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Archive for March 9th, 2016

Engineering our food: A case study

Pamela Ronald studies the genes that make plants more resistant to disease and stress.

She describes her decade-long quest to isolate a gene that allows rice to survive prolonged flooding. She shows how the genetic improvement of seeds saved the Hawaiian papaya crop in the 1990s — and makes the case that modern genetics is sometimes the most effective method to advance sustainable agriculture and enhance food security for our planet’s growing population

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Pamela Ronald

I am a plant geneticist. I study genes that make plants resistant to disease and tolerant of stress. In recent years, millions of people around the world have come to believe that there’s something sinister about genetic modification. Today, I am going to provide a different perspective.

00:35 First, let me introduce my husband, Raoul. He’s an organic farmer. On his farm, he plants a variety of different crops. This is one of the many ecological farming practices he uses to keep his farm healthy. Imagine some of the reactions we get: “Really? An organic farmer and a plant geneticist? Can you agree on anything?”

Well, we can, and it’s not difficult, because we have the same goal. We want to help nourish the growing population without further destroying the environment. I believe this is the greatest challenge of our time.

Genetic modification is not new; virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified in some manner. Let me give you a few examples.

On the left is an image of the ancient ancestor of modern corn. You see a single roll of grain that’s covered in a hard case. Unless you have a hammer, teosinte isn’t good for making tortillas.

Now, take a look at the ancient ancestor of banana. You can see the large seeds. And unappetizing brussel sprouts, and eggplant, so beautiful.

To create these varieties, breeders have used many different genetic techniques over the years. Some of them are quite creative, like mixing two different species together using a process called grafting to create this variety that’s half tomato and half potato.

Breeders have also used other types of genetic techniques, such as random mutagenesis, which induces uncharacterized mutations into the plants. The rice in the cereal that many of us fed our babies was developed using this approach.

Today, breeders have even more options to choose from. Some of them are extraordinarily precise.

02:46 I want to give you a couple examples from my own work.

I work on rice, which is a staple food for more than half the world’s people. Each year, 40 percent of the potential harvest is lost to pest and disease.

For this reason, farmers plant rice varieties that carry genes for resistance. This approach has been used for nearly 100 years. Yet, when I started graduate school, no one knew what these genes were.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists finally uncovered the genetic basis of resistance. In my laboratory, we isolated a gene for immunity to a very serious bacterial disease in Asia and Africa.

We found we could engineer the gene into a conventional rice variety that’s normally susceptible, and you can see the two leaves on the bottom here are highly resistant to infection.

The same month that my laboratory published our discovery on the rice immunity gene, my friend and colleague Dave Mackill stopped by my office. He said, “Seventy million rice farmers are having trouble growing rice.”

That’s because their fields are flooded, and these rice farmers are living on less than two dollars a day. Although rice grows well in standing water, most rice varieties will die if they’re submerged for more than three days.

Flooding is expected to be increasingly problematic as the climate changes. He told me that his graduate student Kenong Xu and himself were studying an ancient variety of rice that had an amazing property. It could withstand two weeks of complete submergence. He asked if I would be willing to help them isolate this gene. I said yes — I was very excited, because I knew if we were successful, we could potentially help millions of farmers grow rice even when their fields were flooded.

04:58 Kenong spent 10 years looking for this gene. Then one day, he said, “Come look at this experiment. You’ve got to see it.” I went to the greenhouse and I saw that the conventional variety that was flooded for 18 days had died, but the rice variety that we had genetically engineered with a new gene we had discovered, called Sub1, was alive.

Kenong and I were amazed and excited that a single gene could have this dramatic effect. But this is just a greenhouse experiment. Would this work in the field?

 I’m going to show you a four-month time lapse video taken at the International Rice Research Institute.

Breeders there developed a rice variety carrying the Sub1 gene using another genetic technique called precision breeding.

On the left, you can see the Sub1 variety, and on the right is the conventional variety. Both varieties do very well at first, but then the field is flooded for 17 days. You can see the Sub1 variety does great. In fact, it produces three and a half times more grain than the conventional variety.

I love this video because it shows the power of plant genetics to help farmers. Last year, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, three and a half million farmers grew Sub1 rice.  

 Now, many people don’t mind genetic modification when it comes to moving rice genes around, rice genes in rice plants, or even when it comes to mixing species together through grafting or random mutagenesis. But when it comes to taking genes from viruses and bacteria and putting them into plants, a lot of people say, “Yuck.”

Why would you do that? The reason is that sometimes it’s the cheapest, safest, and most effective technology for enhancing food security and advancing sustainable agriculture. I’m going to give you three examples.

First, take a look at papaya. It’s delicious, right? But now, look at this papaya. This papaya is infected with papaya ringspot virus. In the 1950s, this virus nearly wiped out the entire production of papaya on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

Many people thought that the Hawaiian papaya was doomed, but then, a local Hawaiian, a plant pathologist named Dennis Gonsalves, decided to try to fight this disease using genetic engineering.

He took a snippet of viral DNA and he inserted it into the papaya genome. This is kind of like a human getting a vaccination. Now, take a look at his field trial. You can see the genetically engineered papaya in the center. It’s immune to infection. The conventional papaya around the outside is severely infected with the virus.

Dennis’ pioneering work is credited with rescuing the papaya industry. Today, 20 years later, there’s still no other method to control this disease. There’s no organic method. There’s no conventional method. Eighty percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered.

some of you may still feel a little queasy about viral genes in your food, but consider this: The genetically engineered papaya carries just a trace amount of the virus. If you bite into an organic or conventional papaya that is infected with the virus, you will be chewing on tenfold more viral protein.

Now, take a look at this pest feasting on an eggplant. The brown you see is frass, what comes out the back end of the insect. To control this serious pest, which can devastate the entire eggplant crop in Bangladesh, Bangladeshi farmers spray insecticides two to three times a week, sometimes twice a day, when pest pressure is high.

But we know that some insecticides are very harmful to human health, especially when farmers and their families cannot afford proper protection, like these children.

In less developed countries, it’s estimated that 300,000 people die every year because of insecticide misuse and exposure.

Cornell and Bangladeshi scientists decided to fight this disease using a genetic technique that builds on an organic farming approach. Organic farmers like my husband Raoul spray an insecticide called B.T., which is based on a bacteria. This pesticide is very specific to caterpillar pests, and in fact, it’s nontoxic to humans, fish and birds. It’s less toxic than table salt.

But this approach does not work well in Bangladesh. That’s because these insecticide sprays are difficult to find, they’re expensive, and they don’t prevent the insect from getting inside the plants.

In the genetic approach, scientists cut the gene out of the bacteria and insert it directly into the eggplant genome. Will this work to reduce insecticide sprays in Bangladesh? Definitely.

Last season, farmers reported they were able to reduce their insecticide use by a huge amount, almost down to zero. They’re able to harvest and replant for the next season.

 I’ve given you a couple examples of how genetic engineering can be used to fight pests and disease and to reduce the amount of insecticides.

My final example is an example where genetic engineering can be used to reduce malnutrition.

In less developed countries, 500,000 children go blind every year because of lack of Vitamin A. More than half will die. For this reason, scientists supported by the Rockefeller Foundation genetically engineered a golden rice to produce beta-carotene, which is the precursor of Vitamin A.

This is the same pigment that we find in carrots. Researchers estimate that just one cup of golden rice per day will save the lives of thousands of children. But golden rice is virulently opposed by activists who are against genetic modification.

Just last year, activists invaded and destroyed a field trial in the Philippines. When I heard about the destruction, I wondered if they knew that they were destroying much more than a scientific research project, that they were destroying medicines that children desperately needed to save their sight and their lives.

Some of my friends and family still worry: How do you know genes in the food are safe to eat?

I explained the genetic engineering, the process of moving genes between species, has been used for more than 40 years in wines, in medicine, in plants, in cheeses. In all that time, there hasn’t been a single case of harm to human health or the environment.

But I say, look, I’m not asking you to believe me. Science is not a belief system. My opinion doesn’t matter. Let’s look at the evidence.

After 20 years of careful study and rigorous peer review by thousands of independent scientists, every major scientific organization in the world has concluded that the crops currently on the market are safe to eat and that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than older methods of genetic modification.

These are precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to other important scientific issues such as global climate change or the safety of vaccines.

13:26 Raoul and I believe that, instead of worrying about the genes in our food, we must focus on how we can help children grow up healthy.

We must ask if farmers in rural communities can thrive, and if everyone can afford the food.

We must try to minimize environmental degradation. What scares me most about the loud arguments and misinformation about plant genetics is that the poorest people who most need the technology may be denied access because of the vague fears and prejudices of those who have enough to eat.

13:58 We have a huge challenge in front of us. Let’s celebrate scientific innovation and use it. It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to help alleviate human suffering and safeguard the environment.

Chris Anderson: Powerfully argued. The people who argue against GMOs, as I understand it, the core piece comes from two things. One, complexity and unintended consequence.

Nature is this incredibly complex machine. If we put out these brand new genes that we’ve created, that haven’t been challenged by years of evolution, and they started mixing up with the rest of what’s going on, couldn’t that trigger some kind of cataclysm or problem, especially when you add in the commercial incentive that some companies have to put them out there?

The fear is that those incentives mean that the decision is not made on purely scientific grounds, and even if it was, that there would be unintended consequences. How do we know that there isn’t a big risk of some unintended consequence? Often our tinkerings with nature do lead to big, unintended consequences and chain reactions.

15:07 Pamela Ronald: Okay, so on the commercial aspects, one thing that’s really important to understand is that, in the developed world, farmers in the United States, almost all farmers, whether they’re organic or conventional, they buy seed produced by seed companies.

So there’s definitely a commercial interest to sell a lot of seed, but hopefully they’re selling seed that the farmers want to buy. It’s different in the less developed world. Farmers there cannot afford the seed. These seeds are not being sold. These seeds are being distributed freely through traditional kinds of certification groups, so it is very important in less developed countries that the seed be freely available.

CA: Wouldn’t some activists say that this is actually part of the conspiracy? This is the heroin strategy. You seed the stuff, and people have no choice but to be hooked on these seeds forever?

PR: There are a lot of conspiracy theories for sure, but it doesn’t work that way.

For example, the seed that’s being distributed, the flood-tolerant rice, this is distributed freely through Indian and Bangladeshi seed certification agencies, so there’s no commercial interest at all.

The golden rice was developed through support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Again, it’s being freely distributed. There are no commercial profits in this situation.

And now to address your other question about, well, mixing genes, aren’t there some unintended consequences? Absolutely — every time we do something different, there’s an unintended consequence, but one of the points I was trying to make is that we’ve been doing kind of crazy things to our plants, mutagenesis using radiation or chemical mutagenesis.

This induces thousands of uncharacterized mutations, and this is even a higher risk of unintended consequence than many of the modern methods. And so it’s really important not to use the term GMO because it’s scientifically meaningless. I feel it’s very important to talk about a specific crop and a specific product, and think about the needs of the consumer.

 CA: So part of what’s happening here is that there’s a mental model in a lot of people that nature is nature, and it’s pure and pristine, and to tinker with it is Frankensteinian. It’s making something that’s pure dangerous in some way, and I think you’re saying that that whole model just misunderstands how nature is.

Nature is a much more chaotic interplay of genetic changes that have been happening all the time anyway.

17:27 PR: That’s absolutely true, and there’s no such thing as pure food. I mean, you could not spray eggplant with insecticides or not genetically engineer it, but then you’d be stuck eating frass. So there’s no purity there.

Note: What is bad is that you have multinationals monopolizing modifed seeds and pressuring less developed countries to exclusively import their seeds at exorbitant price on the basis od scientific patents, though it is relatively easy to modify seeds with current technologies

Embracing both genetically improved seed and ecologically based farming methods, Pamela Ronald aims to enhance sustainable agriculture. Full bio

Ways to listen better

In our louder world, says sound expert Julian Treasure, “We are losing our listening.”

In this short, fascinating talk, Treasure shares five ways to re-tune your ears for conscious listening — to other people and the world around you.

Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it. Full bio

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Julian Treasure

We are losing our listening. We spend roughly 60% of our communication time listening, but we’re not very good at it.

We retain just 25 percent of what we hear.

Let’s define listening as making meaning from sound. It’s a mental process, and it’s a process of extraction.

00:34 We use some pretty cool techniques to do this. One of them is pattern recognition. (Crowd Noise) So in a cocktail party like this, if I say, “David, Sara, pay attention,” some of you just sat up.

We recognize patterns to distinguish noise from signal, and especially our name.

Differencing is another technique we use. If I left this pink noise on for more than a couple of minutes, you would literally cease to hear it. We listen to differences, we discount sounds that remain the same.

And then there is a whole range of filters. These filters take us from all sound down to what we pay attention to. Most people are entirely unconscious of these filters. But they actually create our reality in a way, because they tell us what we’re paying attention to right now.

Give you one example of that: Intention is very important in sound, in listening. When I married my wife, I promised her that I would listen to her every day as if for the first time. Now that’s something I fall short of on a daily basis. (Laughter) But it’s a great intention to have in a relationship.

But that’s not all. Sound places us in space and in time.

If you close your eyes right now in this room, you’re aware of the size of the room from the reverberation and the bouncing of the sound off the surfaces. And you’re aware of how many people are around you because of the micro-noises you’re receiving.

And sound places us in time as well, because sound always has time embedded in it. In fact, I would suggest that our listening is the main way that we experience the flow of time from past to future. So, “Sonority is time and meaning” — a great quote.

I said at the beginning, we’re losing our listening. Why did I say that? Well there are a lot of reasons for this.

First of all, we invented ways of recording — first writing, then audio recording and now video recording as well.

The premium on accurate and careful listening has simply disappeared.

Secondly, the world is now so noisy, (Noise) with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen; it’s tiring to listen.

Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn big, public spaces like this, shared soundscapes, into millions of tiny, little personal sound bubbles. In this scenario, nobody’s listening to anybody.

We’re becoming impatient. We don’t want oratory anymore, we want sound bites. And the art of conversation is being replaced — dangerously, I think — by personal broadcasting.

I don’t know how much listening there is in this conversation, which is sadly very common, especially in the U.K. We’re becoming desensitized. Our media have to scream at us with these kinds of headlines in order to get our attention. And that means it’s harder for us to pay attention to the quiet, the subtle, the understated.

03:31 This is a serious problem that we’re losing our listening. This is not trivial. Because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding.

And only without conscious listening can these things happen — a world where we don’t listen to each other at all, is a very scary place indeed.

So I’d like to share with you five simple exercises, tools you can take away with you, to improve your own conscious listening. Would you like that?

1. The first one is silence. Just three minutes a day of silence is a wonderful exercise to reset your ears and to recalibrate so that you can hear the quiet again. If you can’t get absolute silence, go for quiet, that’s absolutely fine.

2. Second, I call this the mixer. So even if you’re in a noisy environment like this — and we all spend a lot of time in places like this — listen in the coffee bar to how many channels of sound can I hear? How many individual channels in that mix am I listening to?

You can do it in a beautiful place as well, like in a lake. How many birds am I hearing? Where are they? Where are those ripples? It’s a great exercise for improving the quality of your listening.

3. Third, this exercise I call savoring, and this is a beautiful exercise. It’s about enjoying mundane sounds. This, for example, is my tumble dryer. (Dryer) It’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. I love it. Or just try this one on for size. (Coffee grinder) Wow! So mundane sounds can be really interesting if you pay attention. I call that the hidden choir. It’s around us all the time.

4. The next exercise is probably the most important of all of these, if you just take one thing away. This is listening positions the idea that you can move your listening position to what’s appropriate to what you’re listening to. This is playing with those filters. Do you remember, I gave you those filters at the beginning. It’s starting to play with them as levers, to get conscious about them and to move to different places. These are just some of the listening positions, or scales of listening positions, that you can use. There are many. Have fun with that. It’s very exciting.

5. And finally, an acronym. You can use this in listening, in communication. If you’re in any one of those roles — and I think that probably is everybody who’s listening to this talk — the acronym is RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for juice or essence.

And RASA stands for Receive, which means pay attention to the person; Appreciate, making little noises like “hmm,” “oh,” “okay”; Summarize, the word “so” is very important in communication; and Ask, ask questions afterward.

Now sound is my passion, it’s my life. I wrote a whole book about it. So I live to listen. That’s too much to ask from most people.

But I believe that every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully — connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other, not to mention spiritually connected, because every spiritual path I know of has listening and contemplation at its heart.

06:53 That’s why we need to teach listening in our schools as a skill. Why is it not taught? It’s crazy. And if we can teach listening in our schools, we can take our listening off that slippery slope to that dangerous, scary world that I talked about and move it to a place where everybody is consciously listening all the time — or at least capable of doing it.

Now I don’t know how to do that, but this is TED, and I think the TED community is capable of anything. So I invite you to connect with me, connect with each other, take this mission out and let’s get listening taught in schools, and transform the world in one generation to a conscious listening world — a world of connection, a world of understanding and a world of peace.

10 Provocative Quotes from Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society”

Ivan Illich’s groundbreaking book Deschooling Society (1971) offers a radical critique of the institutionalization of education within modern societies.

Illich believed that we wrongly identify education with schooling, since most of our education happens outside of the school environment.

He advocated restructuring education to provide people with multiple opportunities for learning outside of school. “What are needed,” he wrote, “are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.” 

1) “Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance.

Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.

Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.

Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”

2) “The paradox of the schools is evident: increased expenditure escalates their destructiveness at home and abroad.”

3) “Most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only in so far as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”

4) “Skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses… Most teachers of arts and trades are less skillful, less inventive and less communicative than the best craftsmen and tradesmen.

Most high-school teachers of Spanish or French do not speak the language as correctly as their pupils might after half a year of competent drills.”

5) “Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school.

Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school.

Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.”

6) “Once a man or woman has accepted the need for school, he or she is easy prey for other institutions.

Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort.”

7) “School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself.” (This is where I disagree: students never learn how to measure and what they can measure…)

8) “School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence.”

9) “The public is indoctrinated to believe that skills are valuable and reliable only if they are the result of formal schooling.”

10) “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

Read the full text of Deschooling Society here.


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