3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified oilseed rape, one of the four main commercial GM crops. Photograph: David Levene

Genetically modified oilseed rape, one of the four main commercial GM crops. Photograph: David Levene

The debate about GM crops has reached a new level with many countries deciding on its fate. Among all this shrill and cacophony about it, we indeed have been fed many myths about it. Scientific American published a nice article on it some days ago, tiled - 3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops . It looked into some detail about the 3 most important myths.

Lets have a look, shall we ?

Myth 1: GM crops have bred superweeds

Verdict: FALSE

This issue has been quite a contentious issue for more than a decade now.

US farmers had widely adopted GM cotton engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, which is marketed as Roundup by Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri. The herbicide–crop combination worked spectacularly well — until it didn’t. In 2004, herbicide-resistant amaranth was found in one county in Georgia; by 2011, it had spread to 76. 

Many scientists, and even some of my colleagues have argued that use of GM crops which are herbicide resistant are responsible for the evolution of herbicide resistance in many weeds.

Twenty-four glyphosate-resistant weed species have been identified since Roundup-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.

However, herbicide resistance has been a problem for farmers regardless of whether they plant GM crops or not. For more see this chart on the rise of super-weeds:

‘The rise of superweeds’  Source: Scientific American

‘The rise of superweeds’
Source: Scientific American

So, blaming just the increased use of GM crops wont solve the problem of these super-weeds.

Myth 2. GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide

Verdict: FALSE

Now this has been a big news item in India recently when a leading rights activist and environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva alleged that some 270,000 farmers have committed suicide ever since GM crops have been used. Bt cotton which has a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis has been planted in India and has been the major bone of contention in India.

Seeds initially cost five times more than local hybrid varieties, spurring local traders to sell packets containing a mix of Bt and conventional cotton at lower prices. The sham seeds and misinformation about how to use the product resulted in crop and financial losses. This no doubt added strain to rural farmers, who had long been under the pressures of a tight credit system that forced them to borrow from local lenders.

This claim was however refuted by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, who scoured government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India. Their findings, published in 2008 and updated in 2011, show that the total number of suicides per year in the Indian population rose from just under 100,000 in 1997 to more than 120,000 in 2007. But the number of suicides among farmers hovered at around 20,000 per year over the same period.

Suicide Rates and GM crops Source: Scientific American

Suicide Rates and GM crops
Source: Scientific American

The important thing to note here, is that the focus of argument in India has shifted from a balanced discussion on the various ways technology can benefit us to calls for outright bans on using it. This would never solve the issue but aggravate it.

Myth 3: Transgenes spread to wild crops in Mexico

Verdict: UNKNOWN

We finally come to another issue about how transgenes have spread to far-off maize fields in Mexico. What started all of it was:

In 2000, some rural farmers in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, wanted to gain organic certification for the maize (corn) they grew and sold in the hope of generating extra income. David Quist, then a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed to help in exchange for access to their lands for a research project. But Quist’s genetic analyses uncovered a surprise: the locally produced maize contained a segment of the DNA used to spur expression of transgenes in Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant and insect-resistant maize.

Now, as GM crops are not approved in Mexico, the only possible source of such transgenes could only have come from GM crops imported from the United States for consumption and planted by local farmers who probably didn’t know that the seeds were transgenic. When the results were published it brought a furore in Mexico with people arguing for and against the issue. Ever since, few detailed studies have been done on the spread of transgenes via GM crops.

In 2003–04, Allison Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, sampled 870 plants taken from 125 fields in Oaxaca and found no transgenic sequences in maize seeds.

But in 2009, a study led by Elena Alvarez-Buylla, a molecular ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, and Alma Piñeyro-Nelson, a plant molecular geneticist now at the University of California, Berkeley, found the same transgenes as Quist in three samples taken from 23 sites in Oaxaca in 2001, and in two samples taken from those sites in 2004.

In another study, Alvarez-Buylla and her co-authors found evidence of transgenes in a small percentage of seeds from 1,765 households across Mexico.

However, some scientists argue that transgene spread could in effect have a neutral or even a positive effect on local crops.

In 2003, Snow and her colleagues showed that when Btsunflowers (Helianthus annuus) were bred with their wild counterparts, transgenic offspring still required the same kind of close care as its cultivated parent but were less vulnerable to insects and produced more seeds than non-transgenic plants.

In the end, i would quote something from the article here:

Tidy stories, in favor of or against GM crops, will always miss the bigger picture, which is nuanced, equivocal and undeniably messy. Transgenic crops will not solve all the agricultural challenges facing the developing or developed world, says Qaim: “It is not a silver bullet.” But vilification is not appropriate either. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

What in fact, would be beneficial for ending the food insufficiency problems would be develop GM crops which would have more protein content, or even essential animal proteins or could produce various other required molecules in our body. These would benefit us in more ways than by simply developing GM crops for resistance to insecticides/ herbicides. The industry needs to look at developing a holistic view of GM crops and instead of creating shrill noise, detractors should sit together with the scientists from academia/industry,policy makers and industry honchos to use technology for our benefit.

For further reading:

1). Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: An Evidence-based Assessment, Guillaume Gruèrea & Debdatta Senguptaa,The Journal of Development Studies,Volume 47, Issue 2, 2011.

2). Field versus Farm in Warangal: Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and Larger Questions, Glenn Davis Stone, World Development,Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2011.

3). Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in India, Jonas Kathage and Matin Qaim, PNAS, 2012.

4). Are GM Seeds to Blame for Indian Farmer Suicides?, Adam Pugen, Feb 2013, The International.

A hilarious look into a job advert in science !!

I came upon this article, few days ago and decided that its worth reposting here. It gives a funny, yet painfully truthful outlook into a traditional job advertisement for a Prof. position in academia.

Kudos to David Alridge for writing this hilarious piece  !!

Take a look…


Location: Somewhere you don’t want to live
Salary: Nowhere near enough given the ridiculous number of qualifications you have
Contract type: Full-time permanent*
Interview Date: 
Don’t worry, you probably won’t make this stage

 *”Permanent” refers to your expected working hours on campus, NOT your job security, benefits, healthcare etc.


We are seeking a candidate to replace an academic that went senile over 20 years ago, but who has only just retired.

Candidate Evaluation

The candidate must have a PhD from an institution where ivy grows up the sides of old historic buildings and 5-10 years of postdoctoral experience with all the world-experts in their chosen research area. The successful candidate will have published every experiment that they have performed in the last 10-15 years, and some that they did not (only publications in  Science or Nature will be considered valid). The candidate is expected to spend their days teaching undergraduates, and their nights working towards developing a world-class research career – it will obviously be advantageous if the candidate does not have friends, family, hobbies or eyelids. The candidate will have an enthusiasm for teaching**.

**Demonstrating this enthusiasm once you have the job will result in zero career progression and incessant mocking from colleagues.



Application Process

Enquiries should be directed to our overworked secretary, Mavis; she will probably lose it first time around, so send a second enquiry about 1 week after you submit the first one. When applying, please submit your curriculum vitae – the heavier the better; anything that can be picked up by a single person, or can be read in less than 2 weeks will not be considered.


Five lucky candidates, who meet the ridiculous criteria stated above, will be invited to be pummeled (verbally and physically) by a pack of cantankerous academics. Candidates will then be locked in a room together with a single 2×4 coated in barbed-wire. The last one left breathing will be given the job.

Further information:

We aim to be an equal opportunities employer. However, we are not very good at this: white, socially awkward males with excessive facial hair are preferred; females will only be considered if they demonstrate absolutely no desire to start a family.


Ever wonder – What Major World Cities Look Like at Night, Minus the Light Pollution

In a stunning montage of pictures, Smithsonian Magazine published an article on just about that topic. How does it look at night? Has pollution really taken away the charm of beautiful nights?

Thierry Cohen, took up the challenge some three years ago when he started on a world wide tour to take pictures of major cities minus all the light & air pollution. Cohen fears, as he recently told the New York Times, that the hazy view has spawned a breed of urbanite, sheltered by his and her manmade environs, that “forgets and no longer understands nature.”

Well, here take a look:



San Francisco 37° 48′ 30″ N 2010-10-9 Lst 20:58. © Thierry Cohen 


Tokyo 35° 41′ 36″ N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16. © Thierry Cohen.

Tokyo 35° 41′ 36″ N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16. © Thierry Cohen.


São Paulo 23° 33′ 22″ S 2011-06-05 Lst 11:44. © Thierry Cohen.

São Paulo 23° 33′ 22″ S 2011-06-05 Lst 11:44. © Thierry Cohen.


Paris 48° 50′ 55″ N 2012-08-13 Lst 22:15. © Thierry Cohen.

Paris 48° 50′ 55″ N 2012-08-13 Lst 22:15. © Thierry Cohen.


Los Angeles 34° 03′ 20″ N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50. © Thierry Cohen.

Los Angeles 34° 03′ 20″ N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50. © Thierry Cohen.


Hong Kong 22° 16′ 38″ N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00. © Thierry Cohen

Hong Kong 22° 16′ 38″ N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00. © Thierry Cohen



What are we reading? The emotional trend in 20th century books

cats are reading a book

cats are reading a book (Photo credit: Catunes)

Now there have been trends and there are new ones emerging with the release of every new Bestseller Lists. So, in this huge dynamics of book genre trends, it is worthwhile to know -

Which moods, or emotions, have been popular in the literature of the 20th century? 

Do the various world events happening around us affect our book choices too?

Are the claims that  Twitter mood words can predict stock market trends true ?

Can we glean at our past and see whether our mood patterns have reflected world changes?

Recently, an interesting piece of research came to answer these questions of mine. PLoS One an open access, peer reviewed journal published a research paper  by Alberto Acerbi and other co-researchers  titled - The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century BooksAs i said earlier their aim was to understand

To find out, researchers created six categories of words to express anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

To do this they use Google’s excellent Ngram viewer, a phrase-usage graphing tool which charts the yearly count of selected n-grams (letter combinations)[n] or words and phrases,as found in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google Inc (up to 2008). Using this, the researchers looked at all English language literature published between 1900 & 2000.Apart from this, they used additional datasets for analysing mood words used in English fiction.

Figure 1. Historical periods of positive and negative moods.

So, lets look at the results starting from the above figure. It shows that moods tracked broad historical trends, including a ‘sad’ peak corresponding to Second World War, and two ‘happy’ peaks, one in the 1920′s and the other in the 1960′s. In more recent years we can see a ‘sad’ period starting from the 1970′s, with an increase in ‘happiness’ in the last years of the data set. Interestingly, the First World War does not seem to register a particular change in mood words.

Figure 2. Decrease in the use of emotion-related words through time.


The second part of results is shown in the above figure. It indicates that the usage of the mood words have decreased in books published in the 20th century. One thing which is indeed highly curious is that the use of words relating to disgust has declined the most. Another strange trend is that the use of fear-related words decreased until the 1970s, when the trend took a sharp turn upwards (and has continued to climb for the next three decades).

For me, it is indeed quite a surprise since it gives a fresh perspective on the last century. However, this sort of detailed use of word data to characterize the evolution of cultural differences and trends, to detect patterns previously unknown through conventional history is quite an exciting way to look into human cultural dynamics.

So, Yay for more such research !!


More to read about:

1). Acerbi A, Enquist M, Ghirlanda S (2009) Cultural evolution and individual development of of openness and conservatism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106(45): 18931–18935.

2). Nettle D (2007) Language and genes: A new perspective on the origins of human cultural diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 10755–10756.

3). Evans N, Levinson SC (2009) The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 429–492.

4). Bollen J, Mao H, Zeng X-J (2011) Twitter mood predicts the stock market. Journal of Computational Science 2: 1–8.


7 Misused Science Words


Now there are various words tossed around everyday with little attention towards their exact meaning. And sometimes, i am simply amused by people declaring themselves Google and charging ahead by using words like ”Theory” or ”Model”.  A recent article in Scientific American titled - “Just a Theory”: 7 Misused Science Words  is just the cure i was looking for.  It starts off by listing those very words which i hate to be tossed up with during a dinner party or worse at a scientific conference !! I will list them out in full below and you can all have fun in reading the actual article in Scientific American.

1). Hypothesis

2). Just a theory?

3). Model

4). Skeptic

5). Nature vs. nurture

6). Significant

7). Natural

Now the above words are something which we all encounter during our school and college education. But the misuse of these words shows that people are not taught how science actually works !! Its not how it is showed in cartoons or zombie dystopian movies.

In the end, i would like to quote from the article itself:

Most people tend to use mental shortcuts to make sense of the cacophony of information they’re presented with every day.One of those tendencies is to make a binary distinction between something that is true in an absolute sense and something that’s false or a lie. “With science, it’s more of a continuum. We’re continually building our understanding.”

Additional readings:

1). What is Science? The Scientific Method, LiveScience Website, 2012.

2). The trouble with “science” (guardian.co.uk)