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A Hot Potato

friesThe poor potato is being mashed by criticism.Too high a glycemic index, critics say, which means more sugar in the bloodstream for anyone concerned about diabetes. Forget about eating potatoes, say the proponents of low carb diets. French fries? Forget it. Loaded with fat. And supporters of California’s Proposition 65, which stipulates that any substance that has been linked to cancer must be clearly identified, clamor for potato chips to sport a label stating that they contain acrylamide, which is “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Acrylamide forms when heat causes asparagine, an amino acid present in numerous foods, to react with starch. Potatoes have asparagine and starch, and when it comes to baking or frying, can indeed form acrylamide.

Technically this is a carcinogen because it can cause cancer in animals albeit only when they are treated with doses far greater than human exposure. No epidemiological studies have demonstrated that the traces of acrylamide to which we may be exposed in baked goods, coffee, cereals or potatoes play a role in human cancer. But California politicians argue that less exposure to a carcinogen is always better, and that people should know where such substances are found so they can take appropriate measures. This argument does not fly with most toxicologists who maintain that even with carcinogens there is a threshold effect below which there is no risk.

No matter whether the risk is real or not, reducing the possibility of acrylamide formation can be an effective marketing tool. So along comes the “Innate” potato, developed by the J.R. Simplot Company in the U.S. With its reduced asparagine content it will have less acrylamide when baked or fried. But there is an issue here that may not play so well in the marketplace. The new-fangled potato is a product of genetic engineering. The gene that codes for the production of asparagine, as well as one responsible for the browning of potatoes, has been silenced through a process known as “RNA interference.” This does involve the incorporation of novel genes into the Innate potato, but those genes come from other varieties of cultivated and wild potatoes. No genes from any other species are introduced.

Stll, there are critics who contend that RNA interference technology has not been studied well enough, and that asparagine may also play a role in defending the potato against disease causing organisms. And then there is the issue of implying that a “safer” potato has been engineered which can lead to less vigilance about eating fried potatoes. Realistically, the health concern about French fries is the amount of fat they harbour, not their acrylamide content. It is extremely unlikely that there is any health risk arising from consuming this genetically engineered potato, about as unlikely as there being any risk associated with the traces of acrylamide in foods we eat. Basically, though, this new potato is a solution to a problem that never existed.

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Seeds of Hope

seeds of hopeWhy would anyone oppose a technology that dramatically increases crop yields and protects farmers from excessive exposure to pesticides? Because of irrational fears about the technology involved, which is of course genetic modification. A battle is now brewing in India and Bangladesh over the planting of eggplant that has been genetically modified to resist attack by insects. Eggplant is a staple in many dishes in India and Bangladesh but unfortunately the plant is susceptible to attack by the fruit and shoot borer and farmers have to spray to prevent infestation on a regular basis.

Most farmers are poor and are not well trained in pesticide use and put themselves at risk. But a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis can be incorporated into the eggplant’s genome and the plant will then secrete a protein that kills insects but is harmless to humans. Activists have organized protests with people dressed up like giant eggplants carrying placards about Indians being lab rats and companies putting poison into the food supply. Their cause is championed by environmentalist Vandana Shiva who suggests that GMO means God Move Over. She also claims that with genetically modified seeds giant corporations are trying to control all of agriculture. In fact the genetically modified eggplant seed is being donated for free by Monsanto and farmers will be allowed to propagate Bt eggplant using seeds from plants they have grown without having to pay any royalties. It is estimated that the technology could raise yields by about a third through controlling pests and go a long way towards solving the malnutriton and hunger problems that plague India and Bangladesh.

Of course hunger isn’t limited to these countries. In Africa cassava is a staple crop for some 250 million people. But two viruses can ravage the crop. One destroys leaves, the other, called brown streak virus, destroys the roots, something that isn’t evident until harvest time. These viruses are transmitted by the whitefly whose range is expanding due to climate change. Researchers are working on developing genetically modified strains of cassava that are immune to the brown streak virus. Of course, nobody is suggesting that genetic modification is the only answer to the whitefly problem. Planting rows of Tithonia diversifolia, a wild sunflower that whiteflies prefer, can also draw these pests away from cassava. Modern farming technology should be based on using the best combination of practices and in many cases that means the appropriate use of genetically modified seeds. Why deter farmers from using methods based on sound facts by promoting mythical fears?

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Climate Change

climate changeAs we get ready for winter here and watch news reports of unseasonable plummeting temperatures in some parts of North America, it is hard to be concerned about global warming. But climate change is here and it comes with baggage. Yes, there are some scientists who argue that humans are not responsible, and claim that we have experienced natural warming and cooling trends throughout history. They, however, are in the minority. The vast majority of climate change experts are convinced that the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide are driving temperatures up with potentially a huge impact on wildlife, food production and the weather. Furthermore, when carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans it forms carbonic acid which is detrimental to aquatic life.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its final report, summarizing 13 months of work, not by a handful of scientists, but by more than 800 experts. Natural forces have virtually nothing to do with the rising temperatures, they say. And those temperatures are rising with the chance that 2014 may turn out to be the warmest year on record. Where is all the carbon dioxide coming from? Burning of fossil fuels is the number one cause, followed by cement manufacture and “flaring,” the burning of gases that are byproducts of oil and gas production. Methane emissions, mostly from natural gas and animal agriculture are also having a large impact with further contribution from nitrous oxide released from nitrogen based fertilizer.

The Panel noted that glaciers are melting, Arctic sea ice is disappearing, sea level is rising, permafrost is thawing and that the number of hot days and nights are increasing. They warn that most plants, small mammals and ocean organisms cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with changes, and that a global temperature rise greater than 2 degrees Celsius will compromise food supplies everywhere. If nothing is done, they warn, the temperature is likely to rise by 4 degrees C by 2100.

The situation though, is not hopeless. Keeping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below the equivalent of 450 parts per million of CO2 can prevent excessive warming. But how do we do this? There is no single measure that will solve the problem, but there are many possibilities. They include low-carbon electricity sources such as solar, tidal and wind power. Nuclear energy will have to play a role. Technical solutions for storing carbon dioxide need to be found. And there are small things we can all do. Change to low energy LED lights. Improve insulation. Turn down the heat and AC a notch. Car pool. Eat less. That’s right. Food has a huge environmental footprint. That chicken was raised in henhouses that were lit and climate controlled with electricity, was fed on corn grown with the aid of fertilizers and pesticides and ended up being packaged and trucked to stores. All of that requires energy input. And while you are at it, consider giving up bottled water and soft drinks. The energy expenditure to produce these is horrendous. Think about this as we wait for the first snowstorm to strike. It may be cold outside but climate change is still a hot topic.

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The oPhone

ophoneYour cell phone wakes you up in the morning. No big deal. You reach over to turn off the alarm, touch another button, and suddenly the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts into your nose. But no point reaching for the cup, there isn’t one. The scent is drifting out from the phone! If you would rather wake up to the odour frying bacon and toast, that’s possible too. Welcome to the wonderful world of the “oPhone.” And we are not talking science fiction here; the oPhone already exists and will be hitting the market soon. Not only will you be able to entertain your nasal passages with a multitude of fragrances, you will also be able to send scent messages. Imagine irritating your friends back home with the scent of tropical fruit along with a picture of yourself swinging in a hammock and sipping a pina colada somewhere in the tropics. Of course your friends will have to be equipped with an oPhone.

So what makes this magic happen? A set of eight replaceable chips, each containing four “building-block scents” that can be dispensed in response to an electronic signal. The 32 basic smells can be combined to dispense a fantastic array of aromas. Select “meaty,” “cheesy” and “grilled toast,” and you’ll conjure up the odour of a cheeseburger. And of course you can experiment. Who knows what sort of a whiff you’ll get by pushing the “cocoa beans” and “meaty” buttons?

It sounds like the oPhone could be a lot of fun, but can this technology be put to some useful purpose? Maybe. You just finished dinner and there is that delectable dessert staring you in the face. You know you shouldn’t indulge, but it looks so good. Perhaps you’ll whip out your oPhone, push a button and the unpleasant smell of rotting meat will kill your appetite. There is even the possibility of diagnosing early Alzheimer’s disease. The inability to recognize certain scents has been linked with the early stage of this disease. And maybe the oPhone can even deal with the situation by helping with memory. Studies have shown that reading something while being exposed to a scent can lead to improved recall in the presence of the same scent. Trigger a smell from your phone as you put down your keys. When you want to find them again, push the button for the same scent and you’ll remember where you put them. Maybe. Of course this method won’t work to find a lost oPhone.

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Dr Oz and phthalates

phthalateThe title of the segment on the Dr. Oz Show was “The Secret Ingredient Companies are Hiding in Your Food.” What could that be? Some opiate to keep you coming back for more? Tetrahydrocannabinol to increase appetite? No. The segment was all about chemicals called phthalates. And companies are not hiding their presence any more than they are “hiding” the presence of numerous substances that are not added to our food supply on purpose but can be detected through sophisticated analytical methods. These include pesticide residues, corrosion inhibitors, PCBs, detergents, chloroform, cadmium, radium, mercury, aflatoxins, bacteria and a host of others. Some of these are man-made, some occur naturally, but all are potentially toxic if present in a high enough dose. They end up in our food supply for the simple reason that if substances come into contact with each other, there will be a transfer of material from one to the other. If chloroform forms in water as a result of chlorination, which it does, some will be transferred to food that comes into contact with the water. Flourinated compounds used to produce grease-proof packaging can leave residues in food, aspergillus fungi can contaminate apple juice with their toxic metabolite patulin, wine may harbour residues of isinglass, a fish protein used to remove fine particles, and the potential carcinogen acrylamide forms when bread is baked.

None of these substances appears on food labels, not because there is some conspiracy to hide them, but because they are unavoidable. So it is with the phthalates. They do end up in our food supply because these chemicals have widespread applications. They lend flexibility conveyor belts, tubes used in milking machines and to plastic water pipes. They help the dispersal of pesticides, they’re found in caulking and in printing inks used on food packaging.

It’s no surprise to anyone familiar with chemical analysis that phthalates can be detected in our urine. Their presence, though, did come as a big surprise to the ten women Dr. Oz selected to have their urine analyzed for phthalates. None of the women had ever heard of phthalates before, which is quite surprising given the amount of publicity they have received. Their faces filled with panic when Oz revealed that they all tested positive for phthalates, chemicals that had been associated with endometriosis, weight gain, respiratory problems as well as brain and behaviour changes in children.

But here is the crux of the problem. Associations do not prove cause and effect. Just because women are more likely to suffer from endometriosis if they have higher levels of phthalates in their urine doesn’t mean that phthalates are the cause. Perhaps they have greater phthalate exposure because they eat more fatty foods like dairy and meat which are known to have higher amounts of phthalates. Perhaps they used more scented products most of which contain phthalates to inhibit the evaporation of the scent and they were somehow reacting to some of the numerous chemicals that make up scented products.

None of this is meant absolve phthalates from all blame because there are sufficient laboratory studies, animal experiments and human epidemiological data that suggest the need for further investigation. But there is no need for panic. There are numerous other substances that could be detected in our urine that could also be vilified in the same fashion as the phthalates. How many? At least 3,079 compounds can be detected, of which 2,282 come from diet, drugs, cosmetics or environmental exposure. Enough chemicals there for Dr. Oz to discuss and panic audiences for many years.

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The Catholic Church and Science

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 10.31.47 PMPope Francis’ recent statement at the Pontifical Academy of Science that evolution and the Big Bang model are not contrary to Catholic beliefs created quite a stir. Afterall, for many people the notion that the Church is anti- science is a given. And they have many examples to support their opinion. Galileo was put under house arrest for claiming that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of our planetary system. Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for his free-thinking ideas, is considered today to be a martyr to science.

However, the position of the Catholic Church on current scientific issues is much more in line with the scientific consensus. Many US Protestant denominations believe in a world created by God in its present form less than 10,000 years ago. This is a view shared by 40% of Americans according to a 2014 Gallup survey. In contrast, the Catholic Church has had a much more open attitude toward evolution.

For the first 100 years or so after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species the Church did not take an official position (although local clergy tended to be hostile). This allowed for a relatively open discussion of the topic among catholic scholars. It led Pope Pius XII, in the 1950 Encyclical Human generis, to accept evolution as a possibility (as opposed to a probability) which warranted further studies. Subsequently Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 in a pronouncement to the Pontifical Academy of Science that Evolution is “more than a hypothesis.” It is interesting to note in this light, that before Darwin, the French Jesuit, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), was the first to postulate that species could develop new traits as needed for their survival and that these traits could be passed on to their offspring. And when it comes to the Big Bang it was first proposed by the Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre who himself was president of the Pontifical Academy of Science.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was established in 1936 by Pope Pius XI to advise the Pope on scientific matters. Its membership consists of 80 members and includes numerous Nobel Prize winners including Canadian John Polanyi and Israeli Aaron Ciechanover. The current president is Werner Arber, 1978 Nobel laureate, for his work on recombinant DNA technology. Werner Arber is the first Protestant to hold that position. The Academy does not shy away from controversial issues. In 2009 a group of its members, led by Werner Arber, released a statement praising GMOs as a useful tool to help the world’s poor. The statement takes issues with objections made by critics and states that their misguided opposition prevents, or slows, the development of crops for the public good, especially in Third World countries.

The Pope, who has a scientific background with a master in chemistry, has come strongly in favor of sustainable development. In a recent address he has argued for the “respect of the beauty of nature.” In his speech he stressed the need to “Safeguard Creation because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”

The openness of the Church does not extend to what it considers to be moral or ethical issues. It is widely accepted that the use of condoms is the most reliable way, outside the unrealistic abstinence method promoted by the Church, to prevent the spread of AIDS. Still when Pope John II visited Tanzania, a country where AIDS is rampant, he declared that condoms were a sin in any circumstances.  It should be interesting to see if the Catholic Church under Pope Francis will evolve on this issue as well.

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The Hippocrates Health Institute Dispenses Unhealthy Advice

ALLDo parents have a right to make a decision about how a minor’s cancer is to be treated? Or not treated? This is not just a hypothetical question, it is a very current one. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a bone marrow cancer that untreated leads to death but with appropriate chemotherapy has an over 90% cure rate. The parents of an eleven year old Canadian girl have decided to end the recommended treatment before it was completed in favour of a “natural” therapy, stating that this was more in line with their native traditions. They elected to have their child treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida which features alternative therapies based on the theories of Ann Wigmore, a Lithuanian émigré to the U.S. who had become convinced of the healing power of grasses after reading the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went through a seven year period of insanity from which he apparently cured himself by eating grass.

Wigmore reflected on this story, considered how dogs and cats sometimes eat grass when they feel ill, and came up with a theory about the magical properties of wheatgrass juice. Food rots in the intestine due to improper digestion, she maintained, and forms “toxins” that then enter the circulation. The living enzymes in raw wheatgrass prevent these toxins from forming and ward off disease. So she claimed. By 1988 Wigmore, who had no recognized scientific education, was even suggesting that her “energy enzyme soup” was capable of curing AIDS and cancer. Ann is no longer with us but her “live enzyme therapy” is still a mainstay at the Hippocrates Health Institute.

The term “live enzyme” is meaningless since enzymes are not living entities. They are not composed of cellular units, they cannot reproduce, they cannot carry on metabolism and they cannot grow. Ergo, they are not alive. Enzymes are specialized protein molecules that are essential because they catalyze the numerous reactions that go on in our bodies all the time that are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies make all the enzymes that are needed and enzymes present in food are not the same as the enzymes our cells need and in any case are broken down during digestion. Claims that cancer can be cured by live enzyme therapy are bogus and dangerous. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia requires treatment that has been worked out by decades of research, not concoctions based on folklore and wishful thinking. Should authorities step in and override the parents’ wishes? If this young girl is to have a chance at survival, yes.

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The US EPA approves a new herbicide system …but for the first time ever, with restrictions

EPAThe Environmental Protection Agency disregarded critics by approving Enlist Duo, a new herbicide developed by Dow AgroSciences. In fact Enlist Duo is not totally new. It is a combination of two widely used herbicides, glyphosate and 2,4D. The herbicide, to be used with Dow‘s genetically modified corn and soybean seeds, was developed to counteract the problem of weed resistance.  A serious issue, caused among other things, by the overuse of single herbicide systems based on glyphosate, the herbicide developed by Monsanto for use with its Roundup Ready crops.

Critics attack the EPA decision, claiming that it will lead to more health and environmental problems and to more weed resistance. EPA’s reply was that all possible risks were taken into account and that the use of the choline salt of 2,4D, which sticks better to leaves, should significantly reduce the problem of drift and volatilization.

But where the EPA decision really stands out is that it was made with a number of restrictions. The agency indicates that these will be a model for future approval of herbicides designed for use with genetically modified crops.

The agency will require Dow to closely monitor and report the use of Enlist Duo to ensure that the weeds are not developing resistance. EPA is also ordering a “no spray” buffer zone around application areas and also banned the use of Enlist Duo when wind speeds are over 15 miles per hour (24 km/h).

In contrast to previous country-wide approval, Enlist Duo will initially be allowed only in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. It is only after public consultations that the EPA will consider approving the product for use in other states. Also EPA will review its approval of Enlist Duo in six years rather than the usual 15 years.

Still the EPA’s decision did not go unnoticed and has already sparked a legal challenge by a group of farmers who claim the agency did not fulfill it its duties in its assessment of the risks posed by the herbicide to human health and endangered species. The Natural Resources Defense Council is also taking legal action pointing out that the potential dangers to human health and the environment, in particular to monarch butterflies, had not been properly evaluated.

An interesting aspect of this situation is that Canada approved Duo last year with none of the restrictions proposed by the EPA without generating any controversy. However, Dow has not yet launched the product here, waiting for US approval. With the controversy starting to brew is the US the situation may change.

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