A Pesticide as Medicine? Medicine as Poison? Or What is in a Name? 2

The concern over the Bt. Is a subset of the obsession, some might legitimately call it hysteria over the safety of transgenic using recombinant DNA (rDNA) to produce agricultural crops, particularly food plants generally called genetically modified or GMOs. It is easier to scare people than educate them. Need a new term for some forms of ignorance that is less pejorative. In the vast array of human knowledge, the best any one of us can do is to master small portion of it. In another words, all of us are uninformed or ignorant or at best minimally informed about all the rest of knowledge.  True ignorance is when an individual or group has an absolutely unshakeable conviction on a subject such as agricultural biotechnology about which they know nothing and even worse, about which they are certain that they know is egregiously in error. Ignorance is the one crop, the lucrative cultivation of which anti-GMO NGOs have mastered even though they may not have raised any other crops or done anything to help feed people. Financial nutrient for the organization seems to take precedence over nutrition for real people.

Ironically, in recent years, it has been conventionally bred varieties of crops such as celery, potatoes and zucchini that have been removed from the market because they were expressing large amounts of their naturally occurring toxins.  Celery – contains psoralens that increase sensitivity to sunlight that can lead to dermatitis or chloracne and being a mutagen, can lead to skin cancer. Celery also contains goitrogenic compounds that interfere with the uptake of iodine into the thyroid. Potatoes contain highly toxic compounds known as glycoalkaloids, of which the most prevalent are solanine and chaconine. Zucchini may occasionally contain a group of natural toxins known as cucurbitacins. In 2002 in New Zealand, highly toxic zucchini led to sickness and hospitalization for those who ate it (Killer Zucchini. Life Sciences Network, 2003. http://www.lifesciencesnetwork.com/news-detail.asp?newsID=1122). . I was in New Zealand later that year and discussed this with the scientists who investigated it and have written on it. However, the following account is worth quoting at length because of the many issues important that it raises.

“The most recent episode was an outbreak of “killer zucchini” which produced the “only food scare in recent history in New Zealand” and interestingly it “stemmed from the farming methods of organic farmers and others who use unconventional farming practices” (LSN 2003). In February 2003, Zucchini with “high levels of natural toxins” was sold on the vegetable market and resulted in “several recorded cases of people suffering food poisoning” (LSN 2003). We often worry about the toxicity resulting from spraying crops but rarely are we as concerned about those from not spraying them.

“An examination of common factors shows the levels of toxin apparently increased among zucchini growers who did not spray their crops. Unusual climatic conditions meant there were huge numbers of aphids about in January and insect predation is sometimes associated with increased levels of toxins in plants (LSN 2003).

“In this case, there was a “clear link between increased toxin levels and older open-pollinating varieties of seeds” (LSN 2003). It is another of the “inferior is superior” views that there is something inherently virtuous in farmers planting their own saved seeds but it is “likely zucchini grown from saved seed will therefore be more vulnerable to toxin build-up” (LSN 2003).

“The scientists who reviewed the “killer zucchini” case were very clear that the “most likely cause of the build-up of toxins is a genetic weakness in older varieties.” However worthy the farmer’s intentions may have been, “the growers’ decision to use older varieties and to save seeds is likely to have resulted in a health risk for consumers – something which has never happened with crops derived from genetic modification” (LSN 2003).”

In virtually every country in Asia and elsewhere in areas that benefited from the Green Revolution increases in wheat and rice and the increased yields from hybrid corn, the % of land under cultivation to primary grains has actually been decreasing while the % of land globally under cultivation to fruits and vegetables has increased substantially (more than tripled since 1980 by my calculations, closer to doubling by others). From 1980 to 2004, fruit production increase 3.6% per year and vegetable production increase 5.5% per year. Only 4% of this increase occurred in developed countries. (World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, World Bank, page 58, and  Horticulture for Poverty Alleviation – The Unfunded Revolution, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, 2005, http://www.avrdc.org/pdf/WP15.pdf , page 3 -“The worldwide supply of fruits and vegetables per capita has increased continuously since 1961.” page 5, “Between 1970 and 2000, annual growth rates in vegetable yields have been impressive in South Asia (1.8%), Latin America and the Caribbean (1.7%) and East and Southeast Asia (1.6%).” page 9, “25% increase in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in the USA between 1977 and 1999,”


I try in a small way to immunize my students against scare tactics by having a one class period devoted to some of the things that are in your food about which you would prefer not to know when you are eating it. The general tenor of the class is a big loud so what? –If in fact the disgusting things in your food improve it in any way either by appearance, taste or texture then so what? And of course, if there is no harm from eating it then again, so what? Finding a list of 10 or 15 or 20 of the supposed grossest things in your food is easy.  Using a search engine will bring up more lists than you need or want. Most all the lists have a sub-text on the evils of modern food production.

Beware the rhetorical question that is designed for you to give the answer that the questioner is seeking. I have a couple of my own. How about – do you want rat poison in your children’s milk? Well yes if it is a calciferol that provides vitamin D 2 (ergocalciferol) and vitaminD-3 (cholecaciferol) both of which are constituents of many rodenticides.  The synthesis of this “rat poison” in the 1920s was one of the important medical advances of the time as it contributed to preventing rickets which was all too common at that time.  It also allowed along with electric lighting for domesticated chickens to lay eggs all year long and was an essential element in raising egg production from  an annual average of 83 per chicken in 1900 to the over 300annual  average today. We have all eaten dog poison, namely chocolate. Most of us if asked know that chocolate is lethal to our beloved pets but do not think of it in that way when we eat it.

What about Ethyl butyrate in our orange juice or martinis? Now that is a chemical and it is used as a solvent in a number of products (nail polish remover) and also as a plasticizer in cellulose. The Ethyl butyrate in your reconstituted orange was originally a natural constituent of the oranges themselves.

It is fun to send the students   looking   for what foods that they eat that have Castoreum  or Cochineal in them. Castoreum comes from beaver’s   castor sac (often called an anal gland because of its proximity to the posterior) and is secreted (or an exudate) in the urine to mark a trail for the beaver.  What could be more natural? Cochineal is a scale insect that is cultivated on cactus in Mexico and has been ground up and used as a food coloring for centuries by the Mayans.

Many of these lists are from websites or groups that criticize modern food production for its alleged waste yet also criticize it for finding uses for the entire animal finding ways to use parts that are not found appetizing in our culture.  Some of these are constituents of what are prized in other cultures such as Haggis among the Scots and blood sausages for the Argentinians. Being raised in New Mexico, I remember Rocky Mountain oysters with great affection.  Or how about what has been identified as the roe or the “fully ripe internal egg masses in the ovaries, or the released external egg masses” of sturgeon except that most of us know it as caviar.

One site even criticized “cheese makers” for using   “rennet derived from the mucosa of a veal calf’s fourth stomach to create the beloved, versatile dairy product” a process used for making certain types of cheeses for several thousand years. Modern biotechnology has provided us with GM chymosin enzyme for rennet cheese which passes muster for vegetarians if they are not ideologically opposed to GMOs.

Processed food has become a code word for modern food evil. Could we not consider wine to be processed grapes and fine cheeses and yogurts and other delicacies as being processed milk?


One of the silliest complaints found   spiraling   through   cypher space is the disdain for having chicken feathers or duck feathers or even human hair or cow horns in our bread and a variety of other products. What many are getting excited about is the extraction of L-cysteine from these for various food and other uses. L-cysteine is an amino acid and therefore a nutrient. For infants and children and even some adults, it is an essential amino acid.


If the critics would calm their hysteria and think about it a minute, they would have to consider this one a plus for the hated “industrial agriculture.” They have taken what would otherwise be a waste product (except maybe for stuffing pillows) and extracted a nutrient from it and added it to the food that we eat. Maybe the organizations and websites promoting these fears don’t want their followers to think about it. Ironically, some of those most vociferous about the “right to know what they are eating” are among the most ignorant of what is in their food or at least its significance.


One of the true achievements of modern science and agriculture is that it finds uses for so much of what is grown and thereby reduces waste. Waste such as not picking crops because they do not have an appearance that is saleable is a separate matter and is deplorable and is rightly condemned. Waste because in our affluence we overstock our refrigerators and then dispose of the inevitable spoilage is also deplorable particularly when there are still so many in hunger. But fuller utilization of what we produce is commendable.


Critics of biotechnology with zero knowledge or experience in agriculture often argue that we should attack world hunger by reducing waste rather than advancing new agricultural technologies. Some of us prefer to use all means at hand both by reducing waste, by increasing output and by seeing that those in need get their fair share. I actually had the good fortune of having someone make the reducing waste argument to me. When I asked him what forms waste takes in poor countries, he did not know but was sure that was what he wanted to work on. In reality, he wanted to dictate how and what those actually working on issues of hunger would do. He was blissfully unaware of the basic fact that farmers and others have been working on reducing post-harvest food loses everywhere and for as long as we have had agriculture.


A favorite rhetorical question uttered by anti-biotech activists is do you want a virus in the DNA of the GM food that you eat? This is raised because as part of the transgenic process small viral segments have been inserted into some plant DNA. Little do they know that through the history of life on this planet, viruses have found a convenient way of replicating themselves by simply becoming part of the invaded organism. As much as 2/3rds of the human genome consists of whole viral sequences or recognizable parts of them.


Modern science and technology have in fact transformed the environment and converted waste into nutrient, it has transformed that which has harmed us into food stuff or medicine. The fungi Claviceps purpurea produces a toxic, ergot, which infested grains such as rye and maize and caused enormous pain called St Anthony’s fire throughout human history. My wife and many others have taken ergot for relief from migraines. This is one of a number of cases where we have taken a poison and used it for medicine or a pain killer or anesthesia. Friedrich Nietzsche’s famed quote – generally translated as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Probably has more truth than Nietzsche himself may have realized.    .


There are a whole raft of other truly disgusting things in the foods that we eat but you will not find them (with a very few exceptions) on the disgusting food lists because their being in our foods does not serve an anti-modern food production agenda. Rat feces or even bits of a rat itself in your cereal or toast or cookies are not pleasant thoughts when eating ones breakfast. . One must not forget the multitude of insects and micro-organisms   that “contaminate” the food that we eat. These and many more can be found in the USDA/FDA Defect Levels Handbook: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods that Present no Health Hazards for Humans found at  http://www.nal.usda.gov/nal_web/fsrio/fseddb/fseddbsearchdetails.php?id=1412This booklet includes the source of each defect and how the defect affects the food. The information is helpful as a quality control tool in food operations.” Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/G

The term Unavoidable Defects in Foods that Present no Health Hazards for Humans says it all. They have been part of the food that we humans have eaten   for as long as we have been eating. As with the Fusarium/fumonisin mentioned above, some of the micro-organisms in our foods produce highly harmful toxins if the dosage is high enough. The dirty little secret that our foodie activists ignore is that modern food production, storage, transporting and processing have reduced these harmful products to extremely small (but not zero) manageable levels. This has not always been the case as our progenitors often suffered mightily from them and as with the cases above with the fumonisins, many poor people today still suffer from them. When you discard a food item because it has become infested with a fungus, think of the poor subsistence family that has a choice of eating something similar or not eating at all.  A quick search will turn up numerous articles in medical journals such as the Lancet of the severe organ damage to those who have little choice but to eat contaminated food. Contrast with tolerance level measured in parts per billion in many foods of “industrial agriculture” that we are privileged to eat.

An ongoing myth is that the manufacturing of L-tryptophan,   using a genetically- modified   bacteria was responsible for an epidemic of Eosinophilia-Myalgia. in the United  States in the 1980s.. This enduring legend remains one of the enduring factoids of the anti-GM movement in spite of massive evidence to the contrary. To the believers, no explanation is required as to how the manufacturing transformed the L-tryptophan   and what pathway or action in the human body would result in the condition of Eosinophilia-Myalgia. When presented with peer reviewed in an email that demonstrated the pathway to Eosinophilia-Myalgia from overdosing on L-tryptophan – a common practice at that time -, one of the leading lights, author,  guru of the movement responded within an hour that nothing in the article – assuming that he read it? –altered his opinion. What more could you expect when your movement is represented around the world by a former ballroom dancing teacher with no training in science who believes that if a enough people in an area engage in something called “yogic flying,” it creates an “harmonic convergence” that will lower the crime rate and raise the average intelligence (A heretofore undisclosed crux of Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome: compromised histamine degradation by M. J. Smith1 and R. H. Garrett2 Inflammation Research, November 2005, Volume 54, Issue 11, pp 435450).

Most vitamins are either harvested from soybeans which are likely transgenic using hexane a potent solvent   or manufactured by bacteria in huge vats in Japanese chemical companies, shipped to the U.S. in huge containers to factories where they are put in pill form in a bottle labeled all natural for a stand- alone vitamin that we mostly get as part of complex proteins.

NOW BACK TO OUR TITLE – A Pesticide as Medicine?

Our question is asked in an news article in Nature news a week following  an article in Nature that explored the possibility that pesticide Glyphosate could possibly be used to treat malaria in other words as medicine.  Could malaria be killed by a garden weed killer? Asks Helen Phillips in Nature News,( Volume 394, Number 6688, July 2, 1998, doi:10.1038/news980702-2) The answer, yes it is possible and also by the same understanding, Glyphosate might also be able to treat other diseases.

“The researchers have also found other shikimate-pathway enzymes in T. gondii and P. falciparum, each one a potential target for new drugs, and plan to try other new combinations of treatment. They have worked out the genetic sequences of a gene that produces one of these enzymes, which may turn out to be a powerful tool in the hunt for a ‘designer’ drug.

“One real advantage of this approach to treatment will be for AIDS patients. Because the immune system of these patients is suppressed they often suffer from multiple opportunistic infections, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as some of the apicomplexan infections. As all of these organisms also have the shikimate pathway, the researchers say “there is now the exciting possibility that compounds with broad-spectrum activity could be useful against several opportunistic pathogens” (Could malaria be killed by a garden weedkiller? By Helen Phillips, Nature News, Volume 394, Number 6688, July 2, 1998, doi:10.1038/news980702-2.)

How could that be possible? Glyphosate works by disrupting the Shikimate pathway in plants causing them to die. A plant’s metabolic process takes energy from the sun  and uses it along with the plant nutrient to create among other things amino acids. The Shikimate pathway is used by the plant for the biosynthesis of the aromatic amino acids including tryptophan which we discussed above. The Shikimate pathway is also used by bacteria, fungi and algae but not animals. We humans and other animals get our amino acids from plants and other animals. Since we do not have to manufacture our amino acids (though we do transform them), it saves our energy for other uses.  Plant photosynthesis using energy from the sun is the ultimate source of both our nutrients and the energy to use them.

In other words, what makes Glyphosate toxic to plants and micro-organisms does not make it toxic to humans. One life forms poison may be another life forms nutrient or at least be neither.  That does not mean that there might not be other toxic side effects for humans but that is an open question and not settled as many fervently believe. Glyphosate has the potential of being medicine for the same reason it is a pesticide – it kills or retards the development of what harms the plants that we are trying to grow or kills or retards the growth of that which harms us. The number of articles in reputable peer reviewed scientific journals strongly suggests  that it may not be toxic to humans or at least not sufficiently toxic to offset possible benefits for disrupting the Shikimate pathway of invasive organisms that harm.  This is in line with the long standing ranking of the toxicity of glyphosate as being type III in a ranking where type I is the most toxic and type III (sometimes a Type IV is added) is the least toxic. Since this article was first drafted, the IARC (WHO) has reclassified Glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen. Since then, a number of scientific agencies that previously approved Glyphosate for use in agriculture have reaffirmed their prior findings contrary to IARC findings. I will leave it to those knowledgeable about the scientific issues to make any further assessments.

Part 3

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