Friday, 27 February 2009

Micromanaging micronutrients

Last November there was a buzz about genetically modified (GM) purple tomatoes. These had extended the life span of lab rats which had been bred to be susceptible to cancer. Scientists had ‘turned on’ genes transplanted from the snapdragon plant. This increased the level of anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant found naturally in higher levels in other foods such as cherries, blueberries and other berries. Surely it would be simpler just to include these berries in a more varied diet?

Now we have the selenium potato, exclusively available in Superquinn stores in Ireland. The selenium levels were enhanced by enriching the soil with the mineral. Many people are deficient in this mineral, especially when the bulk of their diets is from selenium poor soil. A simpler, more sensible, solution is to enrich the soil for all types of crops rather than promote a specific, premium, brand of potato.

Next we have genetically modified high calcium carrots , which were ‘induced to express increased levels of the gene sCAX1’. Are we really supposed to select specific foods on the basis of a single nutrient? In contrast with this reductionist approach, a whole food diet contains a complex of nutrients which work synergistically in the body. This micromanaging of nutrients also promises to make eating needlessly complicated. The age old advice to eat lots of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colours covers all the nutritional bases without all the confusion over details.

In 2008, India overtook Canada to become the worlds’ fourth largest adopter of biotech crops. The C4 strain of GM rice is anticipated to be commercially available by 2011 or 2012. It will have a higher iron content, and promises higher yields with less water usage. Supposedly it will even be ‘more adaptable to climactic changes’. We have seen this before with ‘golden rice’ containing carotenes which are precursors to Vitamin A, so was supposed to help populations deficient in this vitamin, but met with opposition and did not become commercially available. Instead of micromanaging the nutrient profile of staple grains, we need to improve malnourished people’s access to the fruit and vegetables that naturally contain these nutrients, and access to land which is suitable for horticulture.

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