MSP33: Designer Pineapples

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Designer Pineapples

What could be more fun than a pink pineapple? We go inside the weird world of GM superfoods. It’s time to Mattsplain.



When we look into our crystal ball of horrific futures (soon to be available on the Mattsplained merchandise store), the subject of designer babies comes up. As the technology moves ever forwards, lawmakers and scientists are battling over the ethics of tweaking our kids. But quietly, the effects of similar technology are making it on to the supermarket shelves. What are we talking about? Matt’s here so It must be time to Mattsplain.


Is this another one of your evil plots?

·      Do you think anyone is really daft enough to give me the keys to gene editing tools?

·      Think of all the things I would make?

·      Flying monkeys would just be a start. People with noses on the back of their heads, armpits that dispensed suncream, and hands made of ham (thank you Richard Herring, and for those by the way).

·      I think that would be my superpower, tweaking people’s DNA. Which is precisely why no one will ever let it be my superpower.


Then it’s animals you want to disrupt? Chickens with four breasts, cows crossed with millipedes, that kind of thing?

·      I’m definitely booking you as my lab partner if I do ever get the keys to crisper. I like the way you think.

·      Unfortunately, no. We are talking about today genetic modification but it has nothing to do with me, more’s the pity.

·      We have talked about GM foods on the show before. Quite often in fact.

·      Especially when it comes to lab cultured hamburgers. 

·      There is one area where we’re already eating a lot of genetically modified produce, whether we know it or not.

·      And that’s on the supermarket shelf. A surprising amount of our food is genetically modified.


Sure. We’ve talked about GM foods, especially crops like soya, plenty of times. What’s changed?

·      Partly because Ramadhan ends next week, and a lot of the celebrations, at least here in Malaysia, are about food.

·      So it’s a good time to talk about the provenance of foods.

·      Also because GM foods themselves are changing. A lot of the early experiments in genetic modification were largely about improving life for the growers, increasing yields, making crocs hardier and sturdier and ultimately cheaper for us, the consumer.

·      What’s changing is the way that we’re treating the foods themselves.

·      Every other week it seems that something is a miracle new superfood.

·      Throw away those blueberries, let’s all eat quinoa.

·      I happen to love blueberries and quinoa by the way.

·      Or chia seeds. Raw chocolate. Even Malaysia’s most hated, MSG, is making something healthy comeback.

·      All of this is fine, as long as we separate the fact from the science.

·      at that same time science is leading us towards creating genetically modified super foods.


Before we go into the details. Why does GM food freak us out so much?

·      I guess for the same reasons that we get so upset about the idea of Laboratory grown beef.

·      In theory, it’s a practical solution. 

·      The same goes with fish. We keep eating so many fish that they don’t have Time to spawn and repopulate and, So stocks of many species have plummeted.

·      And that pushes the prices up, as well.

·      The same goes for meat. Demand from the growing middle classes of China, India and across Africa, will ultimately push prices up.

·      More animals means more pristine wild land lost to slash and burn cultivation. The emissions of all those cows and sheep and pigs increase pollution and the loss of land for them reduces the planet’s ability to process it.


With animals, you can see why it upsets people so much. These are living creatures we’re messing with. Is it the same with plants and fruits?

·      Yeah. People freak out in much the same way.

·      That’s why there is currently a lot of hot debate about the way in which GM foods are labelled.

·      In the US a new law is about to come into force which will force manufacturers to list any ingredients which are genetically modified.

·      And it isn’t really as cut and dried as that.

·      We don’t always know the exact provenance of our food.


The farm to table concept?

·      Not really. That’s a bit more hipsterish than we’re going to get, today.

·      When you buy a tin of sweetcorn, for example, there may well be labelling on it that tells you whether it’s GMO or not.

·      May not be so obvious throughout the entire foodchain.

·      Suddenly big manufacturers will likely know the provenance of their food. So they’ll have a good idea whether that produce is modified or not.

·      A lot of our food is not produced at the industrial level.

·      A local restaurant may be getting its oil from a local supplier. They may not think to ask whether it’s modified or not.

·      The same with produce at the market. If you’re getting your fruit and veg from Independent distributors, you may think to ask. You may not. And the distributor may not know.


So a restaurant might be using GM ingredients and not know?

·      Not everyone is really aware of the subject.

·      For a lot of people food is food.

·      The folks running hawker stalls and coffee shops looking for a combination of price, quality and reliability from their food suppliers.

·      They may not give themselves the luxury of debating whether that soy or those potatoes are genetically modified.


Are we all eating GM food already?

·      The Very likely answer is yes.

·      And that’s partly down to nature doing its thing after we as human beings have done anything, which is messing about with stuff.

·      Because those genetically modified seeds are, literally, in the wind. 

·      So you might be a wholly organic grower, producing soy and linseed for beard oils, but it’s perfectly possible did Your crop will be contaminated with the GM seeds of a grower who might be kilometres away from you. 

·      The farmer hasn’t planted GM seed but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there in the field.

·      Or worse, that his crop is now some kind of hybrid.


None of this suggests that genetic modification is creating superfoods. Quite the opposite.

·      Which is why I said that we have to sort out the science from the junk when it comes to superfood.

·      This is where we got back into the territory that people get uncomfortable with.

·      Usually when you talk about super foods were talking about some miraculous discovery.

·      A food from the deepest darkest somewhere that no one has experienced before.

·      Or foods that were once popular and seem to have slipped out of favour.

·      Things like rhubarb that we now know are full of good things as long as you avoid eating the bits that are poisonous.

·      With GM superfoods, we’re talking about engineering the good stuff inside.


Like the strains of rice with added vitamins?

·      I didn’t want to lead with that, seeing as so many of our listeners are major rice eaters.

·      But yes, it looks like Golden rice as it’s called is now ready to reach the market.

·      Golden rice is a superfood because it’s being enriched with vitamin A.

·      Vitamin A deficiency can cause a range of auto-immune conditions as well as visual impairment. In severe cases it can lead to death.

·      And where is Vitamin A deficiency common? In developing countries across Asia, Africa and South America where rice is likely to be a staple.


Is this something that has been rushed through?

·      This is something that has been in development for decades. 

·      It’s been pretty comprehensively reviewed to make sure it won’t make people grow a third foot out of their belly, although that would revolutionise a lot of sports. 

·      Think what a belly hand could do for pickpocketing?

·      Anyway, countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand have approved it for use. 

·      Which is important, because when things are developed by western companies to benefit lower income countries there is often suspicion.

·      Vaccination programmes in the developing world have been beset by conspiracies that it’s a plot to kill or sterilize the local population so white people steal their land and turn them into Westworld, or something.


Does gene modification ever happen naturally?

·      Good question. And yes. All the time.

·      When we talk about Gene mods (I’m shortening it to make it sound morecool and less frightening)…

·      Gene mods happen all the time. Our own bodies do it. 

·      Viruses and bacteria can grab, or hijack or transform our DNA. 

·      So in that sense we are all transgenic.

·      In case you think I’m some kind of world expert, a lot of the information for today comes from a series of articles in the New Scientist. I’ll post some of the links on the mattsplained FB page.

Gene editing techniques are quite new, so what did we do to increase plant yields back in ‘the olden days’…

·      That’s the thing. We’ve been doing basic gene splicing and cross breeding for hundreds of years, if not longer.

·      There ain’t no pomelos in pre-history. That was the result of a very weird imagination, but it turned out fine.

·      When you look at the early crops we farmed, they were essentially wild. 

·      Their yields were very low. We increased that by keeping seeds from the most successful strains and replanting them.

·      You could take varieties from different parts of the world, say, a high plains wheat that was resistant to drought and cross it with lowland higher yielding varieties to create hybrids that were still drought resistant and would give a better yield than the original high plains version.

·      It’s specialized but it isn’t rocket science. 

·      I spent a couple of summers working for a seed trials company, harvesting their little trial plots. 

·      One of my schoolfriends, Reg, went on to be a wheat breeder, creating those new strains. But he is a rocket scientist. Pretty much. We try really hard not to let him know that though. 




Before the break we were talking about the perceived dangers of genetically modifying food. What we didn’t talk about so much was what crazy stuff we can now do to our food.


We spoke a little bit about Golden Rice, what else is on the horizon?

·      Some of it is quite straightforward. For example growing foods that are rich in omega 3 oils.

·      I think that’s one of the reasons we call chia a superfood, because of its omega 3 content.

·      But omega 3s are not just there to give yummy mummys glossy hair.

·      As I mentioned earlier, we are kind of overfishing the oceans, so moving to farmed fish, if not vat grown fish, is a smart move.

·      Thing is, a lot of the feed for farmed fish is currently from wild fish, which sounds stupid, but hey, we’re human beings, let’s catch fish in the sea to feed to fish in tanks that we then eat.

·      Growing these omega rich plants would give us another source of food for farmed fish and hopefully make another protein source a bit more sustainable.

·      According to NS, 1200 hectares of omega enriched rapeseed – you may know it better as canola - were grown in the US last year.

·      Another modification planned for rapeseed would halve its saturated fat content. Which would have an enormous knock on effect for Fried foods.


Healthy fried food? That’s the kind of change Malaysians could get behind.

·      It could even get better than that.

·      Combine that oil with modded potatoes and we could be on the cusp of the Holy Grail: healthy chips and crisps, or fries and chips, if you speak alternative English.

·      Currently in development, and the innates variety of potato bruises less easily and consequently produces less acrylamides, the chemical suspected of contributing to cancer, than traditional varieties.


What else would help us in Malaysia?

·      Scientists have been working on genetically modifying cows to produce milk the people who are lactose intolerant can drink.

·      That something I could have a big impact on Malaysia. Quite an old story so I’m not sure where they are with the research on this.

·      In Malaysia I guess we don’t cook bananas as a staple so much, but plenty of countries do. In Uganda tests are underway to genetically modified the matoke cooking banana which is a local staple.

·      Like the golden rice, it’s been modified to add vitamin A. tests are underway and it’s expected to be approved for sale by 2021.


What are they doing with bread?

·      In a lot of countries bread is the staple.

·      I wouldn’t be the person I am today without cheese sandwiches.

·      You can argue amongst yourselves as to whether or not that’s a good thing.

·      Like most kids, my mum struggled to get us to eat anything except white bread.

·      Which is ironic because as a grown up, White bread is the flavor I like least. 

o  Give me some multigrain rye with twist of pumpernickel, or a stone ground wholemeal ciabatta any day.

·      Modding white flour so that it contains three times the amount of dietary fibre is a big deal.

·      Food fads can be a big deal for parents. Take the Arctic apple variety, which has been on sale since the end of last year, as an example.

·      Unlike most apples the sliced flesh doesn’t brown. Which may not sound like much until you’ve tried to get a three -year-old to eat a slice of browned apple.


What about people with gluten intolerance?

·      Yes, coeliac disease is a growing problem.

·      A friend of mine here in Malaysia has it, it’s not a problem that’s limited to developed countries.

·      And wheat and gluten sneak into all manner of things. There are so many food additives that have a wheat base or wheat is included somewhere along the way.

·      Which makes eating anything except the food you’ve prepared yourself an absolute nightmare.

·      A variety of groups are competing to edit this so called bad gluten out of wheat. One group is currently undergoing clinical trials in Spain, so the prospect of genuinely gluten-free bread and other foods is a very real one in the near future.


Do you think that they sometimes mess with the genes for fun?

·      I don’t think the processes are easy or cheap enough to do that yet. But certainly that is something that we may be doing in the future.

·      In the same way that people are biohacking themselves right now.

·      This science is really in its infancy, so we really don’t have a good grasp of how far we can go with it.

·      But certainly when you mod flora and fauna you can end up with cool results.

·      My favourite is the pink pineapple. Which sounds like a very dodgy cocktail bar.

·      I didn’t realise, but pineapples are actually very rich in lycopenes, which is the chemical that give tomatoes to the rich red colour and is supposed to be a potent antioxidant.

·      Normally that lycopene is turned into a Beta-carotene, giving the pineapple its yellow colour.

·      Us has already given permission for a modded pineapple that retains the lycopene to be sold, and the flesh is a very cool pink colour. It looks like someone sprayed it with neon paint.


Would you eat it?

·      Sure. And as I said, most of us already are.

·      Some people are lucky enough to be able to use very healthy oils like olive oil.

·       For most people those are simply too expensive.

·      You may have been using genetically modified cooking oil for a while.

·      Why? Because it’s healthier. Strains of soy have been altered so that they don’t produce the trans-fats that probably contribute to strokes and heart disease.

·      Because a growing number of countries are banning foods and oils containing trans-fats.

·      So it’s a market response as well as a health response.


Can it be unsafe?

·      Of course. That’s where the testing and trials come in.

·      Back when I was working at the non-GM seed trials company, it took something like 10 years to develop new strains and varieties.

·      Partly because you’re looking for long term trends, but also because you have to make sure it’s safe.

·      You don’t need to use Gene modification to come up with Foods that are less healthy or potentially poisonous to some degree or other.

·      It’s the same with GM foods. Scientists aren’t hacking apples and throwing them out of a window to passersby to test.

·      There are long drawn out tests and approvals from food regulatory bodies. 

·      So, if something looks dangerous it can be pulled long before it’s a threat to people.


Is there any evidence to suggest that GM foods are unhealthy?

·      It doesn’t seem to be.

·      It is hard to say when we don’t really know.

·      Apart from our squeamishness at anything that suggests we change the DNA of something, there was really anything in the science to suggest that it would be dangerous.

·      For the most part, and I could be wrong about this, so please correct me if I am, these mutations could occur naturally. We’re kind of accelerating that process in a laboratory.

·      I mentioned earlier that we are all transgenic in a way. That external factors have altered our DNA.

·      I think that’s the thing that trips a lot of people up. We assume that DNA is static. Unchanging. 

·     It isn’t though. We used to think that it mutated over long periods but the more we know about it, and the more we observe the way that species evolve, we can see that the jumps can be really rapid, in response to some external stimulus or catastrophe.

·     The only thing that’s really changed is that now we’re engineering some of those jumps.


How are companies promoting GM foods?

·      This is where we get into characteristically weird territory.

·      According to the new scientist article I read who contacted companies like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, they don’t publicise the GM content of their foods even if it does have health benefits.

·      It seems that people are happy to consume them as long as they don’t know.

·      Why is that weird? Well the very people who pioneering these techniques seem to accept that public opinion is against them.


Why bother if public opinion is against them?

·      That’s the other part of the weird territory.

·      In a sense they don’t have any choice. That’s not to say that they not committed, as I mentioned before food regulations are getting stricter and stricter.

·      One way to get around that is to make food with better ingredients but that increases cost.

·      People complain enough when their teh tarik goes up by $.20.

·      Imagine how much your nasi lemak is going to cost if it’s made with virgin coconut oil, free range organic chicken and eggs, sustainably farmed prawns and non-drought inducing peanuts.


Which means… we’re to blame!

·      That’s the pay-off to every episode. It’s like…

·      The big reveal… is no reveal.

·      Sure, it’s pressure from us as consumers as well as lawmakers.

·      We say we want one thing but we’re only willing to pay for something else.

·      So businesses have to find a profitable way To make the thing we’re willing to pay for.

·      So when we go back to GM oil, the chances are whatever we think about it, it will become the fast food industry.

·      Because the fast food companies are under enormous pressure from public bodies and governments to make their food healthier. And the only real way to make fried food more healthy is to take the unhealthy bits out of the oil you fry with.

·      That way producers can give us what lawmakers want and what we’re willing to pay for.


It does feel a bit shifty though…

·      I agree with you. We should have more information and more choice.

·      And I think governments and public education should be doing a lot more to make the case that these foods are safe, and more than that, we don’t have any real choice but to move to this GM future.

·      I say governments because, as skeptical as we are, if it’s something that companies like Monsanto and DuPont do, then we’re going to believe it at all.

·      Unfortunately, as long as the number of people keeps getting larger, we’re going to have to look at radical solutions if everyone is going to be fed.

·      And it’s not just about modding food. We have to look at distribution systems and waste. It’s kind of crazy that I can get fresh spinach from Australia at most supermarkets in KL.

·      In the meantime, though, I think we need more of the cool super foods.

·      We need more pink pineapples. 

·      So if there are any genetic tinkerers listening I’ve got some suggestions for you:

o  Hairless kiwifruit.

o  Rambutans the size of pomelos. I don’t think I’d want to eat one but imagine a bunch of those hanging from a tree.

o  3 foot long asparagus tips.

o  Carrots that taste nice

o  Anything you’d like to see Jeff?

·      I hope I haven’t ruined anyone’s Raya celebrations. Or caused them to examine every label with a magnifying glass.

·      All I can add is that I’m not scared of the GM revolution. And I like scaring people.

·      So don’t worry and have a great holiday!