Does Monsanto have the Midas Touch: “Golden Rice” a golden opportunity or false hope?

Monsanto’s newest GM crop, golden rice, masquerades as a philanthropic venture -to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in third world children- and is paraded as a “silver bullet” technology.   It has the backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Helen Keller International, the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. agency for International Development. 

Who could possibly object to such a “good” cause.? 

I was outraged to read UKs environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s rhetorical campaign claiming that opponents of third world GM crops are “wicked” and “disgusting”.  Like other hysterically unqualified defenses of rationality, this carries a worrying whiff of fundamentalism.  His recent comments have raised a unanimous ire from the environmental movement community such as: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, ActionAid and other non-government organizations.   The fact that he went so far as to claim that “these protests will be condemning millions of people to a premature death” is nothing short of spin doctoring.  Even more concerning is the editorial that the journal Science published makes a series of highly dubious claims and that some of its authors have links to GM companies – of course this conflict of interest was not stated in the editorial.  There not alone, the globe and mail is also spreading misinformation.

Sure, Monsanto WILL be helping children but at the end of the day they are an agricultural/biotech company so the interest lies, not in sound science or sick children but, in the bottom line.  The best way to make money is control the market and before you can do that you need to convince people that there’s something else at stake. Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia, has said: “Golden rice is really a “Trojan horse”; a public relations stunt pulled by the agribusiness corporations to garner the acceptance of GE crops and food.  The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money.”

GM Bt cotton and seed monopoly has a created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India; one farmer every 30 minutes commits suicide.  Farmers must borrow large sums of money to invest in GM technology. They do so based on promises that yields will increase and profits will soar. But when the promises fail to pan out and farmers are unable to keep paying for the expensive pesticides, they typically end up losing everything, including access to reusable heirloom seeds. So, many end up killing themselves because they literally have nothing left.  Through patents on GM products Monsanto sues farmers and traps them in debt, while the PR machinery spins tales of improving farmer’s welfare, and the deception that GMOs feed the world (the real issue here is global population; a contentious issue that no one seems to want to talk about).  Monsanto’s talk of “technology” tries to hide its real objectives of ownership and control over seed where genetic engineering is just a means to control seed and the food system through patents and intellectual property rights.

Let me tell you a little story about a product that Monsanto made over 50 years ago: Agent Orange.  Sure it was never marketed to save children -in fact quite the opposite, if they had advertisements it would have been like this– but I bring this up for one reason, and one reason only: accountability.  Although Agent Orange was only used for a decade its effects persists to this day.  That is, three generations of exposed Vietnamese families and American veterans suffering from horrific birth defects and disabilities.  Monsanto and Dow contaminated the land of Vietnam, destroyed the forests, killed, maimed, and crippled millions of people, but never admitted responsibility or paid a cent in compensation to the victims and their families.  As Baron Thurlow once said about corporations “[they] have no soul to save, no body to incarcerate”, we saw this with the financial-crisis where virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street destroyed trillions of dollars of the world’s wealth and nobody went to jail.  If golden rice gets the go-ahead Monsanto stands to gain immensely, they will happily reap profits and if anything went wrong people it will be PEOPLE paying for it for untold generations and… nobody goes to jail.  I’m sure positive Monsanto would get off the hook and little, if any, reparations would ever be made.

I believe the most moderate, ethical and scientific view in SUPPORT of golden rice is that of Professor Huw Jones, research group leader at the Center for Crop Genetic Improvement at Rothamsted: “There are three key issues: Is it safe? Is it effective? And will there be informed choice in the grower/consumer communities?  If the answer to all is yes, then it is a no-brainer that golden rice should be part of the solution to malnourishment in Asia.  The field trials must be done and let’s let the local communities decide.”  Clearly here, the greatest assets are skepticism and democracy.  We need to use due diligence to investigate this before we go ahead.  In the meantime, furthermore instances of power-play (like Mr. Paterson’s) specifically designed to evaporate people’s normal critical faculties is a kind of extremism that airbrushes out alternatives and attempts to deny the space not only for discussion, but even for imagination.

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No funny jokes about the US Shutdown here…

The US government shutdown has been wreaking havoc on everything. The government has deemed Nobel Prize-winning physicist David Wineland and his research non-essential.  US government researchers are barred from scientific conferences.  Outdoorsmen (and women) can look here to see how it affects them.  It will likely have disastrous long-term effects for biomedical research.  It has even suspended Antarctic research for a YEAR!  That’s vital data lost forever and it doesn’t just matter to Americans; read about it here, here, and here.

I especially love the trending twitters hashtag #ShutdownPickupLines

My favorite one “NASA may have shut its Curiosity down, but you just turned mine on”

I had of tragic stories of the unintended consequences of the shutdown like cancer patients denied treatments then I heard horror stories of student projects interrupted by the US government shutdown.  Thank god I’m doing field work in US, I thought.  Then…. it affected me, in less severe, albeit annoying manner.  I’m trying to mimic the natural lunar cycle so I needed to access a dataset from NASA on lunar intensity as it relates to the phase angle of the moon.  This is what I get.

I heard that this was one of the most infuriating things you would read… Until I saw this picture of a child with a bear hat who can’t get into the zoo, how sad.  I should stop complaining.

Shutdown

Can you help me get to ACRS 2014?

The Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS) is the holding the 88th annual meeting on X, taking place in Y from (dates).  This will be my first year attending the meeting, and I’m really excited to be meeting a lot of folks that I’ve come to know through, academic papers, media, and as well, the blogosphere and Twitter.

Here’s the catch: as a graduate student, I typically have access to travel fund through my university, my department, or the grant that’s funded my dissertation research.  Unfortunately, I’m ineligible for university funding because I’m not technically “presenting” research funding.  I think the fact that I don’t have any results –because I’m a first year student- to present shouldn’t exclude me from this great networking experience. That means I have to make it to ACRS14 on a graduate student budget the first year, and I need a little help.

Here’s why it’s important to me to participate. As a publicly-funded scientist, I strongly believe that I have a responsibility to communicate my research with the public (that’s one of the reasons I started tweeting and blogging). I’ve the better half of my career learning many valuable skills, but communication skills aren’t typically included in a scientist’s toolbox.  Also, we know that scientists engaging with the public is an important part of increasing public science literacy, as well as diversity within the STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) fields.

At ACRS14, I’ll not only be learning how to be a better scientist, but I’ll also be part communicating through my blog and Twitter handle under #ACRS14 because I believe this sort of communication will shape what science communication looks like in the future. 

I’ve already registered for ACRS14, and my goal is to crowd-fund $600 for my travel expenses. If you would like to make a contribution, I’ve come up with three options:

1) Contribute a donation through my RocketHub where you can read more about my research.

2) Send a donation via Paypal to moldach@ucalgary.ca (as I am not a non-profit, I can’t have a donation button)

3) You can send a donation via the postal service to my work address: 2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4

Don’t miss it: Live-Stream Coral Spawning

I have not yet had the immense pleasure of viewing a real-life spawning event (although I will in November!) and I’m sure many of you haven’t had that chance either.  Well, have no fear Teens4Oceans is here, now you have a chance to witness the event in silico (on the computer).

This student-based nonprofit teamed up with a local dive center Ocean Frontiers, imaging company Wild Goose Imaging, and an online education organization Oceans Classrooms to live-stream footage of coral spawning near Grand Cayman Island.

Spawning events happen usually within the same time frame (to the minute almost) every year and its predicted the corals will spawn at 9:15pm MST, you can view it here

Of course since it is a Friday night many of you might not be able to catch this live so you can catch footage from last night’s spawning event here; action starts at 1:50.

Quick Biography (and personal thoughts on blogging)

I’m Matthew Oldach, a Masters student at the University of Calgary under the tutelage of Peter Vize.  Previously, I did my Undergraduate(Honors) with the great Roger Croll at Dalhousie University where I studied the effects of estradiol on freshwater and marine gastropods.  After graduation, I worked briefly as a fisheries observer in Nova Scotia, as a scientific diver at an NGO (CEA) in Mexico, as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, an environmental consultant for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and as an intern on the guppy-mark-recapture project (Trinidad) run by David Reznick from UC Riverside.  A busy year of working various jobs/internships, and copious amounts of reading, helped me develop a better picture of who I am, and what scientific questions interest me.  I’m broadly interested in genomics, bioinformatics, cnidarians and image analysis.  I work in the lab with the sea anemone Aiptasia pallida and use various techniques including microarrays, proteomics, gene cloning, cell biology and bioninformatics to explore how circadian and circalunar cycles of gene expression influence synchronous spawning in the Cnidarians.  Lab work on Aptasia pallida is empirically tested with field studies on the stony coral Acropora millepora from the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef.

Asking me how and why I became a marine biologist is kind of like asking a back-country snowboarder why they check the weather religiously.  Research has become part of my identity – It’s just what I wake up thinking about.  It wasn’t an issue of reinforced pedigree which led me to graduate school.  Sure, I may be a middle-class Caucasian – a common denominator in educational and career achievement- but there was no push from my parents to get a high-powered profession, or their underpaid status equivalent – a research scientist.  I had always been encouraged to do what I liked and my gravitation to marine research is….. I am the first to go to University of the family.

I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta and grew up in a tight-knit family.  I spent a lot of time as a teenager skateboarding and snowboarding and learning martial arts, individual sports which require a lot of self-teaching and patience.  I got beaten up, bruised and bandaged up and still kept pushing through failure in my formative years.  Simply put, passion, patience and persistence=success.

My first post on my blog inevitably will be “why do I blog”.  Well, I have made contributions to another blog and I thought it was time to create my own.  I feel that the discussion of scientific thought and progress through a public forum is just as important (in other ways) as writing peer reviewed publications.  As a MSc candidate this is my outlet to rant about ideas related to my field of research.  In my opinion this will be a good way to develop my skills as a writer, share ideas, and discuss my career progress.