Monday, April 9, 2007

Of Butterflies and storms....

I remember reading a theory years back about how a butterfly fluttering its wings in Siberia can lead to a storm in the Americas. Had something to do with entropy and probabilities and the like .

Even more so it was all about "unintended consequences" and that's what I wanted to write about today. The idea of piecing disparate sets of news together to make a hypothesis interests me.

Last few days the media here is full of news about the big die-out of the honeybee. A collapsed hive syndrome is what it has been described as. Beekeepers are finding their hives empty and that is leading to billions of dollars in losses for the agricultural sector as farmers and horticulturists try to figure out alternate ways for pollinating their valuable crops.

Another seemingly unrelated news was about the success of experiments to introduce the human insulin producing gene in some food crops. In any case, less bizarre GM ("genetically modified") crops are covering increasingly large swathes of the countryside.

Could the death of the bees and the increase in GM crop acreage be related ? Could something in these crops be interfering with the bee's natural life cycle ?

I am no opponent of GM crops. I think like all other technological advancements they have a role to play in modern society. They may play an important role in alleviating hunger across the globe and may provide a new way of improving health & longevity by delivering cures for diseases. Improving crops through selective breeding has been a human endeavor since prehistorical days and genetic modification is a logical extension of the same.

However, the launch of these products into the food chain should be governed by strong science and not by the lobbying clout of the companies promoting them. Not only the health risks to human but the impact on other species (like our friends the honey bees) and long term environmental impact need to be evaluated. The boll weevil resistant cotton which is so irrigation intensive that it depletes water tables in water starved areas is an example of unintended consequences not being thought through.

From bees to weevils to vultures......... the Indian vulture is becoming extinct. The unintended consequence of a drug given to cattle to get rid of some parasitic worms. The drug gets passed on to the vultures when they eat the dead cattle. It weakens the shells of the vulture eggs which then break before hatching killing the hatchling. Without the vultures to act as scavengers in the countryside, putrefying carrion can contaminate water supplies and cause diseases in humans. Wow, that's an unintended consequence .

Let's be more open about evaluating "unintended consequences". Let the science be out there in the open. Let the government/scientific organizations play their desired roles as referees/regulators rather than just being ticket vendors allowing the highest bidders a seat on the table.

Let the Butterflies flutter without creating any storms.


Parijat said...

You brought up a very good point on "unintended consequences". What's important to note is that sometimes even science is unable to fully bring out all of the unintended consequences. Hence, although I agree that it is science, not political or financial clout, that should play the most important role in deciding the fate of GM crops, I do not believe culling GM crops based purely on scientific stats can prevent all the "unintended consequences".

I also do not believe that extinction of a species is necessarily a bad thing, as everyone has been made to believe - think about dinosaurs!

Anupam Singh said...

Unintended consequences are hurting us in many ways...

Local flora in sea ports is being engulfed by flora brought by tankers that clean out their tanks in foreign ports...

A very nice documentary I watched told the tale of wolves and crumbling banks of a river (I think it was in Arizona). Apparently farmers wiped out the wolves population, resulting in the local herds of grazing deer populations becoming non-chalant about their eating habits, and over grazing - even tree barks. Eventually, all trees starting dying out...and the erosion caused the banks of the river to start caving in... Once wolves were re-introducted into the area - within a decade or so, trees started flourishing again! Wow, thats the interdepdence that will take years and years of scientific endevaour to understand!

Also, I disagree with Parajit - if dinosaurs had been around, maybe man as a species would have to share space, and wouldn't have overloaded precious earth! Who knows what the outcomes would have been!?! Maybe a more interesting life-style! :-)

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