Five Days of Water Fasting

A couple of weeks back I took part in Oaktree’s Live Below the Line fundraising campaign. If you’re not familiar with Oaktree, they’re an Australian nonprofit organisation with the mission of eliminating poverty in South-East Asia. Live Below the Line (LBL) challenges participants to get through five days spending no more than AU$2 per day on all their food, mimicking life at the extreme poverty line.

Having completed two previous LBLs, this year I decided to up the ante (and hopefully the donations) by attempting to get through the challenge without consuming anything except water. Here’s a rundown of what I found sucky, not so bad, and outright surprising during the week. But first, a word to our sponsors.

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A word to our sponsors

I launched into this LBL with the moderately ambitious but, I thought, achievable fundraising target of AU$600. It turns out I underestimated the generosity of my donors, because they smashed right through that figure to pledge over AU$1500 in total. If you can count yourself one such donor, THANK YOU! I was humbled by the daily outpouring of support and “You’ve received a donation!” emails. Oaktree tells me these funds will be put towards much-needed infrastructure repairs to classrooms in East Timor, scholarships to vulnerable students, training workshops for teachers, school supplies and more. Good job team, you are rad.

If you were meaning to donate but never got around to it, despair not. Head over to my fundraising page and you can still donate any time until the end of June:

https://www.livebelowtheline.com.au/me/nooshbag

One final brief detour into development before getting onto the hungriness.

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A brief detour into development

Oaktree operates by supporting a select group of local organisations in Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea to roll out education programs. Oaktree supplies the raw ingredients of books, uniforms and materials that students need to go to school, as well as teacher training, libraries and computer labs. The local organisations then churn it all up into (hopefully) great learning outcomes.

I like Oaktree. Having lived in Cambodia and Nepal, my feelings on international development are fairly ambivalent and caveat-riddled. While the moral imperative of such work is obvious, the reality on the ground is complex. Seeing the countless nonprofits and social enterprises swarming about (largely oblivious to each other) puts one uncomfortably in mind of a troupe of well-intentioned wrench-wielding bonobos loosed on a grounded passenger jet. Sure, some will do some good. But plenty of others will just bang annoyingly on the outside, and some will accidentally break things that had been working perfectly well already. If you chase them all way, odds are it will be entirely unclear which ones are responsible for what.

Groups such as GiveWell and Effective Altruism have written plenty about what a good nonprofit looks like, so if you’re interested in this issue I highly recommend you check out their stuff. All I’ll say here is that Oaktree seems to me to be one of the nonprofits doing it right. They work through local organisations instead of contributing to the clustercuss of foreign aid workers on the ground, they have reasonably well defined and measurable goals, and importantly, are extremely big on transparency. So for all these reasons, I think they’re a group worth supporting. And thus we come to my big fasting adventure.

My big fasting adventure

I’d like to reassure all previously concerned friends and family members that I didn’t leap into a prolonged fast on a whim. Fasting has become a topic of increasing interest among various clever PhD/MD folks such as Rhonda Patrick, Peter Attia and Valter Longo in recent years, and they’re all talking about it as a health intervention. The scientific literature is swelling with preliminary evidence for the benefits of fasting (more on that below), and first-hand experiences of enterprising self-experimenters are also plentiful.

Having explored a lot of this material, I went into my fast expecting it to be predictably unpleasant, but also interesting and unlikely to pose long-term health risks. And really, in a world where more people are now obese than underweight, a sober discussion of our implicit beliefs about eating may well be in order. Anyway, here are the things I found good, bad, and outright unexpected throughout the week.

Good: Hunger was barely an issue, especially after the first day. The hungriest I got all week was not even as bad as on some normal days when I’m waiting for dinner to cook. Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist who recently completed a 24 day water fast, argues that the sensations we commonly associate with hunger – craving, irritability, distractibility – are actually something else: withdrawal. It’s a radical idea, but do those symptoms not sound quite like nicotine or alcohol withdrawal? Maybe food is physiologically addictive, and maybe true hunger is what I was experiencing by day 3: a vague feeling of emptiness and not much more.

hungryorbored

Good: On the morning of the second day, my meditation session practically ran itself. It was the easiest, calmest and most focused I’d been in weeks.

Unexpected: My sense of smell, which is usually pretty feeble, exploded in sensitivity. It turns out this is also a common fasting experience. Food aromas became rich and vibrant even from way across a room. One time I halluci-smelled delicious toasted bread for about half a kilometer on a bike ride. Mmm damn.

Bad: Socialising. It’s funny how ubiquitous food is in social interactions. There aren’t that many activities to do with normal people, especially in evenings when the weather is bad, that don’t tend to include putting liquids or solids in mouths. I ended up feeling guilty for making people feel guilty about eating around me.

Good: Free time. It’s surprising what a tremendous amount of our lives is taken up by food: shopping for it, cooking it, washing dishes, actually eating it, getting to and from cafes/restaurants/wherever. Even just planning your day around three meals leaves you with only relatively small blocks of unbroken time. Instead what I had was: wake up. Blank. Do anything at any point between now and falling asleep in ~16 hours.

Unexpected: The intensity of weight loss. This could be a plus for a lot of people, but I started things already a tad lighter than I prefer. Here’s me pre-fast:Pre.JPG

The green line, 71.3 kg, is the exact middle of the healthy BMI range (18.5-25 kg/m²) for my height. (About 18 months back, having become worried about mid-twenties beer belly creep, I calculated this to be my ideal weight and set myself the long-term mission of staying +/- 2 kg of it. [Sub-tangent: Yes, there are problems with using BMI as a measure of health, but it’s SO convenient.] I was somewhat above my ideal weight at the time, so I spent several months struggling to shed a few kilos using intermittent fasting, without much success. Then came a year of living in Nepal without scales. Turns out a year of dahl baat and water-borne parasites is an excellent weight loss strategy.)

The red line, 65 kg, indicates the abort weight I agreed to with my girlfriend prior to starting. I also agreed to drop out if I ever fainted or started feeling seriously unwell. I anticipated losing about half a kilo a day. What actually happened:

During

I plummeted from the get-go and never really stopped, with the curious exception of day four. I had been aiming to fast for a full week, but was forced to abort at the end of day five. I lost an average of 1.4 kg every day, lots of which I assume was water weight. However, according to some fancy iHealth scales my lady friend acquired, which purport to measure body composition by passing a small electrical current through your feet:

  • My water content went up slightly, from 60% to 61.8%
  • Body fat decreased from 13.5% down to 10.2% (-2.8 kg)
  • Muscle mass decreased from 56.6 kg down to 53.5 kg (-3.1 kg)

I have no idea how much to trust these data, if at all. In any case, overall weight bounced right back in a matter of days (days of shameless, shameless binging), and I feel and look exactly the same as pre-fast.

Bad: Day 3. I expected this one to be a struggle because other blogs had told me it would be, and they exaggerated nothing. It was the only day I didn’t go to work, or even leave the house… or barely even my bed. A stabbing pain developed across my back which felt like my muscles running out of energy to even just sit there holding my torso together. I confess that I cheated in the afternoon and had a Berocca. Sheer existence was feeling so icky that I started worrying that some kind of critical nutrient deficiency was kicking in. Nope, turns out that’s just what three days without food feels like. (Some people claim the discomfort is your body properly shifting into ketosis, see below). Despite fatigue I woke up at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Mood: maudlin.

Bad: Utter, utter lethargy. I’ve never before known what it’s like to feel weak. Not just tired, but genuinely weak, where standing up would take a serious, concerted effort (if it’s even possible – you’re not sure), and something like jumping is unthinkable.
On day 1 I rode my bike to work and went swing dancing as usual; I even got an impromptu flu vaccine, and didn’t feel toooo bad about any of it. On day 2 I also cycled, though very slowly. Day 3 was the worst, but days 4 and 5 were still difficult, shuffling affairs. Some other fasting blogs have people claiming absurd things about this period, like “Feeling awesome in general, super focused, no afternoon fatigue” and “This might be the best I’ve felt mentally in my entire life.” Let the record show that I felt like a bag of pulped slugs the whole time.

Good: Breaking fast. I don’t think any Christmas eve in my whole life has had me as excited as I was the night before getting to eat again.
There’s a bunch of advice online about how you should ease yourself back into food after a fast, i.e. start with juices, ease into fruits and vegetables etc. I tried to follow the advice… sort of, briefly. But let’s be honest: it’s almost all conjured up by people who believe in juice detoxes and have dumb things to say about gluten. I doubt there are any proper studies about how humans should break a fast. So by lunch time I decided ‘screw it’.

EDIT: Several intelligent medically-trained friends have pointed out to me that whether or not such studies have been done, refeeding syndrome definitely is a real and serious condition. I’m not sure if it’s relevant to such a short fast, but I’m now somewhat embarrassed about the recklessness of the following paragraph.

I won’t describe the shameless orgy of binging that ensued that day (hint: it included Tim-Tams, dark chocolate, coffee, ice-cream, lentils, Smarties, popcorn, chocolate cookies, halloumi, calzones and beer). By that night I was feeling vaguely sick and trembly with what was probably some combination of hyperglycaemia, adrenaline, cortisol, caffeine and sleep deprivation.

The next day, however, was magical. I weighed in at almost 4 kg heavier, my energy and strength were back with a vengeance, and it felt like a foggy veil had lifted from my mind, boosting me to a level of mental acuity and positivity that I never thought possible (though which was probably just what normal life with food feels like).

The science of fasting

Things are going to swerve into a bit of a science lesson here, so if you’re not interested it’s probably a good time to drop out. Also, my attorney advises me to state here that none of the following constitutes medical advice, and anything you decide to do, you do at your own risk. Happy hunting!

Firstly: starving is different to fasting. Starving means your body has entered crisis mode and started breaking down important tissues and organs for energy. Not good at all. The average healthy human, however, won’t enter starvation for many days, possibly even weeks.

After a decent meal most people will put away sufficient reserves of glycogen to last 12-16 hours without needing to eat anything. Glycogen – a big glob of tightly-packed glucose molecules – is your body’s preferred fuel and will always be used first. This means that if you never skip breakfast or dinner, you may never get through your glycogen reserves, and therefore never need to tap into your stored fat.

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Glycogen, which you have spent your entire life endlessly constructing and deconstructing and constructing and deconstructing.

If your glycogen ever runs out, e.g. during fasting, your body kicks into an alternative, evolutionarily ancient metabolic mode and starts mobilising stored fatty acids and certain amino acids to build glucose and ketone bodies. These compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier, making them useful fuels for neural cells. Note that the process of generating ketone bodies (“ketosis”) is completely benign and distinct from ketoacidosis, which is destructive and generally a result of uncontrolled diabetes.

Depending on body weight and composition, most human beings can survive for 30 or more days in the absence of food. (source)

Thirty days without food would almost certainly not be healthy or advisable. But the notion that we need to eat every day, let alone three meals a days, is false. Due to the high degree of variability in people’s physiology, there don’t seem to be any universal medical guidelines to how long a fast can be safely maintained. However, it’s illustrative that thousands of people have completed 5-40 day fasts without suffering long-term health problems. And despite 24 days on nothing but water, former NASA scientist Ray Cronise didn’t become deficient in a single micronutrient.

A mounting body of evidence is showing that occasional fasts are probably not just acceptable, but actually a great thing to do.

The best overview of the current fasting literature is probably this 2014 paper by Valter Longo, so check it out if you’d like the full biochemical nitty gritty. Some of the key findings from recent fasting studies are:

Caloric restriction increases lifespan. As the mortality curve below shows, when lab mice are allowed to eat as much as they like (‘ad libitum’), their average age at death is about 30 months. When calories are increasingly restricted however, their average lifespan increases up to a maximum of around 45 months. The inlaid graph shows that maximum as well as average lifespan decreases with extra calories.

survival

Weindruch and Sohal, New Engl J Med, 1997

In fact, restricting calories is the most robust and reproducible way of extending lifespan in lab animals – better than any drug or intervention yet discovered. The trick works for bacteria, yeast and worms too. Results in primates (usually Rhesus monkeys) are still forthcoming due to the long lifespan of these animals. However, preliminary results from one experiment show an increased chance of survival in calorie-restricted monkeys from 50% to 80%, while another experiment shows a reduction in death from age-related disease in calorie-restricted monkeys from 37% down to 13%.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether caloric restriction confers longevity in humans, because that experiment will probably never be done. But it’s a good bet that nature has programmed us the same way as all those lab species. Some of the best human longevity evidence comes from the so-called “Blue Zones“, human populations who lead the longest, healthiest lives on the planet. When Blue Zone diets are analysed, sure enough, they typically involve moderate caloric intake. (Interestingly, vegetarianism features heavily as well.)

longevity

So why does caloric restriction extend lifespan? A longstanding explanation has been that the mere process of metabolising food causes unavoidable oxidative damage to DNA and proteins, and this is what aging really is. However, two recent Cell Metabolism papers used a combination of mouse experiments and human epidemiological data to show that it is not all calories, but specifically protein intake that decreases lifespan and leads to age-related diseases like cancer. If you’re a biochem nerd, the effect appears to be mediated by the pro-growth IGF-1 and mTOR pathways.

What else is fasting ostensibly good for? Seemingly, just about everything. It’s actually dizzying trying to get your head around it all. In rodents, alternating days of feeding and fasting leads to the generation of new neurons, which is demonstrated by improved performance in tests of learning and consolidation. In mouse brain cancer models, intermittent fasting combined with chemotherapy resulted in long-term cancer-free survival, whereas both treatments in isolation failed. The proposed mechanism is fascinating. To simplify a little, fasting stresses cells and causes them to switch to a self-protection/survival mode where they conserve resources. Because cancer cells have lost the ability to do this, they misjudge and leap the other way, attempting to grow and synthesise ever more, and consequently “burn themselves out”. Clinical trials are currently testing whether this approach might work for human cancers.

In a human 10-day water fast study, hypertension was reduced by a potentially life-saving 37/13 mm Hg on average (even better were the results for people with the greatest hypertension, who dropped an average of 60/17 mm Hg). Fasting followed by switching to a vegetarian diet alleviates rheumatoid arthritis and pain in humans. The massive beneficial effects fasting has on metabolic disease markers, weight management and heart protection probably go without saying.

Conclusion

Having pored over an overwhelming number of fasting studies, my general impression is that this is still a young field of research, though massively ripe for exploration and an exciting space to watch in coming years. There are clearly health benefits out there to be had, and probably longevity benefits too, though it’s still far from clear how best to fast. How long for? How frequently? And I didn’t even mention all of the different types of fasting being explored: intermittent fasting, caloric restriction, prolonged fasting, restricted feeding window, 5/2, fast-mimicking diets, and so on.

While the best kind of fasting is still unclear, something I’m more confident of is that there may be no worst kind. That is to say, I didn’t come across a single study that had anything very bad at all to say about fasting. I’m sure it would be possible to get reckless and overdo things, but at the moment, the proven benefits seem to far outweigh any possible risks, at least for short fasts. Barely any human studies have investigated fasts of more than 2 or 3 days, so until more evidence comes out on that front (or until I develop rheumatoid arthritis or hypertension) I think I’ll avoid another lengthy stint on water, if for no other reason than how unpleasant it was. Conversely, there does seem to be good evidence that periodically burning through your glycogen stores is a healthy thing to do, so I will be aiming for the occasional shorter fast. Even if that just means skipping breakfast now and then.

 

Sources

The Neuroscience of Juggling

Over the past few years a slew of news outlets have been singing the cognitive benefits of learning to juggle. If one is to believe the hype, this ancient circus activity will increase your brain powermake your brain bigger (permanently, no less), and may even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Dang.

Can there be any truth to these heady claims, or is it another case of the media committing that most egregious of sins: distorting science for the sake of a catchy headline? Here we plunge into the literature and investigate what has actually been shown experimentally.  Continue reading

GMOs Pt 4: Is the Apocalypse Nigh?

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Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are playing an increasingly significant role in global agriculture, and quite literally changing the face of our planet. Unfortunately, science has a rich history of inadvertently messing things up, which raises a question: should we be concerned about GM crops too? There are five major worries that people commonly hold regarding the technology:

  1. GM food is dangerous for human health
  2. GM crops lead to increased pesticide use
  3. Farmers are exploited by biotech companies
  4. Genes from GM plants might spread into the wild
  5. Triffids?!

If you’ve already read up on What Genetic Modification Is and What the Heck is Out There, you have all the background needed for us to turn up our coat collars, dive boldly in and see where the evidence leads on these questions.

 

Chemicals and critters

We’ve mentioned previously that of the millions of hectares of different GM crops out there, just two types of modification account for almost all of them: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. It’s worth understanding these in a bit more detail before addressing the five major worries.

Herbicide tolerance is a modification that allows plants to survive a synthetic chemical called glyphosateGlyphosate was created by Monsanto in the 1970s and brought to market as “Roundup”. After their patent expired in 2000, glyphosate use expanded greatly, soon becoming the most widely used herbicide in the world. It has been described as a “one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling diseases.” This weighty claim is worth taking seriously.

Glyphosate interferes with a protein called EPSPS which is critical for growth. This protein is only found in plants and bacteria, meaning glyphosate has minimal toxicity toward humans and other animals. It is also cheap, has a relatively short half-life in the environment, and has replaced the use of several more toxic and persistent herbicides.

“Roundup Ready” plants, developed by Monsanto, contain a modified copy of the EPSPS gene which lets them grow even in the presence of glyphosate. This means that farmers can spray glyphosate on their Roundup Ready crop, and only weeds and competing plants will be killed. This represents a vast simplification of pest management strategies.

Fun fact: the modified EPSPS gene was isolated from a bacterium found growing in a glyphosate manufacturing waste stream.

 

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Micrograph of a colony of bacillus thuringiensis

The other major crop modification, insect tolerance, is achieved by giving plants a gene to make “Bt”. Bt is a naturally occurring protein that gets its name from its creator: Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium. A simple overview of the Bt system is provided by the European Commission.

When Bt is ingested by an insect, it is activated by the alkaline environment of the insect’s stomach and becomes toxic. It interferes with the insect’s digestive tract, eventually causing the insect to starve to death. Because humans and other vertebrates have acidic stomachs, any Bt ingested remains in its non-active form, and is therefore not toxic. A review from the European Food Safety Authority (see p. 8) reached this same conclusion of Bt non-toxicity in mammals. Furthermore, Bt is only harmful to insects that ingest it, meaning that beneficial insects like honeybees, which don’t eat crop plants, are left unscathed.

Bt has been used as an insecticide since the ’60s, when it was approved in Germany as a spray. Because Bt is a naturally-occurring product, it is also commonly used on organic farms as a spray – there’s a good chance your organic kale was grown with the help of Bt. Genetically modified Bt crops let farmers skip the spraying step, instead making the protein automatically inside their cells, where it will only harm any insects which eat the plant.

Now we’ve covered the two main GM technologies, let’s tackle the five major worries!

 

1. Is GM food dangerous for human health?

It turns out that this question has the clearest answer of all: GM food is in no way dangerous to human health. Follow this link for more information and references about the safety of GM food than you could possibly care to read. In short though:

“There are nearly 2000 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.”

 

A selection of the many scientific and medical organisations that have publicly supported this assessment:

14-12-01 The science of genetically modified food

For a GM crop to be certified as safe for human consumption by organisations like the FDA, it must display “nutritional equivalence” to its non-GM counterpart. Remember, the fundamental change in a GM plant is that it has a few extra genes sprinkled amongst tens of thousands of genes, making one extra protein amongst tens of thousands. This means that nutritional equivalence is not surprising.

The main risk of introduced proteins is that they could cause an allergic reaction. Accordingly, allergenicity testing is a strict requirement for any proposed GM crop. This testing is effective, and to date, “no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions.” Interestingly, GM technology can actually be used to go the other way, remove existing allergens from food.

If you have any lingering doubts about the health safety of GM food, hopefully this 29-year study of over 100 billion GM-fed animals will satisfy them.

 

2 & 3. Do GM crops lead to increased pesticide use, and are farmers exploited by biotech companies?

We’ve seen that Roundup Ready crops can survive copious spraying of glyphosate. Could this encourage farmers to apply the chemical recklessly? If so this is a worry, as the more glyphosate that is used, the more pressure there is on weeds to develop resistance, necessitating the use of ever greater quantities of glyphosate. As for exploitation of farmers, claims along the following lines are well-known: “Roundup Ready crops do not increase the yield or profits of farmers, [and so] only serve to benefit Monsanto.”

To address these two issues, we turn to the latest and most comprehensive peer-reviewed meta-analysis of the economic impacts of GM crops, published in 2014 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The authors screened over 20,000 agronomic studies, narrowing down to a set of 147 which met stringent criteria for inclusion. They analysed a range of factors, including yield, pesticide use and farmer profits. Here are their results when comparing GM crops to conventional ones. *** indicates high statistical significance (at the 0.01 level):

journal.pone.0111629.g002

So they found that, on average, GM crops increase yield by 21.6%, decrease pesticide used by 36.9%, and increase farmer profits by a whopping 68.2%. There is no significant effect on total production cost. As the authors explain, although GM seeds are more expensive than conventional ones, this cost is offset by savings in pesticide use and manual pest control.

These results may come as a surprise; however, the story changes when we separate out herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) and insect resistant (Bt) crops. Analysed on their own, Roundup Ready crops only increase yield by about 9% (compared to 25% for Bt crops), and while both types of modification increase farmer profit by around 68% on average, this figure is extremely variable for Roundup Ready crops. It seems that they are sometimes great for profits (150% increases or more), but other times they actually hurt profits badly (-24% or worse). Also notably, the decrease seen on the graph in pesticide use is due entirely to Bt crops (which use 42% less than conventional crops). Roundup Ready crops seem to need just as much pesticide as conventional crops.

The take-home message is that not all GMOs are created equally. Overall, genetic modification has been a great boon to farmer profits and played a role in decreasing pesticide use, but it will be necessary to evaluate each new modification on its own merits.

 

4. Can genes from GM plants spread into the wild?

Is it possible that GM crops could escape into the environment and run rampant much like an introduced species, or perhaps breed with weeds/wild relatives to create a so-called “superweed“?

First, the scary news: breeding of crop plants with wild ones occurs constantly. Rapeseed can mate with turnip rape, genes from cultivated maize can cross to wild maize, and sugar beet can form hybrids with garden beet. This process happens for both GM crops and crops bred over time for selected traits.

Furthermore, it turns out that glyphosate-resistant weeds have already emerged, with half of all U.S. farms now struggling to control these pests. While this is a serious issue for food security and highlights the danger of relying on a single pest-control mechanism, the resistance is not due to GM genes escaping. Rather, it has evolved independently in the weeds. Such evolution is ubiquitous and inevitable, and the same process underlies multidrug-resistant bacteria, insects overcoming every insecticide ever made (including Bt), and why effective cancer drugs are extremely difficult to develop.

Short of some game-changing technological breakthrough, humans will always be locked into these evolutionary battles against pests and diseases.

Regardless, do we need to be concerned about the spread of GM genes? It depends on the modification, but the answer will often be “not really.” To understand why, let’s consider a critical Darwinian question:

“Will the extra protein(s) give the GM plant an advantage over wild ones?”

It costs a plant resources to make proteins, so if those proteins don’t do something to give the plant a leg up over its competitors, the plant won’t spread. Glyphosate doesn’t exist in nature, so building glyphosate-resistance proteins is just dead weight.

On the other hand, there are modifications, such as faster growth or insect resistance, that could conceivably give a GM plant an advantage over competitors – Bt is a good candidate. In these cases, management strategies such as seed sterility, buffer zones, and altered flowering timing are critical for ecological safety.

There are no known instances of GM plants spreading genes into the environment – although interbreeding with non-GM crops is another issue (maybe for a future article) maybe for a future article. At this point the risk seems manageable Once again though, genetic modifications will have to be scrutinised on a case-by-case basis.

 

5. Triffids?!

 

Biological traits like mobility and intelligence are super complicated to even understand, let alone engineer. We’re probably safe on this front for a long while yet.

 

Do we actually need GM crops?

We’ve seen that, thankfully, a lot of the criticisms and worries around GM crops don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s clear that, overall, GM crops have increased yield and farmer profits, decreased pesticide use, and are safe for human consumption. Nonetheless, it may be worth considering whether we really need GM crops. There will always be unknown risks involved in tampering with complex systems such as global agriculture, and these unknowns may exceed the known benefits.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of GM food rests on the projected global population for the coming century, which is set to increase significantly. Agriculture already covers about a third of the world’s landmass, and short of further deforestation, there simply isn’t more space to devote to it. This means that if we are to feed a growing population, yield per hectare will have to increase. It will be difficult to achieve these increases without (and possibly even with) turning to GM technology – especially in the face of climate change.

Another argument is one of humanitarianism and international development. Contrary to common perception, 90% of GM crop farmers live in developing countries, largely China and India, and till small resource-poor farms. We have seen that GM crops typically lead to increased yields and profits for farmers. Anecdotally (see link above), this extra income often goes to financing things like improved access to health care and education.

Maybe the apocalypse isn’t quite so nigh as we may have feared.

Want to learn more? Two reputable and well-researched websites are the Genetic Literacy Project, and the European Union’s GMOcompass.

GMOs Pt 3: What the Heck is Out There?

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

Welcome to the third part of this mini-series on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), where we’ll take a more detailed look at what the heck is out there in the environment. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to first read up on what exactly genetic modification is, and maybe how to make your very own GMO.

Let’s start with some context by taking a starry-eyed look back over 10 of the most significant developments in GMO technology that have led up to today.

A Montage of Genetic Modification

1953: Watson, Crick and Franklin discover the structure of DNA.

1973: Boyer and Cohen create the world’s first ever GMO when they modify the bacteria E. coli to express an antibiotic-resistance gene. In the process they unintentionally foreshadow a serious problem soon to hit the world: the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals.

1974: Jaenisch and Mintz create the first GM animal. They injected a primate virus into mouse embryos, then transplanted the embryos into surrogate mothers. The mice grew up normally except that they contained the viral DNA.

1978: Genentech, the world’s first genetic engineering company is founded, and engineers E. coli that can produce human insulin. Diabetics and livestock everywhere rejoice.

1980: The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 in General Electric’s favour that “A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter”. In so doing, it sets the entire course of GMO history to come. GE immediately patents a bacteria engineered to eat crude oil.

1983: The first modified plant is created, again by adding an antibiotic resistance gene. Can you guess the species? (Hint: it was the ’80s). Yep, of course it was tobacco.

1987: The first field release of a GMO takes place – a “Frostban” bacteria designed to protect crops from frost. Activists attack and attempt to sabotage the trial site the night before. It’s said that history repeats.

1994: Calgene produces the first commercial genetically modified (GM) crop plant, the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato doesn’t produce a natural protein that degrades cell walls, meaning it stays ripe for longer. The Flavr Savr experiences a tumultuous commercial life of initial success, then by a decline at the hands of consumer distrust, and finally discontinuation by 1997.

1995: The commercial GMO market explodes, with the development of potato, cotton and maize strains that can resist insects.

In the ensuing two decades, two particular classes of modification have come to dominate the GM plant market: insect resistance (via insertion of the “Bt” toxin gene), and resistance to the herbicide “glyphosate” (marketed as Roundup). Glyphosate resistance now dominates the GM market to such a degree that it is present in a whopping ~90% of all transgenic crops, making it the Big Cheese of commercial GMOs. We’ll talk about this as well as Bt in the next instalment.

How many GMOs are out there?

To date, all GMOs approved for human consumption have been plants. A common source of confusion regarding this claim is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. rBGH is produced by genetically modified bacteria, in much the same way as human insulin. Injecting rBGH into cattle doesn’t cause them to become genetically modified. It is however a form of doping, one which is demonstrably harmful for their health and wellbeing. Human growth hormone has been abused by athletes since the ’80s.

So, why haven’t GM animals been commercialised (except for certain novelty uses)? There are a few possible reasons. Plant products make up the bulk of the average person’s diet, and consequently plants account for the majority of the value of the agricultural sector. Aside from this economic incentive, plants are arguably easier to modify and cultivate than animals.

Nonetheless, there’s also a clear legislative bias at play against commercialising GM animals. This may reflect an unproven notion that there’s less risk of GM plants escaping and spreading. A more reasonable argument might be that because plants lack sentience, there’s no risk of them suffering because of a modification. The main reason for the bias may not be so rational though.

Since animals are our closest evolutionary ancestors, we typically hold them in a more reverential and even “sacred” light than plants. You can probably imagine a mutant two-trunked pine tree without being too bothered, but a two-headed rat feels a lot more uncanny valley.

Whatever the reason, at this point in history, crop plants are the undisputed stars of GM technology, so we’ll refocus our radar in the direction of agriculture.

 Delicious Data About Agriculture

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Agriculture covers a full third of the Earth’s land area, and as of 2013, GM crops made up about 3.5% of the total. That corresponds to more than 1.7 million square kilometers, or an area greater than the entire landmass of Iran. Given this, it’s probably fair to say the prevalence of GMOs is not insignificant.

Legal regulations and social attitudes towards GMOs vary widely between countries, which means that these crops aren’t just scattered around the globe randomly. A particularly rich source of information on GM crops is the report Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012, commissioned by the pro-GM group ISAAA (The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications). Despite their partisanship on the issue the data seem solid, and the report is worth a read if you’re interested in details about a particular country’s GMO activities.

Which nations are the biggest adopters of GMOs? There were only 28 countries growing GM crops as of 2012, though these countries are home to 60% of the world’s population. Uptake is overwhelmingly focused in North and South America. Interestingly, and largely owing to Europe having the strictest GMO regulations in the world, there are only eight industrialised countries growing GM crops, meaning the rest are developing nations.

Most GM-growing nations are currently focusing on cotton, maize and soybean. GM food crops are predominately used as livestock feed rather than for human consumption, and as mentioned earlier, most GM crops are herbicide resistant and/or insect resistant. This is changing though, with an increasing proportion of “second generation” strains entering the market, which have these traits stacked with others, such as enhanced nutrition or drought tolerance. The USA and China are cultivating GM versions of several other food crops, including things like papaya, sugarbeet and sweet pepper.

While the USA has the greatest land area devoted to GM crops of any nation, as well as the highest number of GM species, GM land is mostly devoted to just a few staple crops, for which an extremely high proportion grown are GM varieties. For the “big three” of cotton, maize and soybean, over 90% of farms are now growing GM varieties. In Canada, a record high of 97.5% of canola crops are GM.

The increasing uptake of GM crops is an interesting story. Despite the USA easily dominating the pack in this modern day space race, the vast majority of remaining GM crops – and 90% of GM farmers – are located in the developing world. Developing nations are also taking up GM technology at a greater rate. As you can see in the chart below, industrialised nations have already lost the majority share of the market.

How do we explain the huge differences in GMO legislation and uptake rates between countries, particularly Europe and the USA? It’s worth first reminding ourselves that, by many metrics, the USA is just a weird outlier, so this may be a very difficult question to answer.

Nonetheless, one possible explanation is labelling requirements (though the causality is hard to tease apart). In the late ’90s, a strong opposition movement to GMOs grew in Europe, and it succeeded in mandating strict labelling of any GM products. Supermarkets responded with a wave of panic, banning products containing any GM ingredients out of fear of losing customers. In a very short time, the entire European GM industry was dead. Conversely, see North America on the graph below (click for larger version). It has no labelling requirements.

Without labelling of GM products, there is less consumer concern and less avoidance of them, meaning the economic incentive for farmers is to grow GM crops rather than less efficient conventional ones. Is this a bad situation for the USA? This debate is currently raging in several US states, with recent or upcoming votes on GMO labelling. All we will say here is that when public concern is coupled with scientific misunderstanding, the outcome can be quite harmful.

Unravelling Some Sticky Side-Issues

Neil deGrasse Tyson was recently lambasted for defending GM technology by claiming it is not all that different from the domestic selection that humans have been exerting on plants and animals for thousands of years. As he pointed out when he later clarified his statement, there is a big sticky mess of related issues tangled up with GMOs, and it was these that his attackers mostly took issue, not the science itself. It’s worth dissecting out a couple of these confounding topics before closing the book on current GMO status.

The sticky mess includes things like: corporate exploitation of small farmers, monocultures, and the merits of “organic” farming (a term that every organic chemist will tell you is meaningless as they sigh into their erlenmeyer flask).

1. Corporate exploitation and patenting. Tales are rampant of farmers in developing countries being forced into unfair annual contracts for GM seeds, or of organic farmers losing their organic licence then being sued because their crops have been contaminated by a GM strain. Such situations rightly invoke our moral outrage. However, according to the excellently researched and independent Genetic Literacy Project, these stories simply aren’t true. Some are myths while others have the facts twisted. Even if these tales were true though, lawsuits and rigid contracts are issues of equitable IP legislation, not of science. The same problem applies to the pharmaceutical industry, with potentially life-saving medications being fiercely protected by patents and kept artificially expensive.

2. Monocultures. A common claim is that GM crops are always “monocultures”, meaning genetically identical plants are grown en masse. The risk here is that if a virus or pest evolves which one plant is susceptible to, all would be susceptible, leading to rapid losses of huge numbers of plants. As it turns out though, when a GM plant is developed, the trait is typically bred across into many cultivars in order to increase the genetic diversity and minimise this risk. That said, growing only one type of crop in an area does harm soil quality and biodiversity and so should be avoided where possible. Most GM crops, excepting pesticide resistant ones, can be grown in mixed plots with no barriers.

3. Organic food. The main point to stress here is that GM crops are not the opposite of “organic” crops. While organic farming excludes the use of GMOs on ideological grounds, it is primarily an alternative to conventional large-scale agriculture. You could grow a patch of GM alfalfa using entirely organic farming practices if you wanted to. Despite this, GMOs and organics are often pitted against each other in the context of food production and security.

Whatever merits organic farming may have, superior food production is sadly not one of them. A 2012 meta-analysis published in that most weighty of scientific journals, Nature, found that organic farming typically produces 34% lower yields when compared to conventionally farmed crops in comparable conditions. This entertaining and well-researched video explores the pros and cons around organic food and dispels some common myths.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You should now be clued up on exactly what genetic modification means, where GMOs come from, their history, and what the heck is out there at the moment. This means it’s time to face the upcoming last part in the series: GMOs Pt 4: Is the Apocalypse Nigh?

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A Completely Unscientific, Not Even Singly-Blind Case Study on the Effects of Daily Vitamin & Mineral Supplement on Perceived Health and Well-Being

ImageBackground

Subject was a healthy 25-year old Caucasian male. Subject maintained a predominantly vegequarian diet consisting of cereal, dairy, copious quantities of white rice, various Asian vegetables and fruits, seafood and, rarely, insects or creepy miscellaneous meat. Subject was a non-smoker, and alcohol intake was hearty and regular.

During a routine clean-out of the communal refrigerator, subject discovered a box of Vitamin & Mineral Supplements (“Vitacap”, Mega Lifesciences (Australia) Pty. Ltd.), presumably left behind by a former volunteer. Subject decided to commence a course of these pills a) to see whether they would provide any health benefits, b) because they were free, and c) because they looked kind of fancy and tasted slightly like chocolate.

Material and Methods

Nutritional content of each pill was as follows:

Vitamin A (Palmitate)                                  5000 IU
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine Mononitrate)            5 MG
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)                               5 MG
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine HCl)                        2 MG
Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)                  5 MCG
Vitamin C                                                   75 MG
Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)                      400 IU
Vitamin E (di-alpha Tocopheryl Acetate)   15 MG
Nicotinamide                                              45 MG
D-Panthenol                                              45 MG
Folic Acid                                                  1000 MCG
Ferrous Fumarate                                      50 MG
Dibasic Calcium Phosphate                        70 MG
Copper Sulphate                                       0.1 MG
Manganese Sulphate                                  0.01 MG
Zinc Sulphate Dried                                  50 MG
Potassium Iodide                                      0.025 MG
Magnesium Oxide                                      0.5 MG

One pill was consumed daily between 7.30am and 12.30pm, typically with fruit juice or failing that, water or beer. Course of vitamin & mineral supplements was carried out for approximately 3 months.

Results

1.   Morning vivaciousness

Prior to, during and following the course of vitamin and mineral supplements, subject typically woke up feeling uniformly like a hung-over bag of trash.

2.   Energy levels during the day
Throughout the course of treatment there was no improvement in subject’s tendency to feel “over it” and sleepy by lunch time.

3.   Resistance to disease
During the period of vitamin and mineral supplementation, subject experienced one pinkeye scare (which luckily turned out just to be tiredness) and two minor bouts of cold. This was not an improvement over general health prior to supplementation.

4.   Swallowing aptitude
Subject did experience a marked improvement in his ability to swallow these rather unpleasantly large pills without them hitting his epiglottis.

Discussion

The results from this study do not support the hypothesis that any health benefits are gained from randomly taking vitamin and mineral supplements of unknown origin that were found in a box in a fridge.

In hindsight, even the scantiest of internet searches would’ve shown that this endeavour was doomed to failure from the outset. As explained by the Victorian Government-funded Better Health Channel [1]:

“Vitamins play an important role in keeping the body healthy. However, taking large doses of certain vitamins can actually be harmful. For most people, it is best to get the vitamins our bodies need from eating a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods, rather than by taking supplements.

Vitamin supplements are frequently misused and taken without professional advice. High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.”

Oops.

The one unexpected benefit from this study was the increase in swallowing proficiency. Whether this will have broader applicability beyond the scope of consuming non-beneficial dietary supplements remains to be seen.

The author did not receive any funding from or have any links to vested interests or bodies related to this “study”.

References

[1] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamins_common_misconceptions

Oh I Would Ride 500 Miles

 

Imagine you’re flying through the air, about to collide with the road at approximately 32km/hr. What do you feel in that moment? A flash of terror? Reflex preparedness? Fatalism?

The correct answer: not a whole lot of anything. You don’t have time to think about it.

You won’t remember the impact. Your brain skips straight ahead from that suspended instant in midair, then you’re on the ground and your instincts have kicked in: ignore your injuries, get off the road, drag your bike out of the way of traffic. Blood is running down your left forearm and one of your riding gloves is stained brown from clutching the elbow. It’s funny how no one in Hollywood seems to know just how quickly that sacred life fluid oxidises once outside the body.

You don’t really feel the pain yet; your mind is back in your apartment months ago, reliving a conversation you had with your housemate. You’d sworn you would never become one of those wanky east-siders who cycle around wearing Lycra and gloves. He advised you to at least reconsider the gloves, said you’d be grateful for it when you eventually came off. He was right.

Concentrate, stay in the moment.

The driver has gotten out and is explaining something about blind spots while a fierce old woman berates him. A couple of passers-by have rushed over and are asking if you’re ok; telling you to do things, telling you to get the driver’s details. Later on you will not remember their faces or even how many there were. It’s ok, it’s the shock. You realise you’re limping a bit. You try to inspect your elbow but it’s hard to judge with all the blood and the funny angle. It looks deep. The front bonnet of the car has popped off from the force of the crash, and you’re surprised to find you feel slightly proud.

The most realistic stories are the true ones.

It was about six months ago that I had my accident. Melbourne’s not the easiest city in which to be a cyclist. Numbers of riders have increased hugely over the past decade, but I still consider us pioneers of sorts, forging a path forward in a hostile environment for the good of future generations. This idea isn’t mere fancy- there’s a well-documented relationship between the number of cyclists in a city and the safety of cycling.

The theory is that as motorists become more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, they get better at looking for them. This is something I can definitely believe. Some of my best-practised manoeuvres include swerving to avoid clueless pedestrians and slamming on the brakes when a driver suddenly turns left. I’m constantly awaiting the unexpectedly opened car door that will be the last thing I ever see. Amusing door-related epitaphs welcome.

It’s early 2009 and I’m in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Right now my home state is being torn apart by the worst bushfires in recently history, in which 173 people will ultimately die. But right now I know nothing of this; my mind is in the past, occupied with another tragedy of human life: Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Death Railway, where over 100,000 prisoners of war died during the Second World War. Having visited the poignant bridge and war museum, I’ve hired a push-bike for the day in order to see the town and visit a memorial several kilometres away. I’m weaving happily amongst motorists and motorcyclists down the main road. Bikes are common enough here that people look for you, and consequently I feel safer than ever I did in Melbourne. If I were to come off, I’ve heard stories that maybe the locals would rush over and pour Coca-Cola on the wound since it’s the only sterile substance they have easy access to.

Back in Melbourne: twenty minutes after the crash everyone has left and I’m dazed in the city clutching my elbow, wondering helplessly where the nearest hospital is. I call my best friend, who was actually waiting to meet me, and tell them I won’t be able to make it. As I explain what’s happened, my voice breaks.

There’s a special type of distress that comes from having your body damaged. It’s separate from the physical pain, born instead from the terrible possibilities of the future. Will you ever recover from the wound? What will life be like if you can’t?

I can fully feel the pain in my elbow now, and sickening thoughts are swimming through my mind of punctured bursas and severed ligaments. Talking to my friend, these thoughts momentarily overcame me. Stop being a pansy I reprimand myself. This is nothing, you’re just in shock.

On the tram to Melbourne Hospital – the only place I can think to go – the other passengers stare uncomfortably at my bloodied arm. I feel somehow indecent. Someone lamely asks if I’m ok.

Endone is an amazing drug. It’s a semi-synthetic opioid related in structure to morphine and heroin, and like its cousins, it can cause addiction. I have a nurse acquaintance who was shocked to hear that the doctor had prescribed it to me for such relatively minor injuries.

I relive its sensations: the warm tingling all over my skin, the sleepy happiness, the slight spinning of the world. It was like burying the pain in my elbow and hip under a pile of fluffy blankets. One side effect however is that it inhibits memory formation.

I lost most of the week after the crash in a forgotten drugged haze, punctuated only by random scenes like mirages in a desert. At some point I was wandering through JB Hi-Fi, awed by the lights and sounds; I was swaying through the office and my supervisor was there telling me to go home and rest; one time I was rolling around on my bed, ecstatic from the feel of the sheets on my face, only dimly aware of people watching me from the doorway.

Oh thin green nurturing strip. Somewhere to call home. A conduit for our kind, a facade of safety. Oh how I’ve followed you and yearned for you.

It’s five hours before a surgeon finally sees me. I will never be able to repay the incredible friend who stayed with me that whole night and probably suffered worse than I did, having to helplessly watch me flinch with every pass of the needle through my skin. Weeks later my sister cut the crusty stitches out using a scalpel blade.

I’m also not sure if I can describe the boredom that builds over five hours with nothing to distract you, boredom that grows into frustration and boils over to rage. Rage toward the understaffed public health system, toward the pointless waste of life, and especially toward the unapologetic scumbag who hit me. Oh yes, of course you wanted to just call it even and go our separate ways.

In the days that followed I fantasised about my assailant, about vandalising his car, suing him. Anything. I didn’t want money, I wanted justice. Why was I in bed, useless, dull pain looming just below the surface, while he was still driving around, probably carefree, probably still a threat to my other friends on two wheels? I regularly obsessed over whether the accident might’ve been my fault, but the outraged old woman kept returning to my mind to reassure me that she’d seen it all and I was in the right. I tried calling the police, the TAC. Medical expenses and bike damage weren’t great enough to claim anything, and the policeman told me there is no penalty for negligently hitting a cyclist. I stewed.

In 2003, Pucher and Dijkstra found that American cyclists are 12 times more likely to have a lethal accident per kilometre travelled than car occupants. de Hartog et al (2010)  compared several costs and benefits of cycling, including physical exercise, air pollution exposure and the risk of accidents. They concluded that the benefits were the greater by an order of magnitude. This was further reinforced by Karl Ulrich, who calculated that each year of sustained cycling adds about 10.6 days to a person’s life due to the fitness benefits- even accounting for the extra risk of accident. If you do the sums assuming 1 hour of cycling per day, 5 days a week, then your time spent peddling roughly equals your longevity gain. That is, if you spend about 10.6 days riding in a year, you live on average about 10.6 days longer. So really, while you’re cycling you do not age.

To be a cyclist is to follow water. In most cities, lakes, rivers and coastlines are the only spaces that get set aside for our species to roll along in peace. Everywhere else is the noise and agitation of motor vehicles. So we learn to love water, to see parallels in the way we both smoothly flow along, and to finally get where Sebastian’s coming from in “Under the Sea”. It’s not pleasant to leave these havens and battle with uncaring traffic in order to infiltrate the city, but I shall continue to do so. The average life expectancy of a male in Australia is 79 years. I figure that if I ride steadily for the next 35 years of my life, that’s 35 x 10.6 = 371 extra days that I’ll get. So when I hit 80 (as I statistically expect to do!), I’m going to lean back in my rocking chair with my false teeth and my Alzheimer’s disease, foggily remember that bastard who drove into me, and have a chuckle about who’s still stan… rocking.