The biggest health hazard is hunger and poverty: Sir Richard John Roberts

Sir Richard John Roberts (Photo: Bonik Barta)

Sir Richard John Roberts is a British biochemist and molecular biologist. He was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing. Sir Roberts has been invited to Bangladesh by the South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG) at NSU to deliver a lecture on the topic of "GMO Crops in Bangladesh: Policies and Practices." This interview has been arranged and facilitated by SIPG, NSU. Interviewed by Sabidin Ibrahim

Q. There has been a massive Dengue outbreak in Bangladesh in the last couple of months. Almost 1300 people died and 250 thousand were hospitalized. How could we control it?


People are developing vaccines against Dengue. Eventually, this will happen soon. But another way to chase it is to control mosquitoes that carry dengue.  There are quite some interesting advancements herein.


Q. What health hazards we should worry about in countries like Bangladesh?


I think the biggest health hazard is hunger and poverty. These are the biggest problems in many developing countries. There is a large poor population and most of them are poor. In the developed part of the world, there is access to food and medicine. They have massive choices of food. Many of the poor people don't have many choices of food. For them food is medicine.


Q. We are one of the top rice-producing countries. Do you see any potential for growing `Golden Rice' in Bangladesh?


Frankly speaking, not adopting golden rice is a stupid decision by the authorities in Bangladesh. I visited here many years back and tried to convince the group that decides policies here. Almost everyone agreed but one member in the group was against it and hence it didn't get the light. You could save the lives of children by growing golden rice. It would make sure they would get enough beta carotene and Vitamin-A. Why wouldn't you follow that path? 


Q. Do you see any COVID-19-like pandemic in the near future? If so, how can we prepare us ahead of such a scenario?


Yes. It will. There will be more pandemics, there is no doubt about it. There are ways we can prepare for it. In the West, some countries are already taking preparations for it. USA, particularly is not a good example here in this pursuit. I think Europe is getting prepared for such a scenario. It might be difficult for the developing parts of the world as resources are limited. But I'm hopeful about the institutions like Serum Institute of India. They are making vaccines. They have been able to make vaccines enough for the whole world. And they are doing it at a price all can afford. I have great respect for them. I've recently visited there and hopefully make another one next year. Hope, our company can work with them to help them be better on the vaccines front. Because of the development of new mRNA vaccines during COVID, we hope if any pandemic comes we should be able to develop vaccines very quickly. Cutting down death we need to develop it more quickly than COVID Vaccines.


Q. During the Covid pandemic we saw vaccine sceptics all around. How we can fight this skepticism?


I think the most important single thing we can do when we educate children at school, teach about science. We need to teach them that science can help them, save them and it's wonderful for them. Don't let social media overtake the conversation. Social media is very good at spreading misinformation, and disinformation about science. You shouldn't listen to it too much. You know, scientists are humanitarian people. They want to help you, they want to help everybody. Why would you not listen to them? Why Governments wouldn't support them and provide enough funds for their research? Why don't the govt listen to them?

I think social media has a big responsibility here in allowing people who are opposed to science, to air their views and amplify them. Social media in my view is not a good thing.


Q. So you think easy access to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube enhances debates between science and anti-science?


Yes. They are still doing it! I will give you an example. There was a time when you asked how many people believed the earth is flat; you would find only a few thousand people! They were not a force against science. But when Facebook and other social media platforms came along, they found ways to share their views, meet one another, and amplify their group. Social media likes conspiracy theories to flood so that there is more engagement in their platforms. They love to go against science, it's crazy! You have cell phones in your hand, where does this come from? This is the invention of science. How was Covid vaccine possible? It is because of science! How are tests for Covid-19 possible? Because of science. Almost every good thing available today is possible, thanks to science. There was a time when we didn't have cars, buses, trains. How do we get a better form of transportation? It is because of science.


Q. So you are an advocate for science-


Yes, we all should be. You know, For diabetes we need insulin. Do you know where the human insulin forms? You do not donate insulin in the clinic! We took the gene from human insulin put it into yeast and made large quantities of it. And it helps treat diabetes. It is because of science and GMOs. This is wonderful. 


Q. In our education system it is more memorization than problem-solving. Can you share something for the young kids here who may listen to you? What is required to be a good student of science?


The most important thing when you are young is being curious. Young kids love questioning. We should give opportunity to learn science when they are young. We should teach them properly so that they become very good at science. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians don't want this to happen. They don't want the populace to be educated. If the populace is really educated, they will ask questions. 


Recently I gave a talk in a school. One of the young girls who attended there told me afterwards about her experience. She went home and shared my points with her anti-GMO parents.  They were convinced and are now pro-GMOs. Kids are wonderful but we have to teach them. And give them the opportunity to ask questions and learn. I love kids because they are open books.


Q. In our culture if you fail at something it is bad. They are being tormented by their parents and neighbours. You failed at physics when you were 16. Yet it didn't hamper your journey to being a Nobel laureate?


Failure is good. If anybody tells you failing is bad, they are idiots. Failure is good as you learn something from it. You know, Bill Gates when started his first company failed. Now he is the head of Microsoft. People learn by failing. I think, the parents, teachers or anybody else who tells kids failure is bad are making mistakes. Failure is good. This is where you learn.

Do you know why flying in an aircraft is so safe? Because every time an aeroplane crashes they go through a massive post-mortem on what went wrong. They make corrections so that it never happens again. This is the value of failure. Failure is a good thing.


Q. Now I'll come back to GMOs. Why are you branded as an `ardent supporter of the GMO Movement’?


Yes. I'm an ardent supporter of GMOs. You asked me why. One of the things I've been doing since I won the Nobel Prize is trying to fight every time misinformation and disinformation against science. There is so much deliberate disinformation against GMOs put out by Greenpeace and anti-GMO parties. They do it for all the wrong reasons. They do it as it makes money for them. Because it gives them political power. It's totally wrong. As a scientist when I saw it was solid and good. They haven't had a single problem since GMOs first developed forty years ago. You cannot say this for traditional crop cultivation. Crops that are modified by traditional techniques often have problems. The nice thing about GMOs is in a precise way they are changing the plant.  Initially was not as precise as you like it to be. But now it is very precise thanks to modern techniques. Certainly, more changes will come and we know exactly what changes we need in the plant. You cannot say the same for the traditional breeding, which takes a long time. Modern methods are very fast; why wouldn't you embrace this?

The developing world needs better plants. Typically, the plants you eat and the foods you eat are not eaten in the West. The agricultural companies in the West spend a huge amount of money developing better plants-plants that produce more seeds, plants that grow fast, plants that are resistant to drought. Using traditional techniques is a slow process. There is money to be made in the West, so they are happy to do it. But when you go to a developing country like Bangladesh-where is the money to pay for the development of the plants you eat? Bt Brinjal is probably the best example of something that happened in Bangladesh.  It allowed farmers to benefit from GMO methods. Why do you not do more? Why don't you allow Golden Rice and other GMO plants to grow here?


Q. The skeptics say, it will bring seed colonization. Few companies will have control over seeds.


Okay, it doesn't have to be done by the companies, it can be done by the government. It can be done by government scientists; who can make the seed available to the farmers. who can make it available to everybody. This is a government decision. You shouldn't give it to private companies! But even if you do leave it to private companies they might be able to make some money. But you know, all seed companies make money. It's called business, the government can control it. They can decide whether the profit is enough or not. But the point is, the scientists at the universities can make these improvements and they can help you. The government has to decide who's going to make money. Personally, I will be happy if the scientists make money. If they have more money they will do more research and develop better crops.



Q: From the last year we saw acute food crises across the globe. The worst sufferers were the people of developing countries like ours. Do you think science can alleviate world food crises and how do you think it will be done?


Well, if you look at the crops that are grown in many of these countries, their crops have never been improved by the agricultural companies. The agricultural companies want to make money. And they make their money in the West. The developed world had done nothing for the underdeveloped and the developing world. They can't make money there so they don't do anything. With modern biotechnology methods, you can do it yourself. You don't need to go to the big companies in order to improve your crops. 


Q: One PewResearchCenter survey shows 37% of US Adults have trust in GMO Foods, whereas 88% of American scientists are for GMOs. Why there is a sharp difference between the common people and the scientists?


I think, it's a combination of poor education and social media made a huge difference. If you look in the US, for instance.  We do not educate the kids as we should. Particularly, if you go into the Republican Party ruled state, the kids are not educated enough. You will see them banning books. When I was a kid, growing up in England, some books were banned. But you could buy and read them in France if you go to France. We knew which books to buy and read when it was banned in England. So politics is just getting very very strange in the US. The Republicans are very anti-science people. Frankly speaking, I don't understand the reason behind it. They have benefitted from science and the whole world benefitted from it.


Q. Our lands are scarce and the population is huge. How can we ensure food security in Bangladesh and what steps we can take?


Well, you should make it very easy for people to develop GMOs, and improve the crops that you grow. So that the small farmers who grow their own food and for their neighbours can actually benefit better and better. Drought is going to be a big problem because of climate change. For various crops you grow, the nutrients in them could be improved. There are many ways in which we can help using GMO techniques. Let the scientists do this. They know what they are doing. Let them do it and then make sure that the products are available for the people within Bangladesh.


Q. You love Bacteria. Considering the use of antibiotics en-masse, do you think we need to worry about it?


Yes, I love bacteria. On the other hand, we need to worry about antibiotics. If you kill all of the bacteria that live with you, you will die. They are keeping us alive but they have a bad name because for hundred years in the West we just looked at the pathogens, we just looked at bacteria as causing disease neglecting the fact that most of the bacteria that live with us are helping us to survive, they don't want us to get sick but they actually help us to fight pathogens. So, this is why I love bacteria. I think antibiotics when they are used carefully and prescribed by a doctor could be very helpful. If you allow them to be sold to anybody who wants to buy them without a prescription you are going to get antibiotic resistance and so their value just disappears. The bacteria that will grow are going to be resistant to them. So we have to stop making them so available.


Q. How can AI and technology have an impact on agricultural production?


AI is still very much in its infancy in terms of how it can help us. You know, in order to have a conversation about that we need to have lots of time talking about the upside and the potential downside and the fact that we need to regulate in use of AI in ways that governments haven’t figured out how to do it yet. And the fact that AI is rapidly increasing and going along so fast. The Governments are not able to control it. So I think AI is going to be very useful but the key to AI is to make sure the data that we train the AI programme is solid, is factual, is accurate. Don't make it take data merely from Google and social media websites. Need to make sure that there is a good and accurate database that you train AI algorithms.


Q. What makes you a scientist?

I'm curious and love asking questions. I want to know how things work. In my case, I want to know how bacteria work.  


Q. Thank you for your valuable time.

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