreciate the work of scientists?
-          Why the younger generation is not interested in becoming a scientist or in pursuing other careers in science?
-          Why the politicians do not give importance to research funding?

Scientists and their institutes need to understand that justice to their research is not done till it is communicated to a wider audience and not just among their peers.

A simple search in the universities’ and research institutes’ websites in Malaysia hardly yield results on the outcome of their research. The front page is often adorned with news about events and collaboration.
A paradigm shift is needed to change the culture. Scientists must understand the importance of communicating their research to industry players, legislators, private donors, media, and the general public.

Physicist John Ziman argues that you are not really doing “science” unless you widely disseminate your work.
It has not become a culture for Malaysian scientists to have blogs to talk about their research. While, publishing scientific papers is central to their professional growth, publishing lay-level articles in media has never crossed their mind as their responsibility.

The Corporate Office in universities and research institutes do not place priority in reaching to the wider public.

With my passion in science communication, I hope to see a change in this culture. The Petri Dish – the first popular science newspaper in Malaysia, is now allocating two pages for a section called ResearchDigest. We intend to publish research news from our local institutes in lay language.

My intention is to increase the pages to give more coverage to local research and bring them to public attention. But how much can be done depends on the support we get from the scientists and their corporate office.

For now I am almost begging institutes to send us news feeds. Emails have been sent out but I don’t see the rush of adrenalin among the officers to grab the chance of going public.

Being trained as a scientist and a science communicator, I don’t blame the media for not giving space to science. I see serious flaws in our scientific institutions. But this can be remedied if there is a will and passion.