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James, over at James and the Giant Corn, has written a post about the long lasting tomatoes from India: Scientists at India’s NIPGR Create a Longer-Lasting Tomato (Studying The Regulation of Fruit Ripening). He does a great job of explaining cell wall chemistry, which I neglected to cover in I say tomato… I appreciate that he pointed out something that I forgot to mention (emphasis added):

I shouldn’t have to say this, but there are currently no genetically engineered tomatoes on the market. For a short time in the 1990s Calgene sold the Flavr Savr tomato in California grocery stores, but they weren’t able make a profit doing so, so they stopped. The poor taste of most tomatoes for sale in the grocery store today is purely the result of conventional breeding (my post on the subject and Mat_kinase’s).

 

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When I first read reports of mercury in corn syrup, I was first shocked, then concerned, then skeptical. Janet (qualifications unknown) at Ethicurean described the source of the mercury (in fact, she was picked up by Huffington Post):

How did the heavy metal get in there? In making HFCS — that “natural” sweetener, as the Corn Refiners Associaton [sic] likes to call it — caustic soda is one ingredient used to separate corn starch from the corn kernel. Apparently most caustic soda for years has been produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants, where it can be contaminated with mercury that it passes on to the HFCS, and then to consumers.

First of all, I’m no particular fan of corn syrup; it tastes nasty and I avoid it. However, I also avoid added sugar or rice syrup or any other sweetener because I eat enough calories without them. Various types of foodie have been railing against HFCS for a long time, but I haven’t actually be able to figure out why. Instead of saying “HFCS is bad” we should be saying “processed food is bad”. Any special link between obesity and HFCS was broken in December with a comprehensive review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (see press release in Newswise). The other argument against HFCS is that we are growing too much corn, but this is a sidestep at best. If people really cared about the amount of acres taken up by corn, they’d be saying “eat less meat” instead of “eat less corn syrup” (see the ISU Extension fact sheet about corn syrup for the uses of corn – ironically, you can’t get both ethanol and HFSC from a given bushel). Seriously, if you don’t like the stuff, then don’t eat it – but it’s helping no one to spread falsehoods and exaggerations.

Ok, back to mercury. While I’ll be the last person to say that the FDA is doing the best job in keeping us all safe, or that food processing conglomerates aren’t out to get a profit no matter what, American capitalism does have some protective effects. I’d wager that the Corn Refiners Association knew about the possible contamination source long ago and has done their best to remove or reduce it (which is exactly right, according to the CRA press release) simply to avoid future boycotts and lawsuits. Some commenters on Janet’s post were also skeptical, along with Marion Nestle on her Food Politics blog.

Marion points out that the study used no controls, and I heartily agree. The researchers should have obtained multiple brands of approximately equivalent foods (vanilla flavored yogurt for example), tested for mercury, and looked for any statistically significant differences between those that contain and those that do not contain HFCS. Without this comparison, the result that “nearly one in three” of the products contained detectable amounts of mercury is meaningless. Some amount of mercury is in everything we eat, processed or not, perhaps the result of decades of coal burning. Of course, there’s many more details to consider…

Some of their conclusions are good, like better food oversight and cleaning up chlorine plants, but, overall, the report Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup from the IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) is propaganda. It’s full of inflammatory language like:

Just published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Health, is the bombshell that
commercial HFCS appears to be routinely contaminated with mercury. It turns out the contamination
isn’t so much accidental as newly recognized, given the fact that much HFCS has been made
and continues to be made using “mercury-grade” caustic soda.

The full text of the peer-reviewed study Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar is available from Environmental Health, but it only contains the study on HFCS itself (not of processed foods). The writing style is too conversational for a scientific paper, but it is better than the IATP report. According to the abstract:

The [HFCS] samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup. Average daily consumption of high fructose corn syrup is about 50 grams per person in the United States.

Perhaps that consumption estimate is a little low. Let’s use the estimates reported in Not So Sweet: “American 19- to 30-year-olds consume about 60 grams of HFCS per day. For 12- to 18-year olds, HFCS consumption is about 70 grams”. Worst case scenario, a “heavy user” may consume 39.9 ug (0.0399 mg) per day (if all 70 g of HFCS were produced with mercury cells), according to this data.

Before we panic (or write condescending blog posts), we should know: how much mercury is in HFCS today, what form of mercury is it, how much mercury is in various foods, and how much of the mercury in food products is from HFCS compared to other ingredients?

The data in the Env. Health paper is from 2005. Why is it just now being published? The CRA says HFCS production methods have changed since this data was collected, so it would be irresponsible to make policy based on it. The authors said they were unable to secure HFCS from the sources as they did in 2005 – but couldn’t they get the samples from the food processors that buy the syrup? It feels like they just gave up (or that they knew a newer data set might prove their conclusions wrong).

The form of mercury matters because the different forms are absorbed into the body differently. According to the DoE Risk Assessment Information System’s page on mercury:

Gastrointestinal absorption of inorganic salts of mercury from food is <15% for mice and about 7% for humans (Goyer 1991). Organic mercury compounds (methyl- and phenylmercury) have been shown to be readily absorbed (>80%) by humans and animals following oral exposure (ATSDR 1989, Goyer 1991).

In other words, measuring the total mercury isn’t as useful as it seems. If the mercury in HFCS is the type that accumulates in fish, then we have cause to worry. If it is inorganic mercury, (as we would expect from  the mercury cell process) then the danger is minimized to a worst case scenario 0.0028 mg effective dose of mercury per day.

In Not So Sweet, the question of how much mercury ends up in food products that contain HFCS is answered (sort of). Their results are discussed by ChemRisk, “a leading scientific consulting firm” in a report they made at the behest of the CRA, along with a comparison of these values with other foods:

More than two-thirds of the samples analyzed by IATP had no detectable level of mercury at all. In the remaining sample, most of these were at or near the limit of detection. The average concentration for the 17 samples with detectable levels was only 128 parts per trillion (ppt). EPA sets limits for mercury in drinking water at two parts per billion.

It is well known that small amounts of mercury are broadly present in our environment. For example, Health Canada reported in 2003 that the concentrations of total mercury in steak ranged from 420 to 1,800 parts per trillion (ppt); fresh pork contained 1,100 to 1,500 ppt; organ meats (liver and kidney) contained over 2,100 ppt; and lamb contained 290 to 2,300 ppt of total mercury. (Dabeka et al, 2003) For the sake of reference, one part per trillion is equal to one drop of water spread out into 26 Olympic-size swimming pools. (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, 2009)

That same study by Health Canada looked at mercury in seafood, finding amounts that ranged from 40,000 ppt in fresh or frozen marine fish to 148,000 ppt in canned fish. Other foods, such as canned mushrooms, had 5,100 to 16,000 ppt total mercury, grapes had 180 to 590 ppt, blueberries 210 to 640 ppt, rice 570 to 1,800 ppt, raisins upwards of 700 ppt, and shelled seeds up to 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt).

Unfortunately, Dabeka, et al. isn’t available for free. The numbers reported by ChemRisk do match numbers I found elsewhere when researching this post.

Without controls in a properly designed experiment, we do not know if the mercury found in the items they tested is due to HFCS or if it is due to other ingredients. There are many ingredients that are common to a variety of processed foods. The ChemRisk report states:

IATP assumes that the total mercury they detected in a questionably small sampling of consumer foods is primarily the result of high fructose corn syrup; an assumption that has not been properly tested or validated. In fact, the authors do not attempt to characterize whether there may be mercury in any other ingredients contained within the consumer products tested, even while the recipes for the items studied may have had multiple sources of potential contamination.

Normally my suggestion for health and safety is simple: eat as little processed food and as few animal products as possible. Even that general message of moderation won’t work when it comes to mercury. Unfortunately, mercury is all around us. It would be nice to get kids to cut back on sweets, and it would be nice if the mercury cell HFCS refining process was changed, but the real problem is elsewhere. I have to question the ethics of any organization the leads us on a wild goose chase.

Coal fired power plants are the single largest emitter of mercury into the atmosphere. If you really care about children ingesting mercury in their food, write letters to your congressmen demanding that they act to reduce mercury emissions from existing plants (the technology exists) and to prevent new coal fired plants from being built. Encouraging China to do the same is another matter entirely.

One upcoming source of mercury in the environment is CFC light bulbs. They won’t be anywhere near the level of pollution from coal fired plants, but we should be conscious of the mercury in the bulbs. According to EcoGeek, some places are now offering recycling. Contact your city leaders and ask for CFC recycling in your area.

 

 

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Good news from Africa – “Scientists and crop researchers at Kenya´s Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) developed the new wheat seeds over the past decade. Through a process called ‘mutation plant breeding’, they applied radiation-based techniques to modify crop characteristics and traits.” In 2001, KARI plant breeders released Njoro-BW1, their first mutant wheat variety. It is drought tolerant, moderately resistant to rust (a fungus), has good yield, and good flour quality. “Kenya´s plant breeders soon will release a second mutant wheat variety, code-named DH4, which shares most of the same good qualities of Njoro-BW1.” [Golden Wheat “Greens” Kenya´s Drylands]

It is indeed good news that Kenyan farmers have these lines of wheat with such improvements over unimproved varieties. However, radiation based so-called mutation plant breeding could have unintended changes in the genome. This technique, widely used in both organic and conventional crops, literally bombards the seeds with radiation. The seeds are allowed to germinate, and interesting mutants are used to create new lines. The problem is that multiple mutations can occur in the same seed, and some of those mutations may go undetected.

A February report entitled “Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion” from the National Institute of Health in Portugal indicates that this plant breeding tool may not be the best idea. The last few sentences of their abstract sums it up: “We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants. We propose that the safety assessment of improved plant varieties should be carried out on a case-by-case basis and not simply restricted to foods obtained through genetic engineering.”

Trying to regulate GM or non-GM as broad categories are impossible, because each resulting plant variety is going to have its own “quirks”. If DH4 and Njoro-BW1 have been extensively tested for unwanted alteration in gene expression and subsequently released for general use, then they are reasonably safe (remember, nothing is definitive in science). Similarly, if transgenic plants such as Sub1A-1 rice have been tested and released, then they too can be used without worry. However, if plant varieties mutated with radiation are not adequately tested before release, then we might all have something to worry about. To my knowledge, only Canada requires testing of these crops.

We can’t even assume that traditional breeding by cross pollination is 100% safe because of natural mutation and new combinations of genes and alleles. Tomatoes, potatoes, and celery all naturally produce some nasty toxins. We’ve mostly bred them out, but there have been cases where the toxins appeared at higher levels through traditional breeding. These plants have much higher probability of danger for consumers than transgenic plants, but don’t have to be tested at all under current regulations in the US or EU.

Intragenic or cisgenic plants are our best opportunity for safe enhancement of food crops (cis- means same). This is a form of genetic engineering that uses the plant’s own genome as a source for new traits instead of other non-related organisms (has also been called GM-lite). To learn more about the idea, please see www.cisgenesis.com. Some people, including myself, believe that cisgenic crops should be regulated differently from transgenic crops that express proteins that don’t normally occur in that species. The applications of cisgenics are more limited than transgenics, but still there is a lot to be done. A great example of cisgenics is gene silencing, which can be used to inactivate unwanted genes, such as those that cause toxins. Examples that are currently being researched are less carcinogenic tobacco and rice that can more easily form hybrids. All of the benefits in KARI’s mutated wheat could have been accomplished with cisgenics.

JR Simplot is a company that is particularly interested in cisgenics, and has produced a lot of literature that essentially says that Monsanto’s way of creating new plant lines is not the right way. I think there’s room for both, but agree that cisgenics are inherently safer. I especially like the idea that cross pollination between cisgenic plants and wild varieties won’t be a problem, since these things could have all happened naturally anyway.

The idea of cisgenics has been around for quite a few years now, but scientists need to talk with the public about it, so the public can talk to their government representatives, so the representatives can go about getting the regulations changed.

Images from “Cisgenic plants are similar to traditionally bred plants: International regulations for genetically modified organisms should be altered to exempt cisgenesis“. Text to accompany images is as follows:

Definitions of key terms in relation to plants

Cisgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with a natural gene from a crossable—sexually compatible—plant. Such a gene includes its introns and is flanked by its native promoter and terminator in the normalsense orientation.Cisgenic plants can harbour one or more cisgenes, but they do not contain any transgenes.

Transgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with one or more genes from any non-plant organism, or from a donor plant that is sexually incompatible with the recipient plant. This includes gene sequences of any origin in the anti-sense orientation, any artificial combination of a coding sequence and a regulatory sequence, such as a promoter from another gene, or a synthetic gene.

Traditional breeding encompasses all plant breeding methods that do not fall under current GMO regulations.As the European legal framework defines GMOs and specifies various breeding techniques that are excluded from the GMO regulations,we use this framework as a starting point, particularly the European Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment (European Parliament, 2001). Excluded from this GMO Directive are longstanding cross breeding, in vitro fertilization, polyploidy induction, mutagenesis and fusion of protoplasts from sexually compatible plants (European Parliament, 2001).