Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Dog, Chocolate, and Bt Sweet Corn

She might be cute, but she
can't safely eat chocolate!
GMO sweet corn is pretty cool. It has been genetically modified to produce its own pest control that kills certain insects that are snacking on it in the fields. But while the Bt sweet corn has been proven safe for commercial use, some people get a little confused about the application.

"If the Bt protein is going to kill an insect, won't it also harm me?"

First, let's take a look at how exactly the Bt protein works. Joe Ballenger over at Biofortified, has described the process - in all its scientific details - like this:
Bt toxin requires a high (basic) pH to be active, and must be activated by specific protein-cutting-proteins in the insect gut. The Bt toxin is comprised of a bunch of smaller proteins that work together by teaming up to form holes in the membranes of the cells that form the gut. The holes that are formed are small, and allow salts and other small solutes to get in. When the salts rush in, water follows. When the water flows in, the cells burst. When enough cells burst, the midgut becomes full of large holes. At this point the gut contents spill into the body cavity of the insect, resulting in the death of the insect.
(Source: How Does BT work?) But that still seems a bit scary. As some people have described it, the Bt protein essentially makes the bug's stomach "explode." How do we know that the Bt protein won't do the exact same thing to our bodies?

As Joe clarified: "In humans, the Bt protein is very quickly digested in vitro, and this is due in part to the fact that human and insect stomachs are very different." (You can check out a study on how scientists tested this here.) In part, this is because the ph of our stomachs is about 2, and the ph of an insect's stomach is about 10. The ph is one factor that determines whether a protein is going to work or not.

Furthermore, Michael Eison, also at Science 2.0, explained that the Bt protein has evolved over the years to act as a natural pesticide for specific insects, but not for humans. He clarified:
Given what we know about Cry [Bt] proteins, there is very little reason to be concerned about the safety of eating it. These are proteins that have evolved to kill insects – and not just insects in general, but very specific subsets of insects. And humans are not insects. Regulatory agencies in the US and Europe have consistently rejected claims that plants that produce their own Cry cause problems in either humans or farm animals.
(Source: How Bt Corn And Roundup Ready Soy Work - And Why They Should Not Scare You.) In other words, the Bt protein does not bother us because our bodies are, quite simply, created differently than that of an insect - and thankfully so!

I'm cute and I can
safely eat chocolate!
If you're like me and barely only grasping the scientific basics of how the Bt protein works, consider that we see digestion differences every day. The best example is chocolate and my dog. Realize that chocolate is bad for dogs; it can even be lethal. As it turns out, there is a chemical compound in chocolate that is metabolized by our furry friends at a much slower rate than it is for us. So, while you won't feed your dog a chocolate candy bar, humans have no problem eating one (unless you're watching your waistline, of course).

Again, our human bodies are significantly different from a dog's body. Some of those differences allow us to safely eat certain foods that dogs - or insects - cannot. The Bt protein in genetically modified sweet corn uses this same basic and familiar concept. That's how it can kill an insect, but doesn't hurt us.

Of course, scientists also studied the effects Bt sweet corn had on humans prior to the product becoming commercially available (though use is still somewhat limited). Because Bt is considered a pesticide - it is routinely used on organic farms - the EPA was also involved in studying the sweet corn and screening it for safety. (You can check out this article on Biofortified for more information on the safety assessments.)

Biotechnology can sometimes seem "scary" because most of us cannot really comprehend the nitty gritty scientific details. No doubt some of the negative reaction to GMOs is caused by this difficulty. But, in reality, many times we are more familiar with the scientific concepts and ideas than we might imagine. The Bt protein's use in sweet corn, compared with my dog's inability to safely eat chocolate, is the perfect example.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Food Babe: Pot, Meet Kettle

[UPDATE: After an  outpouring of support, and an article in the Charlotte Observer confirming my statements in the previous article, I have decided to repost it. You can view it here.]

Last week I posted an article about Food Babe's bullying tactics against major food producers, including Subway. If you remember, Food Babe made a huge fuss over Subway's bread containing an ingredient that we have used to make bread since 1927. However, even when Subway got rid of the chemical in their bread, Food Babe still complained that their food was full of "GMOs and chemicals" and warned her followers not to eat there.

She's used this tactic against many companies that have given into her.

You may notice that the particular article about Food Babe is currently missing from my blog. That's because I ended up taking it down the same day I published it....because that's what Food Babe requested.

Imagine my shock when I looked down at my phone and saw the Facebook notification that I've received a message from Vani Hari (Food Babe's real life name) herself. This is what Ms. Hari had to say:

Now, for the time being I have taken the article down. I strive to make sure everything I post is factually accurate and supported by valid sources. Everything. That even includes an article about Food Babe's bullying tactics. The article is currently down and will remain down for the time being, though nothing in it was inaccurate or defamatory. Quite frankly, it wasn't worth the fight.

However, I simply cannot pass the opportunity to comment on Food Babe's obvious hypocrisy.

Her gig is to accuse food companies of putting dangerous chemicals and other additives into the products they sell and she does it without a single shred of evidence (science or otherwise). She tries to create a media storm with false information. Yet she didn't like it when my article about her tactics of threatening these companies with bad publicity, because she thought it was false and inaccurate.

Pot, meet kettle.

At least what I said about her was accurate.

But I'm not here to get into a personality fight or social media war with Food Babe. I could not care less about who it is telling the lies - Food Babe, Dr. Mercola, Dr. Oz, or whoever else; I care about what they're telling people.

My goal is to promote conventional agriculture because I think it is the best way for us to feed the world with environmentally sound practices. She wants to scare people and sell a few products.

That's totally fine. I'll continue to call her bluff.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tyson v. Food Babe

Totally make sense; right?

Source: Boycott Organic
(In case you missed it: You can check out my article about Neil Dr. Tyson here and my article about Food Babe here.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Vietnam Opens Door for GMOs

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Good news out of Vietnam today! The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has granted licenses to four GM corn varieties, including Bt 11 and MIR162 developed by Syngenta, and MON 8903 and NIK603 by Monsanto. Among these varieties are everyone's favorite Round-Up Ready traits. (Source: AgroNews) These four varieties are the first biotechnology crops approved both for animal feed and human consumption in the country.

Licensing comes after the Ministry has studied the technology and performed a biology safety assessment on each of the GMO products. The four varieties have received safety certificates.

Vietnam has actually fully realized the benefits to GMOs and has set fairly lofty goals. In 2006, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam put together a plan for implementation of the technology in the country. The goals included the cultivation of GMO crops by 2015 and raising GMOs on 30-50 percent of the country's farmland by 2020. (Source: Thanhnien News*) The government sees this as part of its sustainability plan for Vietnamese agriculture.

However, part of the plan is also meant to decrease the amount of corn Vietnam imports into the country each year. No doubt the GMO varieties will have increased yields that will benefit farmers in that country. Currently, Vietnam has to import 1.5 million tons of corn for animal feed. The imported corn comes mainly from South American countries and the United States.

Regardless, congratulations to Vietnam for opening the doors on biotechnology! I love to see countries embracing technology and progress over fear and misinformation!

*This source had a lot of good information regarding Vietnam's path to allowing biotechnology. However, it was also inaccurate in that it cites to the debunked Seralini study and another fraudulent study on pigs. I have addressed both topics in the past here and here.

Biotechnology Benefits Medicine, Too

During the recent Ebola outbreak, most people were unaware that the experimental drugs that were used to treat American missionaries that had caught the virus were actually created using biotechnology. In my article on the life-saving ZMapp drug, I explained that small biotech companies were developing the product by using what is referred to as passive immunotherapy.

But what might further surprise you is that there are actually a lot of medications that are created by using biotechnology. 

In fact, according to PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, there are over 900 biotech drugs currently in the pipeline or under review by the FDA that may be used to treat over 100 debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, including cancer. It certainly isn't hard to imagine that biotechnology has blown open the door open on scientific research for cures and treatments of a whole host of conditions.

Insulin, which is a key piece of treatment for people suffering from diabetes, is also made from biotech processes. Caroline Coatney, who is currently a graduate student in Plant Biology at the University of Georgia, explained on Biofortified how biotechnology is used to make insulin:
Insulin is made, in principle, the same way the GMO corn starch and GMO sugar in Cheerios is. To start, the DNA sequence for human insulin is inserted into the bacteria E. coli, which creates an organism that now has DNA from two very different species in it. This new E. coli is a genetically modified organism (GMO) and serves as a cheap factory for mass-producing the human insulin protein. After a while, the E. coli bacteria has produced large amounts of the human protein to the point where the protein can be extracted from the bacteria cells and purified before being packaged into insulin shots. The insulin protein produced via genetic engineering is chemically identical to the insulin protein made in a healthy human body.
(Source: GMO Cheerios v. GMO Insulin) Caroline also explained that the process for genetically engineering much of our crops in agriculture undergoes the same or similar steps. Just as in medicine, the corn starch or sugars made from non-GMO plants turn out chemically equivalent to those made with GMOs.

But what about people that are opposed to biotechnology in agriculture? Are they seriously against these medications that can, quite literally, save someone's life?

It seems the answer is yes.

One anti-GMO group tried to be "consistent" by urging followers, with a scary looking graphic, to stop taking insulin because it is made through genetic modification. (I decided not to share it on here because I believe that type of "advice" is not only wrong, but unethical.) Thankfully, Facebook had the good sense to take down the photo, but who knows how many people stopped their medicine before that was done. Not to mention that the graphic likely lives on in some other social media medium.

I hope that not all anti-GMO crowds would be quite so hostile. I do think that most people are leery about GMOs simply because they do not understand how it works. For those of us that do not use scientific analysis every day, these terms and concepts can be confusing and overwhelming. Medicine is already foreign and difficulty to understand; agriculture is more personal and part of our lives every single day.  But the link between life-saving medicine and biotechnology that benefits agriculture should be something we all celebrate.

Just like people recognize the advantages of using biotech in medicine, we can also see the advantages in agriculture. I don't think we will ever completely eradicate hunger or disease from the world, but we can certainly work toward those goals. In order to do that though, people will need to recognize that you don't necessarily have to be afraid of things that you don't fully  understand. That can start with biotechnology in both medicine and agriculture.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

All Natural Blueberries - Ingredient List

James' Reading List
Remember: Just because you can't pronounce the ingredients or recognize the names, doesn't mean there is anything wrong with it!