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In 1865, a child was born in Madras, India. Her parents named her Lucy Deane. As destiny would have it, in 1893, Kensington Vestry (UK) wanted to hire women Inspectors where, at that time all inspectors were men. Lucy Deane was hired and was a factory inspector. In 1898, she cautioned the authorities that asbestos was causing lung disease. The report collected dust. It took a century and in 1998, EU and France banned all forms of asbestos. (1)

As we stand today, Government of India has approved the use of GM Mustard for use in India. Like all throughout the world, there is a pro-GM and anti-GM groups in India. There have been spate of articles and influential voices who are supporting GM Mustard and its widespread use, without knowing the ramifications. Those who are against it are being labelled Luddites, risk averse, unscientific, elites and hypocrites. With government approving this, we know where the government stands.

Comparing the incomparable:

In a recent article in Indian Express(2), an author compares Viagra, Insulin and cell-phone towers and makes a point whether the elites sought zero risk proof for these products. First it pitches the GM crop as pro-poor and pro-farmer and insinuates all others as elites who swallow Viagra and go out to protest. Let me not rebut on this clever ploy of making this about one man versus the other.

The larger stupidity of this is the comparison of risks of Viagra against the risks arising out of a GM Crop. Though it is appealing to the common sense and immediately identifiable, its conceptually flawed from the first word. Viagra is a thin tailed risk and GM is a fat tailed risk. Thin tailed risks are common sense probabilistic and form the majority of Risk Management. The world as we see, revolves around with the use of such risk.

Insurance, the business which completely relies on risk had a seminal paper by Filip Lundberg in 1903 which formed the basis of what risk managers and many insurance actuaries know as Ruin Theory. Ruin is “the physical destruction or disintegration” which has no chance of recovery. There cannot be an un-ruin. Rebuilding is not bringing back the same structure which was there. By ruin, in this context, we mean the ruin of the complete system. This is not fear mongering and is grounded on sound logic and evidence.

The system here is the nature. This system is so complex that we cannot predict the weather pattern for the next month. The complexity of the system also makes the impact of GM crops unquantifiable. In 2005, UNESCO with its advisory body World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), released a paper called as “The Precautionary Principle.”(8) It states:

“The emergence of increasingly unpredictable, uncertain, and unquantifiable but possibly catastrophic risks such as those associated with Genetically Modified Organisms, climate change etc., has confronted societies with the need to develop a third, anticipatory model to protect humans and the environment against uncertain risks of human action: The Precautionary Principle (PP).”

What it states is essentially this: lets protect before something bad occurs and not get into the damage control where we may not have any chance. This paper also puts forth when we need to apply this principle. Just by quoting this, we cannot stop the human progress.

Conditions to satisfy are:

  1. Complexity of the system
  2. Unquantifiable scientific uncertainty

If we look at GM Crops, it is a tailor case to apply this principle.

One, interaction of GM Crops with nature cannot be ascertained because nature is highly complex system and it is non-localised. Two, the impact is unquantifiable. Applying the risk of ruin, which essentially states that the impact cost will be infinity, and any non-zero probability will make the overall risk as infinity.

This is not same as one crore road accidents nor losing Titanic nor losing MH370. These are localised risks. Or the aforementioned opinion item provocatively mentions – Viagra.

Anyone who states that GM is completely safe is fooling us and fooling themselves. A recent study has revealed unintended mutations were induced in mice by a genome editing technique. And we are not sure how that will affect GM Crops.(3)

Thus we can safely conclude, that this is a system which must be seen from the Precautionary Principle and Ruin Theory view.

For detailed study of these risks, please read the books The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb.  Also, he, along with many has authored a paper on GMO based on Precautionary Principle.(7)

Anti GM is essentially anti-corporates:

This is another lie that is being spread against the principled, theory and research oriented stand against GM Crops. What this essentially states are that since the anti-GM group, doesn’t like profits, are somehow socialists or communists and hence hate corporate profits. The same author(2)chides us for being perfectly fine with the duopoly of only Boeing and Airbus for travel and iOS and Android for mobile. Be that as it may, let me not address the trap again but the logic why this is wrong.

Nature provides biodiversity. What we essentially see in GM crops are close to monoculture. The single minded approach to GM crops as espoused by the pro-GM side is productivity. More, for less. More, for less land. More, for less water. More, for less pesticide. More for less, insecticide. More, for less fertilizer. Even our love of our own mother has some negatives but nowhere will you find any negatives that the pro-GM lobby presents with us. This is logical.

Let me present you another evidentiary proof. Between, 1845 and 1852, more than 10 lakh people died of famine in Ireland, also known as Great Famine of Ireland or Potato Famine. The root cause of this is a blight had wiped out the entire crop in Ireland.  What is also said and repeated many times, which we tend to forget is that the entire population was dependent on just one or two varieties of potato.

Now, you can see that why one loss of MH370 is not as same as a crop failure.

Now, you can see why the risk is unquantifiable and the losses in this case is near infinity or what we call as ruin.

With our single minded aim to improve productivity, we are laying the foundation for the unknown. Again, this is not fear mongering to be ignored, this is rooted in risk theories and in history.

Recent studies have also shown that GM crops may not be as insect resistance as we might have thought.(4)(5) This states that there is an evolutionary resistance to the GM crop. Again, we do not understand the nature as much as we think we do. And as stated above, nature is complex.

Mankind has always tampered with crops:

This is another half-truth that is being peddled by the lobby. For example, we are shown a black rose which is not available in nature but has been modified by the influence of mankind.

In 1865, Gregor Mendel, gave a speech on his experiments on peapods. The translated title of that speech stands “Experiments in Plant Hybridisation.”(6) This is essentially wrong comparison, again. Methodologies, processes and techniques were human but the ‘law of selection’ was left to nature. But, in present GM crops, we tend to select on behalf of nature. And herein lies the greatest issue we have.

Mankind have played with crops and animals. All the dogs that we see are examples. The interracial kids that we see are examples. We, you and I are examples of this selection. But nowhere but in GM crops have we altered at this micro level, the DNA.

The march of technology is inevitable. The advancement of science is unstoppable. But what can be and must be done is to make these crops into more and more trials till we are near certain that there won’t be any systemic impact of ruin.

The Precautionary Principle also states that the burden of proof does lies with the entity which brings into the system the GM crops.

To borrow Sun Tzu, “it’s a matter of life and death. A road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry, which can on no account be neglected.”

  1. http://www.wilpf.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Streatfeild-Lucy-Deane.pdf
  2. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/gm-mustard-us-them-the-farmers-4683373/
  3. http://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/17657-crispr-induced-mutations-what-do-they-mean-for-food-safety
  4. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-gillam/new-research-shows-failin_b_14003604.html
  5. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0169115
  6. https://archive.org/details/mendelsprinciple00bate – Page 317.
  7. http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2
  8. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001395/139578e.pdf

This post was originally published here.

A lecture at University of Texas, Austin by P. Sainath, sponsored by the University of Texas School of Journalism, the South Asia Institute, AID-Austin and the Society of Professional Journalists UT.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

(includes some of the end of part 1 for continuity)

It never looked back. That was the breach point. The Composite Share Index of the Colombo Stock Exchange - the CSE - reached within 16 points of the highest - which was the year of its founding. Indonesia - the worst affected nation - quarter of a million people dead, the Stock Exchange is rocked by the earthquake and Tsunami but you know as the neo-liberal economists say: The building rocked, but the fundamentals were sound.

So the Stock exchange reached its great... every day it broke the earlier records for a week. Thailand and Malasia couldn't do that, because they had already reached their historic highs at that point, but they reached the highest within those five years when they had come to a top.

You know something guys, about unique buying opportunities, let me tell you, let me present to you a non-financial way of looking at this if you will. Here's something about unique buying opportunities: When there is incredible misery in the countryside, when hundreds and thousands of people go into bondage because of debt and many of them of course, take their lives in indebtedness, do you realize there is a unique buying opportunity for money lenders in the countryside to buy more young girls and cheaper for the flesh trade and trafficking that goes on in the world. It's a unique buying opportunity.

Try looking at it in terms of food in the same way. As the distress in the countryside has gone up, human trafficking has gone up all around the world. As the distress... I can see with my... you know...

In my own job, I'm a rural reporter. I spend between 270 and 300 days a year in India's villages. My home is in Mumbai, which is also home to one of the largest red light districts in the world. In the red light district called Kamatipura, you can see where the children have come from. The girls are really children. They are 12-13 years old. They have come because some granddad or father had gone into debt some years ago, and they are there.

The more the distress, the greater the drivers, pushing them from Kalahandi, from Telangana, from Rayalaseema, from Vidarbha... into the sex trade. Why don't you look at that as a unique buying opportunity? If you can look at the unique buying opportunity created by radioactive fallout in Fukushima as something nice, try... for me, morally, it's in the same club. It's not very different. Just look at the morality of this economics - that is the dominant economics of our time.

Back to the media.

You know the most expensive branch of the media... I've been a journalist for Last September I completed 30 years as a professional journalist. I've always noticed - in the last 15 years particularly, that the branch of the media - whether in television or in print, on which we spend the maximum money are the financial journalists.

My contemporary in Times of India, all he does is cover... you know there's a guy... in several papers ... He covers futures. That's all he does. Must be a wretched, miserable life, but he earns eight times of what I do, so I guess he's ok.

Now here is the most pampered, most highly paid branch of journalism. Did any of them give you an inkling of what was to happen in 2008. We have scrutinized the banks. We have scrutinized the insurance companies. We have scrutinized the government. We have scrutinized Congress. Have you scrutinized the financial media and how they helped you put your money down the tube. Telling you that things were never so good. Go back to 2008 before the meltdown. Three to four months before the meltdown, and read how well the world economy was doing.

No critical analysis. No introspection. After the meltdown, the same clowns are trotted out onto your television screens to tell you exactly what went wrong. After your money is down the tube. I think that programme has a nice name. Mad Money. It is completely insane. The star anchor of it and the conclusions. These were the guys telling you that the economy was doing better than it ever did!

Remember. Did the great world of financial journalism ever tell you that ENRON was as big a crock of shit as you could imagine in your worst nightmare? Did they? No, because Wall Street Journal and other columnists were writing speeches for Kinley at 25k a shot.

Okay?

Financial journalists were writing speeches for ENRON executives. You can read the Columbia journalism review on that, on how many of these guys were making money writing for... there's too much cosiness between financial media and the corporate world.

Come to India for a moment. It is now perfectly normal in financial journalism that a guy who is an assistant editor in the Economic times, for instance, okay? He joins Burrows and Welcome as a Public Relations officer. A year later he comes back as the associate editor of the newspaper. Two years later he goes as senior PRO of Glaxosmithklyne. Then he is back as senior associate editor. Then he is chief PRO of Dabhol, which is ENRON and one day he is the resident editor of the newspaper.

This is seen as perfectly normal - the seamless transition between journalism and the corporate world, because journalism is ... because the media, not journalism, is... The media are not anymore pro-corporate or pro-business. The are corporations, they are big businesses. They are worth billions and billions of dollars and if you want, we can get into the numbers regarding India. What kind of investments the country has seen in the media in the last three to four years in a little while from now.

Now, if you look at the links between the media and giant corporations, the organic structural links. You know about twenty years ago, we used to talk about media monopolies. And there were monopolies in the media. That isn't the case anymore. There may be monopolies in the media, but they are small parts of much larger conglomerates. Much larger conglomerates, and they are perhaps the ideological arm.

It's one reason my dears, that NBC cannot play up the story that General Electric paid ZERO dollars in tax last year. How many of you knew that? Did you know it from NBC? NBC can't say it, because NBC ... Firstly, the original parent company of NBC is RCA - Radio Corporation of America. Seventh biggest contractor, super parent of that granddaddy of that is General Electric - one of the biggest military manufacturers on the planet... now NBC can't go around telling you "Hey, my parent company didn't pay any tax dollars last year!"

Zero tax dollars by one of the largest corporations in the world. Here's the point, guys. The point is: The media have a structural compulsion to lie on these critical issues. They are too heavily invested in the market to ever tell you the truth about it. I keep telling my whizkid friends in Mumbai, because many of my friends are also corporate... heavily into the corporate world. I said whatever you do, don't invest your life savings on the basis of what the bloody newspapers tell you. You'll be dead. Quite a few of them were, in 2008, but anyway...

They have been given a second life since then. Again with public money.

Now look at the media narrative of the large, large political process of your time. How did we begin this talk? We began this talk with me asking you if you were aware that Egypt was the largest wheat importer in the world, the food prices in Egypt had gone up way beyond the budget of ordinary people in a nation which has one of the highest expenditures of food per capita in terms of your monthly income. 40% in Egypt as against say 17% in Brazil.

But you told me that this was not reflected in your media. Let me tell you what was reflected in your media. Twitter made a revolution, right? And Facebook mopped it up. Right? Helped by a few brave bloggers. People make revolutions, not technologies.

When I hear this kind of nonsense ... you know? These are tools. They help you. Of course they help you. When I hear a piece telling me the Maldavian Twitter revolution and understand that Maldavia has something like 70 twitter accounts. You know? I don't know how many it has, but it has almost nothing.

When I hear that people are coming onto the streets of Tehran, because of messages on Twitter and Facebook, all of which are in English, and how many of those people in the streets of Tehran are English speakers or visit English websites? Talk sense. Just talk sense.

Uprisings and agitations and revolutions are made by people.

The second thing they didn't tell you was that Egypt for twelve days was in what was virtually a general strike. After thirty years of suppression, the trade unions were out on the street in very, very significant numbers. Workers were on those streets. Nor did they tell you that more than 30% of these countries of the unemployed ... more than 80% of the unemployed in Egypt were people below the age of 30.

Don't you think these were things that your media needed to tell you? Don't you think it would have given you something more of a perspective if you knew these facts? How come you don't know. It's a Twitter revolution.

It was vastly entertaining for me to read in the newspapers, all the big corporate media reproducing Hillary's call to Egypt to reform. Do you know why it was entertaining? Because 6 months ago, the United States had praised Egypt for being one of the most serious countries about reforms and economic reforms, and the World Bank in its report of 2010 - they bring out a report called "Doing Business 2008" "Doing business 2001" Its report, "Doing Business 2010" says Egypt and Columbia were among the best and topmost reformers in economies in four of the last seven years. And those were the four years that led to your collapse.

It says - I'm quoting: "Top global reformers in four of the past seven years."

The World Bank has a knack for these famous last words.

There's another from India which I like even more - on "Water Privatization". This report is published 2 years and it says water privatization can be a very popular thing. As Mr. Chandrababu naidu has shown, the report is published - eight months later he suffers the biggest electoral defeat in the history of Andhra Pradesh. And the next two editions of the report still contain that paragraph despite my having had fun at their expense on the Edit Page.

They still continued to repeat it. And the other person whose electoral popularity was boosted by.. Chandrababu Naidu was one, and the other was Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh, after whom the Congress has never been able to come back in Madhya Pradesh. Nor has the TDP been able to come back in Andhra Pradesh and it's very likely, those of you who are Telugu.. that the TDP will be third in teh next Andhra election. Third. If they're lucky. They'll be competing with the Congress for third place.

Now let's shift. This whole business of valorizing, lionizing those who undertake pro-corporate reforms and destroy the lives of ordinary people, how have you been reading what have you been reading, for instance about the European Union and the collapse there. These idiots in Spain and Greece, right? Lazy guys. They have these four hour siestas, they don't work.

Have you noticed how silent the ideologues are on the collapse of Ireland? Ireland was the star pupil of the neoliberal economic philosophy. The star pupil. Today, Ireland is down the tube. Very sad. that's a country I absolutely loved and have connections with. In 2007, when I was there, I was really frightened by the great joy and zest with which the Irish were celebrating their boom.

Now having seen 16 years of that in India, and having a good sense of what was to follow, I did try in the different talks I had in the universities to pour some cold water on that. In fact, their newspapers had the headlines - coming to age of the Celtic tiger. So in fact my talk at the Galloway university had been titled Asian tiger, Celtic kitten and... it didn't go down well. I wonder why.

[contd in part 3]