Something disturbing is happening in Norfolk. The John Innes laboratory, whose mission statement is as follows “…to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and engage with policy makers and the public”, has joined the ever-increasing ranks of those who believe that genetic modification is essential in the interests of human health.
On 27th March 2014, on BBC Radio 4, they discussed their latest offering: the genetically modified tomato, first reported in Science Daily. Since tomatoes are the most popular consumed fruit in the developed world, it was the obvious target. Whilst scientists elsewhere in the world have decided to introduce fish genes into tomatoes to see if they would act like a type of anti-freeze (to allow them to be grown in colder climates), John Innes, rest assured, has our best interests at heart. They want to create a tomato which has higher levels of anthocyanins in it. Anthocyanins are one of the pigments found in dark purple fruits such as blueberries and blackberries, and have been highlighted as powerful agents in the prevention of diseases such as gastric ulcers and heart disease, due to the effect of reduced proliferation of H. pylori and the relaxation of arterial walls respectively.
Despite this readily available knowledge, the American Cancer Society stated in 2013 that there have been no strong studies in humans showing that any phytochemical supplement can prevent or treat cancer. Perhaps they are not aware of the paper published by SJ Duthie in 2007, stating the strong and convincing evidence that berry phytochemicals modulate biomarkers of DNA damage and indicators of malignant transformation, to name but one of the thousands of published papers indicating that the consumption of plants rich in such antioxidants can slash cancer rates. Whilst it is clearly demonstrated that supplementing with a single antioxidant, rather than a whole food containing the full spectrum of antioxidants, (known and unknown) has no health benefits or is ultimately harmful, statements such as this from the American Cancer Society do health-seekers no favours whatsoever. Food is ultimately either our most powerful medicine, if we choose the full spectrum of nutrient-dense and colourful plants as the basis of our diet, or the catalyst for our most rapid demise if we choose otherwise.
Back to the tomatoes, and the Norfolk gene-splicers. Tomatoes, being naturally red, do not contain the same antioxidant profile as the dark purple and black berries. The solution – splice a purple pigment into the tomatoes, from the flower of the purple snapdragon. In the John Innes studies, if they are to be believed, the “modified” tomatoes extended life expectancy in mice that were prone to cancer, in comparison with mice which were fed “normal” tomatoes, themselves high in lycopene (a very potent antioxidant noted for its benefits for protection against prostate cancer).
All well and good, but couldn’t we just eat dark purple-skinned fruits such as blueberries and blackberries, or, as I do, take a whole-food supplement made from them? Do we really need outside interference with beneficial foods that have been keeping us healthy for thousands of years? And why are we still, after all this time, focusing on just one group of the many thousands of antioxidants known to be present in our food? The benefits of the purple pigmented fruits do not begin and end with the anthocyanins, useful as they are. They also contain flavonoids (categories of anthoxanthins which have antiageing, anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive and anti-tumour activity) and polyphenols (which have a broad range of benefits from periodontal health to heart health and anti-inflammatory activity).
If someone can demonstrate to me that there is a massive benefit to genetically modified crops that cannot be found anywhere else in nature, or in whole-food supplementation, which in turn has no adverse effects such as the allergies and thyroid suppression known about in other GM crops, then I’m all ears. Until then, please stop messing with our food and pretending it’s good for us.