Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 25, 2003:
* Filipino Farmers See Bt Corn as Welcome Breakthrough
* On Chapela Tenure Denial
* GM Happenings in India
* Bt - Cotton in India: Let the Good Times Roll!
* Protein Rich Rice for India and the Regulatory Quagmire
* Campaign for Ag Biotech Sowed by City Born Scientist
* Agricultural Biotechnology Potential in the Developing World
* Travel Grants for Pan American Bioinformatics Workshop
* Poor Manís Hero
* Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy
Filipino Farmers See Bt Corn as Welcome Breakthrough: High Cost of Seeds
- Anchalee Kongrut, Bangkok Post, Dec 26, 2003
Farmer Roger Narvarro used to pray each year that his maize crop would
remain free of corn borer, a major pest in the Philippines. But since
switching to genetically modified Bt corn, he sleeps much better.
"This Bt corn is a breakthrough. It gives farmers a choice. It frees us
from worries,'' Mr Navarro said. His family is also happier. They worry
less about the chemicals he formerly had to spray to keep the pests away.
The Bt seed has been modified to contain a gene that makes a toxin deadly
to corn borer, so he uses less pesticide.
Mr Narvarro is among the first group of farmers in the Philippines to grow
Bt corn on a commercial scale. In May last year the Philippines became the
first country in Southeast Asia to allow commercial farming of GM crops.
Open-field trials of GM papaya are planned for 2005, followed by
Farmers like Mr Narvarro expect to earn extra income growing Bt corn
during the off-season, when the corn-borer plague is at its peak but the
price of corn is also at its highest. Mr Navarro still grows non-GM crops
the rest of the year, when there are fewer pests. Bt corn brings its
benefits, but the seeds are more expensive and can only be obtained from a
Commercial GM corn planting in the Philippines is being hailed as a
milestone by advocates of genetic engineering such as biotechnology
companies and biotech scientists. Mr Navarro's farm has become a showcase
that pro-biotechnology groups use to promote GM crops.
Early this month, farmers from Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia
were invited to visit Mr Narvarro's farm. They showed keen interest in
trying GM crops. But many also warned that Bt corn may not be suited to
countries that have no corn-borer problem.
Le Viet Dung, of the College of Agriculture at Catho University in
Vietnam, said GM seeds would be cost effective only for large-scale
cropping - 50 hectares (300 rai) or more. Thai farmers expressed
enthusiasm for Monsanto's Ready Roundup corn seeds which contain a gene
resistant to weed-killing chemicals.
Somkid Chompoowong, of Pak Chong district in Nakhon Ratchasima province,
said he spent at least 100,000 baht each season hiring workers to spray
and remove weeds from his 1,000-rai farm. Ready Roundup corn would allow
him to spray herbicide without worrying the corn would die along with the
Raul Montemeyor, of the International Federation of Agriculture Producers
(IFAP), said farmers needed to maintain a responsible image and should
look at ways to improve the certification system instead of trying a new
product just to boost yields and cut costs. "The more pro-biotechnology
groups try to sell GM products, the more susceptible consumers will
become,'' he said.
IFAP, which represents 500 million farmers in 68 countries, issued a
statement in 1998 saying biotechnology was capable of bringing real
progress in meeting food demand, reducing pollution and improving the
quality and quantity of farm products.
The organisation has asked for strict precautions to avoid adverse affects
on human health, the environment and farmers' livelihood. Mr Montemayor
said the high cost of GM seeds could well put them beyond the means of
most farmers in developing countries.
On Chapela Tenure Denial
- Shanthu Shantharam
It is really not fair for anyone of us to comment on the denial of tenure
to the controversial scientist Ignacius Chapela by UC Berkeley as it is
difficult to fathom into every bit of reasoning and discussions that
usually go on behind such decisions.
But, to those of us who are little bit familiar with the tenure process in
the US universities, it is a tortuous process that usually goes on for
almost a year before a final decision is reached. The tenure system has
been designed to provide for many checks and balances to make sure not any
one individual or group's undue influence override a fair consideration of
all factors that affect tenure. There is also no doubt that certain amount
local (campus) politics like faculty bickering, differences of opinion,
groupism, occasionally over-powering chairman of the department, dean or
Vice-President and sometimes even a President of the university also play
decisive role to influence the outcome of a tenure decision.
Not withstanding the fairness of the tenure review system, it is also a
fact that tenure has been granted or denied to some really (un)productive
and (un)deserving individuals. It is just like the peer review system for
grants and publications. No system is perfect. Many have suffered with
these systems. But, one needs to look at it objectively and ask a simple
question. Has the system ensured fairness to large majority of cases and
what is the general outcome of such a system for the higher education in
terms of the quality of research output and teaching at US universities. I
guess most will agree that more than 90% (I am guessing here again!) of
the cases have turned out to be fair and one can verify that by looking
into the world class productivity of an average tenured faculty at an
average US university and the standards and reputations of large majority
of US universities. US universities are an envy of the world and is
exemplified by a large number of students and scientists who want to study
and work at US universities.
Chapela has chosen to internationalize and politicize his tenure problem.
For a distant observer like me, it is inescapable that his controversial
'NATURE' paper played a crucial role in the denial of his tenure. I have
followed his utterances from the days of his 'NATURE' publication. He was
the first one to hint at not getting a tenure even before he came up for
tenure. December 18/25 Issue of 'NATURE' reports that some disgruntled
scientists have complained the role of the biotechnology industry in
trying to suppress certain uncomfortable or unsavory research findings of
certain products. In certain other cases, the same industry has been
accused of influencing the publication of so called favorable findings as
One may never prove or disapprove of such charges or allegations, but the
fact industry gets dragged into these controversies should be a good
reason for the industry to sit up and take notice of such allegations
seriously and do some introspection. Even the appearance of such
allegations will provide tons of ammunition to the detractors of the
biotech industry and can set the technology development backwards by
decades. The spin doctors working at or for the industry should critically
examine this issue and find some honest answers to correct even the
perception of such things from happening. Times have changed so much that
no field of public or private life is left untouched by scandals and
nothing seems to be sacrosanct anymore.
- Dr. Shanthu Shantharam, Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD.
GM Happenings in India
- Prof. Satish Raina
At the outset, I must offer my personal compliments to you for the
AgBioworld service which provides so much of what all is happening in the
GM world. In some respects, it's unique. Rarely do we see such high
quality interactions, among the stake holders, including molecular
biologists, on matters of crucial importance to AgBiotech issues.
In India, we have the privilege of watching a wide variety of anti-GM
activists. Quite a lot of them specialize in manufacturing concoctions and
then liberally dispensing them through whatever means possible.
Fortunately, we do have some serious ones as well and, by and large, they
conduct their campaign with a sense of commitment and responsibility. Dr
Suman Sahai's Gene Campaign is indeed one such group. Last month, Gene
Campaign organized a 'National Symposium on Relevance of GM Technology to
Indian Agriculture and Food Security' and attending this Symposium was a
pleasant experience. The program was structured to include a wide variety
of speakers. These included eminent Indian agricultural scientists
(including Dr M. S. Swaminathan), a former Environment minister, FAO
representative in India, some former and present regulators (including the
one and the only one, Dr Shanthu Shantaram), social scientists of repute,
representatives from foreign and Indian seed industry, NGOs, some hard
core plant biotechnologists, members of the press, farmer representatives,
While of course there were these 'jihadi' elements demanding zero-risk
guarantees, but what impressed me most was the freedom of speech that
every speaker enjoyed and the quality of subsequent interactions. Never
ever was an attempt made to snub or hurry through a discussion even when a
strong case was being made in support of a GM technology. For the first
time ever, at least so far as my knowledge goes, we had a comprehensive
discussion with Mr Verma, joint Secretary of the Ministry of Environment.
I am sure he got back to his office enriched with a whole lot of valuable
suggestions, just as the audience got to know what all MOE and GEAC is
doing and planning to do, so as to make the Indian regulatory system more
effective, transparent and participatory.
My colleagues and I, here at IARI, are intensively involved in generating
and testing GM rice. Ours is the first and perhaps the only group in the
country to have field tested transgenic Bt-rice developed in the country.
However, I must hasten to mention, we need not rush through the
Some of us here, well aware of the inadequacies of our System, had
visualized what might happen to Bt cotton. This year, as you would also
known, some reports indicate that more than 50% of the Bt cotton planted
in India may have come from spurious seeds. F2s, F3s and mixtures are
reported to have done brisk business. Under these circumstances, it is
just a matter of some more time before we get to hear that an important Bt
gene has lost resistance to the bollworms. And perhaps sooner than later,
we may be back to square-1, spraying loads of pesticides all over again.
Therefore, it is of crucial importance for all of us in India and the
developing world, where regulatory oversight is still going through an
evolutionary phase and, as such, all necessary instruments are yet to be
put in place, that we adapt a policy of case-by-case. In this process of
evolution, the more we interact with the stakeholders, the better we are.
- Regards, Dr. S. K. Raina, Professor, NRC-Plant Biotechnology, IARI, New
Bt - Cotton in India: Let the Good Times Roll!
- Shanthu Shantharam Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD
The recent statement of Dr. MM Joshi, Union Minister for Science and
Technology on the floor of the Indian Parliament about the performance of
Bt cotton or lack thereof in the Sabarkantha district of Gujarat must come
as a relief to those who have full confidence in the performing abilities
of the Bt technology. The Minister does not seem to address anything about
the purported failure of Bt cotton in certain pockets of Andhra Pradesh
and Maharashtra as reported by Gene Campaign (A Delhi based NGO) and many
other farmer groups in the last growing season. It seems that the same
varieties of Bt cotton must have done quite well this cropping season (I
have no way of knowing or verifying this year's or last year's performance
other than to hear anecdotal good performance reports from individuals).
More importantly, more seeds were sold in this growing season, a sure
indicator of farmer confidence in the product. The reason I say this is
because there is not a peep heard against Bt cotton so far from any
quarter in India. By all accounts, Bt cotton seems to have done well aided
by good rainfall. Like last year, the regulatory authority GEAC has not
come forward with any convincing and verifiable report or data other than
to make some affirmative statements. It seems GEAC has acknowledged
complaints of failure and are supposed to be investigating them.
What is really inexplicable is the stubbornness of the Indian regulatory
body GEAC to not to make the field performance data public. As far as I
can see, there is nothing to hide, good, bad or irrelevant. It is really
ridiculous to make this into a national secret as there must be nothing to
hide (good or bad) for an impartial regulator about the performance of Bt
cotton or any other variety. Only transparency and objective data analysis
based on which regulatory decisions are made will be an effective counter
force to the die hard opponents, detractors, and critics GMO technology.
Indian biotech regulators should not treat this matter of transparency and
accountability in a cavalier manner and take urgent measures to assure
confidence in the minds of the public.
As much as one should not have declared Bt cotton technology a failure
last year because of sporadic failure due to reasons other than the exact
performance of Bt gene, all of us must be equally cautious before we start
gloating about apparent good performance this year. The Bt cotton
varieties of Monsanto-Mahyco combine were permitted for just three years
of commercialization, and it would be prudent for all to just wait for one
more year before passing any reasonable judgment on these varieties.
The other good news is that it seems GEAC has or is about to approve new
varieties of Bt cotton that have been developed by other cotton seed
producers who have much superior genetic background in their hybrids. If
that is true, then we can all look forward to far superior performance of
Bt technology than MECH varieties. That is the way new varieties and
hybrids have always been introduced to market. More such varieties and
competition is really what is the crying need of Indian agriculture. Let
the good times roll.
Protein Rich Rice for India and the Regulatory Quagmire
- Ramanjini Gowda
The introduction of protein rich gene in to any Rice variety is a good
option for the developing countries, due to the problem of malnutrition.
However, any GMO from the public sector may not see light of the day in
India for perhaps another ten years or more because of the regulatory
I am very much convinced that GM is the best technology available for
increasing the production and quality of the crops in India, however it
pains me that their release is hindered by many reasons including:
1. We do not have a 'single-window' regulatory clearance for GM products
in India. Even the private comapnies are unable to successfully launch
their GM products.
2. Most of the genes and gene constructs used in India are patented by
the private companies/foreign scientists. The best option is to initiate
collaborative programmes with the private industries and overseas
- Dr.P.H.Ramanjini Gowda, Associate Professor, University of Agricultural
Campaign for Agricultural Biotech Sowed by City Born Scientist
- New Indian Express, Dec. 19, 2003
BANGALORE: High Protein Potato and Golden Rice with Vitamin A makes the
stomach churn for some, for others it's a meal fit for kings. These
genetically modified (GM) foods are banned in several countries and
Karnataka's farmers have not been satisfied with Bt Cotton growing either
but agricultural biotechnology now looks like it is all set to fight back.
And one of the key players in propogating food biotechnology is a city
born agricultural scientist, who is at Alabama's Tuskgee University as
Director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research--Channapatna
Prakash. "The resistance against agriculture biotech has two aspects. One
it is very orchestarted, it involves using scary labels and is anti
corporate. It is also a genuine apprehension to new technology especially
linked to food,'' said Prakash, who assists the GOI, Department of Biotech
in the Overseas Advisory Committee.``But technology in the hands of
corporates does not mean it is unsafe.''
In fact this scientist has founded a website www.agbioworld.org "to create
awareness on food biotech issues'' and is actively working to promote
biotech research and polcy making in Asia and Africa. "The developing
world can benefit from agricultural biotechnology to increase its food
security. Bioengeneered food is safe and contributes to environment
protection,'' he maintains.
On his site he posts articles to demystify the "Attack on plant
biotechnology.'' The professor is dismissive of critics from Greenpeace,
Vandana Shiva of Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
who champions use of appriopriate technology and farmer activist
Bt Cotton,claims Prakash, has tripled production (area) in India. And even
as High Protein Potato is undergoing its first phase of trial, he expects
it to be the first GM food product to be launched in the country in two
The Indian government, he says, is very supportive of agricultural
The contentious GM food, agrees the professor, should not go without
scientific safeguards. "Genetically modified products should be tested for
safety and their environmental impact,'' he added. Fundamental
differences, however, might take longer to iron out.
Agricultural Biotechnology Potential in the Developing World
- C. S. Prakash and Greg Conko, Biosci News, Guest Editorial, Dec 15, 2003
The use of bioengineering technology for the development of new plant
varieties has been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies, has increased
crop yields and food production and reduced the use of synthetic chemical
pesticides in both industrialized and less developed countries.
These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite
and where hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and
Critics dismiss such claims as nothing more than corporate public
relations puffery. However, while it is true that most commercially
available bioengineered plants were designed for farmers in the
industrialized world, the increasing adoption of transgenic varieties by
under-developed countries over the past few years demonstrates their
Globally, transgenic varieties are now grown on more than 58.7 million
hectares (145 million acres) in such countries as Argentina, Australia,
Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, and
the United States. Nearly one-quarter of that hectarage is farmed by over
5 million resource-poor farmers in less developed countries.
Why? Because they see many of the same benefits that farmers in
industrialized nations do. The first generation of transgenic crops -
approximately 50 different varieties of maize, cotton, potato, squash,
soybean, rapeseed, and others - were designed to aid in protecting crops
from insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases.
As much as 40 percent of crop productivity in Africa and Asia and about 20
percent in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe is
lost to these biotic stresses, despite the use of large amounts of
insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals.
Poor tropical farmers may face different pest species than their
industrial country counterparts, but both must do constant battle against
these threats to their productivity. That's why South African and
Filipino farmers are so eager to grow transgenic corn resistant to insect
pests, and why South African and Chinese farmers like transgenic
insect-resistant cotton so much.
Indian cotton farmers and Brazilian and Paraguayan soya growers didn't
even wait for their governments to approve transgenic varieties before
they began growing them. It was discovered in 2001 that Indian farmers
were planting seed obtained illegally from field trials of a transgenic
cotton variety then still under governmental review. Farmers in Brazil
and Paraguay looked across the border and saw how well their Argentine
neighbours were doing with transgenic soybean varieties and smuggling of
bioengineered seed became rampant.
Recent studies in India have shown that transgenic cotton reduced
pesticide spraying by half or more, delivering a 30-40 percent profit
increase. Another report showed that the farm area under Bt cotton in
India tripled in just one year to 216,000 hectares from 72,682 hectares
In Brazil, it is estimated that about three million hectares of biotech
soybean were being grown illegally until now when the government has just
made it legal.
As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There are
few greater testaments to the benefits of biotechnology than the fact that
thousands of poor farmers are willing to acknowledge having committed a
crime just to gain access to the improved varieties. Where transgenic
varieties become available (legally or not), farmers themselves are eager
to adopt them.
There is even evidence that transgenic varieties have literally saved
human lives. In less developed nations, pesticides are typically sprayed
on crops by hand, exposing farm workers to severe health risks. Some 400
to 500 Chinese cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide
poisoning because, until recently, the only alternative was risking near
total crop loss from voracious insects.
A Rutgers University study found that transgenic cotton in China has
lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced
the number of pesticide poisonings by an equivalent amount.
The productivity gains generated by transgenic crops provide yet another
important benefit: They could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife
habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation of
wildlife habitats caused by agricultural development in regions
experiencing the greatest population growth are widely recognised as among
the most serious threats to biodiversity.
Thus, increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental
goal, and one that would be much easier in a world where bioengineering
technology is in widespread use.
Channapatna S. Prakash email@example.com is a professor of plant
biotechnology at Tuskegee University in Alabama and the president of
AgBioWorld Foundation based in Auburn, Alabama www.agbioworld.org. Gregory
Conko firstname.lastname@example.org is director of food safety policy at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute in Washington and vice-president of AgBioWorld
Travel Grants for Pan American Bioinformatics Workshop
- Montevideo, Uruguay; February 9-20, 2004
For students, postdocs and early career researchers who might be
interested in this unique opportunity to develop international contacts in
the area of bioinformatics and genomics. (All expenses paid, in case that
NSF has provided funding for a Pan-American Advanced Studies Institute
focused on bioinformatics, which is being organized under the auspices of
the REDBIO Foundation and the University of Georgia. AThe PASI, to be held
in Montevideo, Uruguay Feb. 9-20, 2004, will support 15 participants
(advanced graduate students, post-docs and early career scientists) from
the U.S. and an additional 15 participants from across Latin America. In
addition to furthering the education of participants with regard to some
of the latest opportunities and techniques in bioinformatics, we hope that
this workshop will become the catalyst for development of a Pan-American
Bioinformatics network that will enhance opportunities, interactions and
collaborations between genomic and bioinformatics labs across the
The purpose of this message is to enlist your help in identifying the very
best candidates for this workshop. Whether their interests are primarily
animal, vegetable, or microbial, we are looking participants who are not
only excellent in their own research areas, but are also interested in
reaching out to establish international collaborations as part of their
career goals. Each participant will be expected to make a brief
presentation on his or her own work, and may opt to contribute a paper to
a Proceedings that will be produced after the workshop. Meeting
contributions will all be in English, and all workshop participants are
expected to be fluent in English. However, participants may find some
knowledge of Spanish helpful during their free time in Montevideo.
Please feel free to distribute this information as widely as you see fit.
A website with more details about the workshop is available at
http://www.zonamerica.org/pasi2004/. Although the requests receipt of
applications by Dec. 31, we will continue accepting applications from US
citizens through Jan. 8 or until all reserved slots are filled.
Participants selected for the workshop will be notified no later than Jan.
Thank you for your assistance in our search.
- Sincerely, Jeffrey Dean, On Behalf of the Organizing Committee
Associate Professor & Director, School of Forest Resources, University of
Poor Manís Hero
- Nick Gillespie, Reason. Excerpts below. Full piece at
'Controversial writer Johan Norberg champions globalization as the best
hope for the developing world. Interviewed by Nick Gillespie.'
If there is any moral certainty underpinning todayís anti-globalization
movement, itís that desperate actions -- from sometimes violent street
demonstrations to public crop burnings to dressing up as giant sea turtles
-- are needed to protect the traditions, forests, and human rights of the
Third World against the rapacious greed of the First. The anti-globo left
has little doubt that anyone who favors international free trade, open
markets, and the cultural mongrelization they foster must be a greedy
corporate bastard hellbent on plundering the worldís poor and chopping
down the last tree left on the planet. On the right, if George W. Bush is
any indication, a different sort of blindness is at work: Itís OK to pass
nakedly protectionist legislation as long as you talk a good game about
favoring free trade.
This is why Johan Norberg, a 30-year-old Swede with roots in the anarchist
left, is so important. He is the author of In Defense of Global
Capitalism, which makes a powerful moral and economic case for
globalization. Norberg throws rhetorical Molotov cocktails both at
left-wing critics who would condemn developing countries to poverty by
insisting on First World workplace and environmental standards as a
prerequisite for trade and at Western governments whose free market
rhetoric is shamefully undercut by draconian tariffs on textiles and
agriculture, the two areas in which the developing world can actually
Reason: If the benefits of globalization are so obvious, why is there so
much opposition to it, especially in the West? Vietnamese workers may be
clamoring for more Nike factories, but protesters in Europe and North
America are tossing bricks through the windows of McDonaldís and
Norberg: The further you get from the West, the more positive people are
toward globalization, toward more business and trade ties with the rest of
the world. The most vocal opponents of globalization in poor countries are
often funded by critics from wealthier countries. For instance, Vandana
Shiva [director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science,
Technology, and Ecology] is a very vocal opponent of economic
liberalization and biotechnology, and sheís funded by a lot of different
Western groups. Actual farmers in the developing world mostly would like
these new crops to actually get something done.
There are the old groups that have always been scared of foreign
competition. Corporations that wouldnít be able to beat competition from
other countries are one of them. In the U.S., that includes the textile
industry, which has funded a lot of the anti-sweatshop propaganda. You see
the same thing when it comes to unions that are trying to educate people
against free trade, trying to block the NAFTA agreements, the World Trade
Organization negotiations, and similar things. But there are newer
pressure groups too. These include nongovernmental organizations that have
been mostly interested in domestic issues, which could be anything from
workplace safety to opposing privatization and outsourcing. In a
globalized world, it makes sense for these groups to make their case in
front of international bodies. Probably more than most, environmental
groups understood that they have an interest in challenging the new
globalization forces. They are used to being able to lobby their own
governments to stop certain substances, to stop genetically modified crops
and the like. They understand that they have to take their issues to the
WTO and to be able to fight for them there.
All these groups may have different agendas -- the unions are interested
in domestic jobs and the greens in air quality -- but theyíre willing to
collaborate. They donít have the same views, and they donít have the same
goals. But they do have the same enemy.
Reason: Letís talk about the environmental groups a bit. In your book, you
convincingly demonstrate that economic development is a boon to the
environment because richer countries tend to pollute less. You point to
research suggesting that economic growth correlates positively with
cleaner air and water once countries reach around $10,000 per capita GDP
-- the level of South Korea, Argentina, and Slovenia. You argue that best
way to clean the environment is to get the developing world to move as
quickly as possible from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial economy.
Why would environmental groups not buy that argument?
Norberg: I think that there are two basic reasons that lead
environmentalists to oppose globalization and the industrial development
that goes along with it. The first is a real concern about the
environment. Many environmentalists care about green forests, clean air,
clean water, and so on. What they donít appreciate is that attitude is
itself a result of industrial development. In our countries, people didnít
care about these things 100 years ago. Preferences shift when you can feed
your children and give them an education. Thatís when you begin to care
about these sorts of things. Environmentalists in this camp merely project
a contemporary sense of these issues onto developing countries that are at
the place where the West was a century ago. Itís an intellectually honest
mistake, one that new information and data can change. So can talking with
people in developing countries.
But thereís another motivation at work among some environmentalists. I
donít think this viewpoint represents the majority, but it often includes
the intellectual leaders of environmental groups. These are people who are
bothered not by environmental degradation per se. Rather, they reject the
modern project altogether. They are skeptical of the lifestyles and
societies that we have created. They think we are alienated from nature
compared to the past and that it is wrong to see nature as a tool that
human beings can use for their own convenience and benefit. Itís a
fundamentally aesthetic understanding of the world that is reminiscent of
early 19th century German romanticism. It paints a very distorted view of
the pre-industrial world as a utopia. In reality, that world was a place
in which starvation was the rule and not the exception.
I was extremely skeptical towards modern industrial society for a long
time, so I understand these sentiments. If you live in an urban, developed
area and your main experience of rural areas is secondhand, theyíre quite
understandable. You feel very sad about countries that are modernizing and
building factories, and about people who will be buying espresso machines
that make loud noises instead of, I donít know, sitting around listening
to the birds singing.
My attitude changed as I began to read history and understood what kind of
circumstances my ancestors lived in. The world they lived in was far from
ideal. It was starvation, it was children dying in the first year of their
lives. And of course, backbreaking labor, including child labor, was
everywhere. I think the best way to rebut this romantic, aesthetic
challenge to globalization, to our modern project, is by actually looking
at the circumstances of pre-industrial society.
Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy
- George Dvorsky, Better Humans, December 22, 2003. Excerpts below.. Full
'Increasingly hi-tech nations need informed citizens, making scientific
literacy a human right and scientific illiteracy a disability'
We all need to know about science. Without this knowledge we are
powerless, forced to live in a fog about how things work. Without it, we
are utterly dependent on others to form our opinion. Without it, we cannot
properly participate in society as informed, critical and responsibly
opinioned citizens. Moreover, in today's hi-tech information age world,
democracy cannot work without a scientifically literate society.
Most of those who live in the West, particularly North Americans, are
guilty of an anti-intellectual bias. Scientists are supposed to be nerds,
right? And who wants to be a nerd? This sentiment, combined with a general
suspicion of science and the predominance of aggressive theological and
pseudoscientific memes, has resulted in much of the scientific illiteracy
that now pervades our society.
It doesn't help that the educational system is in shambles and without
focus, and that fatuous postmodernism and its insistence that nothing can
truly be known now dominates many disciplines at most universities.
Consequently, too many people wear their ignorance like a badge of honor,
as if being clueless about science is something to be proud of.
The trouble with ignorance is not so much what people don't know but what
this causes them to believe.
There is a direct correlation between scientific illiteracy and a
propensity for belief in superstitions, religion, the paranormal and
pseudoscience. Those unacquainted with science also tend to be more prone
to scam artists, unwise investments, fiscal schemes and bogus health and
medical practices. On this last note, a number of opportunistic hucksters
are beginning to take advantage of the hype created by pending life
extension technologies and stem cell research, making grand promises to
hopeful people that can't possibly be fulfilled; the scientifically
illiterate make for easy targets.
It's safe to suggest, therefore, that those with a deficiency in
scientific comprehension have underdeveloped critical thought faculties.
In other words, they might as well be suffering from some kind of
A consequence of this disability is that some will be left behind. As
neuroscientist Steven Pinker has noted, "As our economy comes to depend
increasingly on technology, and as modern media present us with
unprecedented choices--in our lifestyles, our workplaces, and our
political commitments--a child who cannot master an ever-increasing body
of skills and knowledge will be left farther and farther behind."
The late Carl Sagan similarly worried about the effects of a
scientifically illiterate society. "We live in a society exquisitely
dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything
about science and technology," he lamented. "We have also arranged things
so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a
prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but
sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going
to blow up in our faces."
Indeed, scientific illiteracy cripples culture, justice, democracy and
society in general. When you have misinformed individuals you get
The way the media works today, with its problematic approach to "balanced"
reporting instead of accurate reporting and its propensity for
sensationalism, it is guilty of much of the misinformation and frequent
fear-mongering that imbues news and pop culture.
Similarly, the judicial system is not immune to the problems posed by a
scientifically illiterate populace. Judges and jurors, with little
background in the hard sciences, tend to be easily swayed by so-called
expert witnesses who, despite taking sworn oaths, spew weak and bogus
science to help lawyers defend their case.
Scientific illiteracy also has political implications, resulting in such
things as the rise of the religious right in the Bush administration and
the prominence of orthodox office holders at all levels of its government.
A misappraisal of science has also resulted in backwards legislation in
the US, Canada and Europe for stem cell research, cloning and genetically
modified foods. A recent Eurobarometer poll revealed that 60% of Europeans
believe that ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically
engineered tomatoes do, while 50% believe that eating genetically modified
fruit can cause a person's genes to become modified.
As early as the 1950s, scientist and novelist C.P. Snow was already
sounding the alarm about increasingly ignorant electorates. Snow coined
the term "two cultures" to refer to the growing divergence between those
in society who understand science and technology sufficiently to make
informed choices and those who do not.
Biologist and education critic Stephen Schneider recognizes the threat
that a scientifically illiterate society poses to a functional democracy.
"We all share a strong belief in democracy," he notes, "but it can only
function well when the people understand the choices they need to make and
are in a position to make trade-offs rationally." He believes that as
issues get increasingly complex, "ignorance decouples the people from the
knowledge they need to help guide policy choices that can shape our
Psychologist Barry L. Beyerstein agrees. He contends that it is essential
for a well-functioning democracy that "we all be conversant with the
basics of science so that we can cut through political rhetoric and the
daily news when these issues arise."
What can be done? All this begs the question: What can be done?
First and foremost there must to be a push for education reform. According
to Pinker, most high school and college curricula have barely changed
since medieval times mostly because "no one wants to be the philistine who
seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or
English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics." He worries about
how classroom practices are set by "fads, romantic theories, slick
packages, and political crusades." To alleviate the problem, Pinker
believes that a scientific mindset needs to be applied to the educational
process and a renewed commitment to the sciences, including the fields of
economics, biology, probability and statistics.
Education reform also rests with the scientists themselves. Education
critic Neal Lane, the former assistant to the US president for science and
technology, has proposed the idea of the "civic scientist." "What we
need," says Lane, "is the science community's leadership to educate the
nation about the value of science and technology to our national
well-being." Neal envisions a proactive and socially active scientific
We also need educational systems that are accountableóones that respect
the human right to a liberal education and high academic standards. It's
preposterous that Creationism is still taught in some schools. This issue
has nothing to do with freedom of religion and everything to do with one's
right to be free from religion. Otherwise, schools might just as well
teach that the Earth is flat and that the Moon is made out of cheese.
And finally, we all need to promote science as an attractive discipline
and as a means to personal empowerment and social betterment. As science
educator Nye has said to children across North America, science is cool.
And indeed it is--and more so than ever before. Today, scientists are busy
discussing the possibility of infinite universes, microscopic robots that
will operate in the body, cyborg and artificial citizens, plants that can
clean toxic waste in the soil and a manned expedition to Mars.
While exciting, however, all these things are prone to misunderstanding
and apprehension. Unless we have a populace that can fully understand and
assess these and other pending issues, we risk squandering what should be
wonderful opportunities for individuals and the species. We also risk
creating the "two cultures" envisioned by Snow--the intellectual haves and
The time to act is now, for those who fail to grasp the scientific issues
of our time will find the future truly incomprehensible.
George Dvorsky is the deputy editor of Betterhumans and the president of
the Toronto Transhumanist Association