Food: The Risky, the Rare, and the Re-engineered

Stephen DeAngelis

September 17, 2010

Voltaire once wrote, “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” Although not everyone enjoys the same tastes in food, ethnic cuisines have made remarkable inroads in most countries around the globe. In most large cities, one doesn’t have to search far to find a restaurant serving ethnic food and ethnic restaurants can be found even in the smallest of countries. Mexican, Chinese, Greek, Thai, Italian, German, and Indian fare are now international cuisines. Globalization has also resulted in the spread of so-called “fast food” franchises around the world [“Good Stuff? – Fast Food,” by Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute, 2004]. Halweil reports:

“From onion rings to double cheeseburgers, fast food is one of the world’s fastest growing food types. It now accounts for roughly half of all restaurant revenues in the United States—triple its share in the early 1970s—and continues to expand there and in many other industrial countries. But some of the most rapid growth is occurring in the developing world, where it’s radically changing the way people eat. … Around the world, traditional diets and recipes are yielding to sodas, burgers, and other highly processed and standardized items that are high in fat, sugar, and salt—fuelling a global epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. Meanwhile, fast food producers require farmers to raise uniform fields of crops and herds of livestock for easy processing, eliminating agricultural diversity.”

Nutritionists may lament the fact that Western processed foods have gone global, but it looks like that trend is not about to disappear [“Emerging markets retain appetite for western food, says Cargill,” by Javier Blas and Gregory Meyer, Financial Times, 19 May 2010].

“The appetite of emerging markets for processed food, meat and dairy products has confounded fears of a big drop in demand in the wake of the financial crisis, says Cargill, the big US agribusiness. Gregory Page, chief executive, said diets in emerging markets, which over the past 10 years had became more similar to those of western countries, had been ‘remarkably resilient’. In previous episodes of economic turmoil, people in emerging markets had returned to traditional staple grains. Cargill is at the centre of global agricultural flows and its business relationships with top food groups, from Nestlé to Kraft, allow it to anticipate changes in consumption.”

To read more about Cargill and the impact it has on agricultural flows, read my post entitled Integrating Your Business Isn’t Easy: Ask Cargill. As noted above, flows of food and taste travel in both directions. One example of that fact is that “ethnic vegetables” are now being grown in the United States [“Farmers find opportunity in immigrant vegetables,” by Stephen Singer, Boston Globe, 5 July 2010]. Singer reports:

“Maxixe, a Brazilian relative of the cucumber, is relatively unknown in the U.S., but it may one day be as common as cilantro as farmers and consumers embrace more so-called ethnic vegetables. Agriculture experts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and elsewhere are teaching farmers to grow non-native vegetables that appeal to a growing market of African, Asian and Latin American immigrants. These immigrants and their children already account for more than one-third of produce sales in supermarkets, said Frank Mangan, a plant and soil sciences professor at UMass. And as other customers become more familiar with ethnic foods, experts expect sales to grow even more.”

Singer reports that the number of farmers’ markets carrying ethnic vegetables in Massachusetts jumped 25 percent last year. Although no one is officially tracking the popularity of ethnic crops, “Bob Ehart, public policy director of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said … the trend in Massachusetts appears to be happening in other states as well.” Singer continues:

“Sales of ethnic vegetables have benefited from ‘buy local’ marketing campaigns and federal farm legislation giving states grants to expand specialty crop production, he said. There’s also been a greater emphasis on marketing specialty vegetables, with New York and New Jersey starting programs aimed at selling produce to ethnic groups. Glen Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, noted that cilantro was considered a specialty item 25 years ago, but ‘now it’s on everything.’ Bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, also was once considered exotic. ‘Now, it’s another leafy green,’ Hill said.”

With many people are concerned about diminishing crop diversity, increased interest in ethnic vegetables is good news. Several years ago I wrote two posts about an international seed bank that was built especially to preserve food diversity (see From Somalia to Svalbard and The Seeds of Resilience). Governments are not the only groups concerned about preserving historical crops and plants. Many hobbyist gardeners are also getting in on the action [“A Growing Obsession: Rare Seeds,” by Anne Marie Chaker, Wall Street Journal, 10 February 2010]. Chaker reports:

“Garden catalogs might top 100 pages of flower, vegetable and herb varieties. For some gardeners—where the line between dedication and obsession can sometimes blur—that’s not enough. For them, there are seed exchanges. These are groups formed by garden clubs or plant collectors whose members harvest seeds from their own plants and donate them to the exchange. Fellow gardeners in the group can order seeds at little or no cost. The appeal of these exchanges is that they frequently offer unusual varieties of plants not typically found in catalogs, whether it’s a species grown by few collectors, or an ‘heirloom’ seed variety passed down for generations. … The North American Rock Garden Society exchange lists more than 100 seeds donated by the New York Botanical Garden from its expeditions to the countries of Georgia and China in 2005 and 2007. Janet Draper, horticulturist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington this year donated seeds of a South African foxglove from the Smithsonian’s Mary Livingston Ripley garden to the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group seed exchange, among other seed varieties. Ms. Draper says some of her favorite plants in the Ripley garden came from seeds acquired on the exchange, such as tassel flower. … The North American Rock Garden Society has an exchange listing more than 4,500 different types of seeds from more than 250 donors.”

Individuals concerned with the agricultural sector probably appreciate that rare flower seeds are being preserved and exchanged, but they are much more interested in the vegetable and herb seeds. One of the things that motivates dedicated gardeners to preserve seed varieties is the growing number of genetically engineered crops that are being planted. For more on that subject, read my post entitled Genetically-Modified Crops Gain New Importance (But Be Careful). Researchers are genetically modifying crops with the intention of making them heartier or more productive; but, researchers have also found ways to improve some crops without having to modify their genes. One such vegetable being studied is the potato [“Shock treatment turns humble spud into superfood,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 22 August 2010]. Quick writes:

“Originating in the region of southern Peru and first being domesticated between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, the potato has spread to become an integral part of the world’s cuisine and the world’s fourth-largest food crop. Scientists have now discovered not one, but two simple, inexpensive ways to boost the amounts of antioxidants in the humble spud. One involves giving spuds an electric shock, while the other involves zapping them with ultrasound, high frequency sound waves. ‘We found that treating the potatoes with ultrasound or electricity for 5-30 minutes increased the amounts of antioxidants – including phenols and chlorogenic acid – by as much as 50 percent,’ said Kazunori Hironaka, Ph.D., who headed the research. ‘Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables are considered to be of nutritional importance in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, various cancers, diabetes, and neurological diseases.’ … Hironaka, who is with Obihiro University in Hokkaido, Japan, indicated that the process could have widespread commercial application, due to growing consumer interest in so-called ‘functional foods.’ Those are products like berries, nuts, chocolate, soy, and wine that may have health benefits beyond traditional nutrition. Such foods may promote overall good health, for instance, or reduce the risk of specific diseases.”

To learn more about the importance of potatoes as an international crop, read my post entitled In Praise of the Humble Potato. Returning to the subject of genetically modified organisms, most of the headlines have been captured by increased plantings of genetically modified wheat and corn crops. However, a growing number of headlines are now focusing on genetically modified animals [“Dawn of the Frankenfish,” The Economist, 10 June 2010]. The article reports:

“The Belgian blue is an ugly but tasty cow that has 40% more muscle than it should have. It is the product of random mutation followed by selective breeding—as, indeed, are all domesticated creatures. But where an old art has led, a new one may follow. By understanding which genetic changes have been consolidated in the Belgian blue, it may be possible to design and build similar versions of other species using genetic engineering as a short-cut. That is precisely what Terry Bradley, a fish biologist at the University of Rhode Island, is trying to do. Instead of cattle, he is doing it in trout. His is one of two projects that may soon put the first biotech animals on the dinner table. Belgian blues are so big because their genes for a protein called myostatin, a hormone that regulates muscle growth, do not work properly. Dr Bradley has launched a four-pronged attack on the myostatin in his trout. First, he has introduced a gene that turns out a stunted version of the myostatin receptor, the molecule that sits in the surface membrane of muscle cells and receives the message to stop growing. The stunted receptor does not pass the message on properly. He has also added two genes for non-functional variants of myostatin. These churn out proteins which bind to the receptors, swamping and diluting the effect of functional myostatin molecules. Finally, he has added a gene that causes overproduction of another protein, follistatin. This binds to myostatin and renders it inoperative. The upshot of all this tinkering is a trout that has twice the abdominal muscle mass of its traditional counterparts. Moreover, this muscle is low in fat, like that of its bovine counterparts. That, and the fact that the animal’s other organs are unaffected, means it does not take twice as much food to grow a fish to maturity.”

The next big question, of course, is how does it taste? Food connoisseurs claim they can taste the difference between natural and farm-grown salmon so it wouldn’t surprise me if they have reservations about muscular trout as well. On the positive side, finding ways to raise more fish at a time when fish stocks are rapidly depleting could help meet the protein needs of a burgeoning population. The fact that Bradley’s fish don’t require twice as much food to grow twice as large as normal fish is also an encouraging breakthrough. Bradley, however, is not the only researcher experimenting with fish.

“The genetic engineers at Aqua Bounty, a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts, have taken a different route using a different species. They are trying to grow supersize salmon by tinkering with the genes for growth hormone. Two snippets of DNA are involved. One, taken from a relative of the cod called the ocean pout, promotes the activity of the gene that encodes growth hormone. The other, taken from a chinook salmon, is a version of the growth-hormone gene itself. Unmodified salmon undergo a period of restricted growth when they are young. Together these two pieces of DNA produce growth hormone during that lull, abolishing it. The result is a fish that reaches marketable size in 18-24 months, as opposed to 30 months for the normal variety.”

As the article goes on to note, “It is one thing to make such fish. … It is quite another to get them to market.” The first big hurdle is getting past the regulators. The Economist reports that Aqua Bounty “has been petitioning [the Food and Drug Administration] for more than a decade. … [The FDA] published guidelines for approving genetically engineered animals in 2009. … Dr Bradley has not yet applied for approval.” Another hurdle is public opinion. There will always be someone who fears that genetically-modified animals are unsafe to eat. Finally, there is the environmental crowd that needs to be convinced. The article explains:

“What happens if the creatures escape and start breeding in the wild? For that to be a problem, the modified fish would have to be better at surviving and reproducing than those honed by millions of years of natural selection. On the face of it, this seems unlikely, because the characteristics that have been engineered into them are ones designed to make them into better food, rather than lean, mean breeding machines. But there is a chink in this argument. As Mark Abrahams, a biologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, points out, it is not just the fish that have been modified by man, but also the environment in which they could escape. Many of the creatures that eat salmon and trout, such as bears and some birds, have had their ranks thinned by human activity. Dr Abrahams thinks it possible that fast-growing salmon could displace the natural sort in places where predators are rare.”

Aqua Bounty is trying to allay such fears by raising fish that are sterile. Hence, if they escape they cannot breed. Bradley claims he could make his fish sterile as well. According to an article in the Washington Post, the FDA is coming close to a decision about Aqua Bounty’s petition [“Company says FDA is nearing decision on genetically engineered Atlantic salmon,” by Les Blumenthal, 2 August 2010]. Blumenthal reports:

“Although genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans have been part of the American diet for several years, if the Food and Drug Administration approves the salmon, it will be the first transgenic animal headed for the dinner table.”

If the FDA does approve the Aqua Bounty salmon for consumption, George Kimbrell, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, indicates that his organization may sue to reverse the decision. So why is Aqua Bounty putting itself through this tortuous process? Blumenthal explains:

“The financial rewards could be huge. Aquaculture is an $86 billion-a-year business — nearly half of all fish consumed worldwide are farm-raised. As wild stocks dwindle and the world’s population heads toward 9 billion, fish farmers will be looking for stock that will be market-ready more quickly. … Aqua Bounty’s fish grow faster but not bigger than normal Atlantic salmon. … A transgenic salmon … grows to market size in about half the time as a normal salmon — 16 to 18 months rather than three years. Aqua Bounty would market the eggs from a transgenic salmon, not the actual fish. … Once it gets approval, Aqua Bounty said, it could start marketing the eggs from transgenic salmon within two or three years. The company is also reportedly developing transgenic tilapia and trout.”

Blumenthal goes on to report that, in addition to fish, researchers are experimenting with “cattle that would be resistant to mad cow disease” and an “‘enviropig’ that would produce manure with less harmful levels of phosphorus.” With the global population racing towards its predicted peak of 9 billion people around the year 2050, there is a growing tension between researchers who are trying to find ways of increasing productivity and environmentalists who believe that messing with Mother Nature is generally a bad idea. Were I a betting man, I would place my chips on the researchers. I appreciate the skeptics and the warnings they raise. Their concerns need to be addressed. My gut tells me, however, that scientists will be able to overcome their objections and help create more productive food sources with little or no environmental impacts or safety concerns. If you’re still worried, remember the old Jewish proverb: “Worries go down better with soup.”