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Friday, March 31, 2017

Two Convincingly Green Products Coming To Store Shelves

Two surprisingly Green consumer product options (charcoal image petr kratochvilbacon image cyclonebill)



In this age of highly politicized climate change denial, those of us who respect scientific consensus can still make individual choices that make sense.  Even though individual action has a small impact, sometimes even the symbolism can be a motivator.  One has to be a bit skeptical because there certainly is some "greenwashing" in the consumer marketing space.  That is why I want to talk about a couple of consumer products options with legitimately "green" back stories and a connection to agriculture.  They also happen to connect with two things lots of consumers like me really enjoy - outdoor grilling and bacon!



Greener Grilling
Last summer I wrote a post titled “An Example of Innovation 2.0” which described a company that is doing a modern version of a bio-based chemical production process that was originally developed as part of the Allied war effort in World War I. A Russian immigrant named Chaim Weizman came up with a bacterial means of making acetone that was needed to make smokeless gun powder (That was very important in trench warfare). Weizman later became the first president of Israel.
Modern innovators updated that microbial system with the tools of biotechnology so that the bio-based production of the chemicals butanol and acetone are now competitive with petroleum-based versions of those chemicals. Green Biologics is a UK-based company that has been active in this area and they now have a plant up and running in Minnesota using corn as a feedstock. Butanol and acetone go into a wide range of products like plastics, paints and finishes etc and these can now be “bio-based,” helping to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel.



Green Biologics decided that they would also like to offer a direct consumer product. They found that they could make a very effective charcoal lighter fluid from their bio-butanol.  That product is being rolled out at Kroger nationwide under the Green FlameTM brand with additional retail commitments in the works. Neither I or Green Biologics are claiming that bio-based charcoal lighter fluid will save the planet, but it is a small step that a lot of people could take without some big investment and while doing something a lot of Americans enjoy – grilling.
There is another upside as well. Traditional lighter fluid is made from “petroleum distillates” and within that mix are some compounds that don’t smell very nice and which generate a lot of black smoke. You have to wait for that to dissipate before wanting to start cooking your meat, vegetables or marshmallows. This video is a dramatic comparison of how much smoke comes off the normal fluid vs the bio-based butanol fluid. The GreenFlameTM fluid also doesn’t have that smell problem. Apparently, you can buy a more expensive “odor-free” lighter fluid that uses a more refined fraction of the distillates, but I like the idea of this bio-based, better smelling starter.

Two white cards that were held above two burning lighter fluids to compare smoke output.  See the video here.

Recently, the company took the product on the road to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. They told me they conducted well over 1,000 taste tests and received overwhelmingly positive results, with the large majority of testers claiming the burger samples made using GreenFlameTM tasted noticeably better than those grilled with traditional lighter fluid.

Bacon!

Bacon is something else that is pretty popular with consumers and certainly something I enjoy. That is why I was hopeful but a little skeptical when I first heard about a carbon footprint reduction pledge made by the nations largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods. Apparently Smithfield has been working with scientists at the NGO, Environmental Defense Fund to come up with strategies pig farmers can use to reduce the carbon footprint of their production system. One way is that they are providing some tools for optimizing the nitrogen fertilizer use and other agronomic aspects of crops they grow to feed the pigs. Overall this will help reduce the carbon footprint of the entire pork production process.


A graphic from Smithfield summarizing their plan



Smithfield is also helping their producers buy “manure lagoon covers.” As the pigs grow they generate a lot of manure. That can be taken back out to help fertilize another crop, but for a while it has to be stored. During storage there is an issue of smell, and also emissions of ammonia that can be a health issue for the surrounding community. Also the lagoon emits methane from the microbial processes that are going on. Methane is a greenhouse gas 24 times as potent as carbon dioxide. But with the cover, the methane can be trapped and then burned as a renewable fuel to generate electricity or heat (the CO2 from that process is "carbon neutral" since it originally came from carbon fixed by a plant). This is a win-win for air quality and for carbon emissions. You can read more about this overall approach at a website about pork production and energy called Whole Hog.

A covered manure lagoon at a hog barn (Image from Whole Hog website, Univ. N. Carolina)






And as a consumer I can feel better about enjoying the products. No matter how the political winds are blowing, I can add these choices to others to do my small part in combating climate change. So, time to grill some of this lower footprint pork over charcoal lit with a bio-based product!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New GM Technology Allows Crops To Just Say No To Dangerous Toxins

Contaminated maize in Africa - Image from International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

(This article originally appeared on Forbes on 3/21/17)

There has been a breakthrough on a way to reduce the risk of a major form of cancer in the developing world. It involves corn genetically modified to "just say no" to the production of a carcinogenic toxin in its grain.

Have you heard of Aflatoxin? It is a major risk factor for cancer in the developing world.  Aflatoxin is a natural chemical produced by a fungus. It is a highly toxic and is a very potent carcinogen in animal studies. Those of us in the developed world are fortunate in that a number of safeguards keep aflatoxin out of our animal feed and human food supplies. Unfortunately, in the developing world, people are not so well protected. In those regions aflatoxin contaminated foods are responsible for many poisonings, and high cancer rates. Researchers in Arizona have recently published a paper about a biotech crop breakthrough that could dramatically improve that situation.


Aflatoxins are chemicals produced by certain fungi that infect food crops (Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus parasiticus). The biggest developing world risks are with maize (corn), and groundnuts (peanuts) - staple, subsistence crops in parts of Africa and Asia. When insect feeding damages crops and/or through drought stress, they are most susceptible to infection by these fungi. The infections can continue to develop after harvest, particularly under less than ideal storage conditions.

Maize (corn) in Africa (Image by Kate Holt/AusAID)


In an article published in the prestigious journal, Science Advances, five scientists from public institutions in Arizona described how they genetically engineered corn to prevent its contamination by aflatoxin. For this article I spoke with Dr. Monica Schmidt of the University of Arizona. Schmidt’s team engineered the corn to make three small RNA molecules designed to specifically bind to parts of a particular RNA produced by the fungus. These small RNAs made in the kernel cells are able to move from the corn into the invading fungus. Once there, they trigger a mechanism in the fungus cells that blocks the production of a key enzyme required by Aspergillus to make aflatoxins. Because this approach involves three separate bits of targeting RNA, it is extremely unlikely that the fungus could mutate in a way to get around this blockage. The corn plants modified this way are effectively protected from contamination with aflatoxin. This kind of corn could give developing world consumers a much safer food supply.

This work was funded by the Gates Foundation, which also funds work to develop corn that is resistant to insect damage and drought. In combination with the aflatoxin protection this constitutes an ideal integrated solution for that critical crop. This is also a proof of concept for taking a similar approach with peanuts. The intention is to make this technology freely available for breeding into the local crop varieties that are best adapted to the regions in question.

What about the developed world? It would actually make a lot of sense to add this technology to the diverse toolset that we already use to keep aflatoxin out of our corn and peanuts. There are also other crops that could benefit from another protection strategy from aflatoxin – notably tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans. Aflatoxin can also be an issue in cottonseed that is used as an animal feed. The same biotech strategy may well work with other fungal toxins that can be an issue in other crops.
The world’s consumers can derive great health benefits from the further development of this technology.  This is definitely one to track and to encourage.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Conventional Produce Is Not Dirty, But The Marketing Tactics Of Big Organic Are

Spinach - a crop that is getting a bum rap (picture by Victor M. Vicente Selvas)


(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 3/13/17)

For each of the last twenty years, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has issued what it calls a “Dirty Dozen List.” It names crops it claims to have high pesticide residues and recommends that consumers purchase organic versions of these crops. They base their list on a seriously distorted interpretation of a taxpayer-funded testing program called the PDP (Pesticide Data Program, USDA). What the PDP actually documents is that our food supply is extremely safe. EWG has repeatedly been called out for promoting this science-free list and for the counter-productive effect it is having on produce consumption by Americans. Yet, EWG persists in employing this strategy as a means of fund raising. Presumably it also serves the interests of their corporate funders in the organic food industry (see list below).  Note that these are very large, processed food players with only one produce company in the list.


The real "dirty dozen"

In its latest campaign, EWG is singling out a few crops for added demonization – notably spinach. They highlight certain specific chemicals that were detected in spinach samples by the USDA in 2015. I have looked in detail at this same, publicly available data. It turns out that 7% of the 2015 spinach samples were organic. The very same chemicals that EWG choses to talk about were found on those organic samples. As with virtually all of the residues found on all crops, the quantities that the USDA analytical chemists found were at very low levels - well below any possible level for health concern. Still, it is ironic that the same flawed logic that EWG uses to scare consumers away from perfectly safe conventional spinach says that they should also avoid the organic alternative.


Bagged Baby Spinach (CCO Public Domain)



Experts agree that one of the best things we can do for our health is to consume a lot of fruits and vegetables. Sadly, all too few Americans do that. Spinach is one of the more popular vegetables that can help move consumers in the right direction, particularly since it has become available as a convenient fresh, pre-washed option. Discouraging consumption of any kind of spinach is a notably irresponsible thing to do, particularly through disinformation. An industry group that represents both conventional and organic produce companies (and many are both) offers an on-line calculator using the USDA’s data and legitimate toxicological information. With this tool consumers can visualize just how safe products like spinach actually are. For instance, a child could safely eat up to 310 servings of spinach a day without negative effects from the trace chemicals on that crop.

Aphids on spinach (Image by demintedmint)
As I wrote last week, organic and conventional produce are actually quite similar when it comes to the presence of low levels of pesticide residues. Because EWG singled out spinach in its recent fund raising email campaign I thought it would be worthwhile to get into the details for that crop.

For instance, EWG focuses on the synthetic pyrethroid insecticide, permethrin, which it calls a “Neurotoxic bug killer.” That sounds scary, but pyrethroids all have the same mode of action as the natural product called pyrethrin derived from Chrysanthemums (pyrethrin is used on organic crops).  As a class the pyrethroids are only slightly toxic to mammals and are considered safe enough to be in many household, garden and pet products sold to consumers.  One of the synthetic versions, Permethrin, is among the most used crop protection agents on spinach to prevent damage from caterpillar pests and infestations with aphids. These are not things we would like to find in our salads!

The USDA detected an average of 0.8 parts per million of permethrin on the 2015 conventional spinach samples. That is only 4.2% of the conservative tolerance set by the EPA, meaning it isn’t even close to something to worry about. On the organic samples from the same season, the USDA detected an average of 0.9 parts per million permethrin– essentially the same level as with conventional.

EWG also calls out the fact that traces of DDT and its metabolites were found in some spinach samples. These are unfortunate, long-term soil contaminants still slowly decomposing decades after that old product was banned. Their presence is certainly not related to whether the current spinach crop is grown conventionally or under the organic rules. Fortunately, the levels are tiny – seven parts per billion for the conventional and 11 parts per billion for the organic. These are only 1-2% of the level that the EPA considers to be of concern.

Permethrin and DDT are the products detected on spinach that the EWG chose to talk about. There were residues of 30 other synthetic pesticides on the organic spinach in 2015. The USDA does not test for at least two dozen other organic-approved pesticides that are used on spinach (biocontrol agents, mineral compounds, natural product chemicals). None of this means that organic spinach is “dirty.” Conventional spinach isn’t “dirty” either. What is “dirty” is the tactic is telling consumers they need to buy organic because of residue concerns without acknowledging that the organic products have similar, low-level residues.
In my opinion the "Dirty Dozen" should refer to the eleven big-organic companies that support the EWG and the EWG itself.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com




Thursday, March 9, 2017

The EPA Deserves Some Respect


Do you remember how comedian Rodney Dangerfield always used to say: “I can’t get no respect!” Lately that is how it seems for environmental regulatory agencies like the EPA.  I feel as though we need to defend the very idea of sound regulation against three intensifying challenges:
·      threats of defunding or arbitrary rollbacks coming from some on the populist-right
·      a denial of the progress that has been made by some on the eco-left, and
·      a severe under-appreciation of our legacy of environmental protection by American society as a whole

I certainly can’t defend or critique all regulation, but as an agricultural scientist I have observed four decades of a reasonably function federal and state level regulation of pesticides and other crop protection agents.  I’m not saying that system is perfect, but I have witnessed how it has greatly advanced the health and environmental profile of this sector.  I’ve watched the sifting out of problematic practices in response to increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding.  I’ve also watched how this system has provided a framework that that encouraged the private investment and innovation needed to bring farmers better and safer tools with which to protect their crops and thus our food supply.

I speak here strictly as an individual not trying to speak for any company or organization. I have had a long career in this sector.  I’ve never had a regulatory compliance role as such, but I’ve been involved in the process of finding and seeking regulatory guidance and/or approval for products based on synthetic chemicals, natural product-based chemicals, and live biological control agents. I’ve interacted with dozens of employees of the EPA, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and other state-level regulators. Yes, my industry connections and experience gives me a certain bias, but it also gives me some practical and historical perspective from which to share.

I believe that our goal should be to refine our regulatory processes, not to dismantle, dismiss or fail to appreciate them. To pursue that refinement goal I believe that there are four principles of sound regulation that can be learned from this example.  Good things can happen when we have:

1.     A system that is consistently guided by science and adjusted as scientific understanding evolves
2.     A system where regulatory decision making is reasonably free from political pressures and agendas
3.     A system which focuses on managing the risk of harm, rather than on based on hazard out of the context of real-world exposure
4.     A system which maintains perspective on benefit/cost trade-offs
5.     A system which is sufficiently predictable and timely so that it remains rational to make a substantial and continuing private-sector investment in the development of innovative new solutions


A few years ago I gathered historical information about the pesticide use on what is still one of my favorite crops – California wine grapes. The chart below shows the trend for one measure of toxicity for this crop, but it is indicative of trends in other crops and with other measures of impact.  Pesticides have clearly changed for the better, both in terms of what they provide for the farmers and in terms of their safety profile. 

Category IV "practically non-toxic", III "slightly toxic", II "moderately toxic", I "highly toxic".  This is for acute oral toxicity.


This progress was possible because of massive and sustained private investment. That, in turn, was possible because the industry could count on a fairly rational regulatory process.  This was in no way a cozy relationship, but it was functional. The nature of the EPA regulations has definitely evolved over the decades as guided by developments in environmental science and toxicology, but the process is sufficiently rational to encourage further investment to find the newer, better tools.  This is an excellent example of successful innovation under an intense, but highly functional regulatory regime. 

I wish I was fully optimistic about this process moving forward, but I have some deep concerns regarding the public perception of the EPA. First of all, very few consumers, voters, reporters or food thought leaders seem to have any appreciation for the progress made over nearly five decades of EPA pesticide regulation. Instead, I see assumptions or expressed views about crop pesticides that are a distorted caricature that does not even fit with “the bad old days” prior to regulation. The positive historical impact of the EPA case has been inadequately articulated. This leaves the agency vulnerable to the populist urge to discard or severely restrict its role. The under-appreciation of marked progress made with EPA oversight provides fertile ground for unethical marketers who exploit fear of pesticides for economic gain. Similarly, an under-appreciated EPA helps to empower activists such as those in Hawaii who are exploiting fear to drive a politicized over-ride of agricultural regulation. 

I am also concerned about the role of science in EPA pesticide regulation going forward. Primarily in Europe, but increasingly in the US, we see junk science and activist manipulation diminishing the scientific integrity of the regulatory process.  Problematic examples include questions about pollinator health or the IARC cancer hazard statements. In these and other situations we need a trusted, robust, independent EPA that confers with a robust, independent academic science community, as it has historically. We need an EPA that appropriately considers the risk/reward profile of its actions and which appreciates the eco-modernist perspective. What we don’t need is an EPA distracted by endless activist lawsuits or facing political uncertainty about its future. We need an EPA that gets a little respect.


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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Organic Might Not Mean What You Think It Means

(This post originally appeared on Forbes 3/6/17)

Organic might not mean what you think it means.  Recent data generated as part of the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) shows that there are detectable, low level pesticide residues on organic fruits and vegetables. This isn't surprising information.  It echoes results from previous PDP testing and with more comprehensive testing of organic samples in 2001-11 by the USDA and 2011-13 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. What is interesting is that while the incidence of residue detection is somewhat lower for organic, the very low levels of chemicals found are quite similar to the low levels detected on conventional samples. The 2015 PDP study found residues of 68 different pesticides, pesticide metabolites, or plant growth regulators on organic fruits and vegetables.


Red organophosphates, Blue carbamates, Green organochlorines from historical use


For 37% of these chemicals the average residue on organic samples was actually higher than the averages on conventional, but still very small.
What really matters is that the levels detected for both kinds of produce are below the “tolerances” that are set by the EPA and those tolerances already reflect a generous safety margin.  

So, what these data really tell us is this:
“Yes. Skilled analytical chemists can detect tiny amounts of synthetic and natural pesticide residues on organic and conventional produce. In both cases the level that are found are below to well below any threshold of concern. Our regulatory system is working. Those who grow our food are well trained and are following the rules designed to both enable crop production and protect the public. Enjoy your safe, healthy, delicious options!”

Background on the PDP


Each year the USDA gathers and analyzes around ten thousand samples from the mainstream US food supply – mainly fruits and vegetables. In the sampling process, USDA ends up including some items labeled as USDA Organic (349 samples in 2015, 4% of the total). USDA labs then look at all the samples for residues of crop protection chemicals using extremely sensitive analytical methods.

USDA provides both brief and detailed summaries of this information, but I appreciate the fact that the raw data is transparently available to the public so that I can look through it myself (it is bit challenging because there is a two million+ row main table, a 10 thousand row sample table, and 18 reference tables). I looked in detail at all the pesticide detections and also looked at the testing results for produce samples that were being sold with the organic claim.

What Was Found?


As with the overwhelming majority of samples, the residues detected on the organic items are at levels below the conservative “tolerances” that are set by the EPA. Yes, residues are present. No, they are not a safety problem. However, the presence of residues does conflict with what many consumers have been led to believe about the difference between organic and conventional.

Many people think that organic means “no pesticides.” That is simply not true. Organic farmers can and do use a range of allowed pesticides because they too have to deal with pests. The list of organic-approved pesticides is not based on safety criteria but rather on whether or not they can be considered “natural.” Again, in spite of much misleading marketing, “natural” does not automatically mean safe. In fact the USDA which is in charge of organic certification specifically states on its website that “our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.”

As with all pesticides and other crop protection products, it is the EPA which assesses which pesticides can be used safely, and within what constraints.

So what sorts of residues are found on the organic samples? The most common detection is of an insecticide called spinosad. That is an effective control for a variety of caterpillar pests and is produced through a microbial fermentation process, thus allowing it to qualify for use in organic (see chemical structure of one of the spinosyns below). Just to be clear, the spinosad products are produced by the Dow chemical company.

Chemical structure of a spinosan (Image from Cappacio)
Conventional farmers also make good use of this and other natural products. Spinosad is really the only natural product pesticide that is detected in the USDA’s monitoring program. Other widely used products like sulfur, petroleum distillates, copper salts and microbial products can’t be monitored using the same, highly sensitive and cost-effective tools that allow the USDA to generate the more than two million test results they generate each year. If specific tests were conducted for those natural products, the number of residues detected per organic sample would probably be much larger – but it wouldn’t really change the overall conclusion that these foods are safe to enjoy.


Other than spinosad, the remaining 80.2% of residues detected on organic are of “synthetic” chemicals.

Graph by author

While very few of the synthetic materials used in agriculture today are intrinsically very toxic to humans, they are theoretically not supposed to be present on organic because they are not on the list of approved, natural options.

There is however a rule in the organic certification system that any residue present at 5% or less of the USDA tolerance will be considered “unintentional” and thus not a reason to deny organic certification. 62.1% of the 2015 organic detections met that criterion, but interestingly so do 74.6% of the detections on non-organic samples from the US and 70.1% of the detections from imported, non-organic samples. Not so different.

Another 15.6% of residues detected on organic technically violate the organic rules by being over 5% of EPA tolerance, but such residues are still fully safe based on EPA criteria. That same safety criterion applied to 23.0% and 25.2% of conventional US and imported samples respectively. For both organic and conventional there are a few detected residues of products that don’t have a specific, assigned tolerance for the crop in question. These are generally very low-level detections, so while they represent technical violations they are not of real concern and once again, similar for organic and conventional (average “no tolerance” detection for organic 23.7 parts/billion, average for conventional imports 19.8 ppb, and average for US conventional 17.2 ppb).

To reiterate, what this transparent public database tells us is that our food supply is safe from the perspective of pesticide residues. This means that our regulatory system is working and that thousands of farmers in the US and elsewhere are doing a great job of managing pest damage while still protecting our health. The data also tells us that there are some striking similarities between organic and conventional when it comes to residues. What the data also tells us is that as consumers we should reject some of the misleading marketing and advocacy efforts of certain irresponsible elements of the organic industry. Instead of giving in to those fear-based campaigns we should feel the freedom to choose healthy and delicious produce using important criteria like freshness, flavor, quality and affordability.

There is a site you can use to visualize the PDP data http://www.cropaudit.org/

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Nature: The Original Chemist

(This post originally appeared on the PPIP Blog)
We frequently see a contrast drawn between what is “natural” and what is “chemical.” Sometimes products are described as “chemical-free” even though every physical object is made of chemicals. As much as this suggests a problem with our science education, it speaks to a missed opportunity for wonder. Nature is not some sort of cosmic mother figure; on the contrary, nature is composed of diverse biological and physical processes, including some pretty amazing examples of chemistry continually taking place. If we indulge the human personification of nature and it’s “children” a bit, we could say the following about these “chemists:”
  • They are extremely creative.
  • They can make really complex molecules.
  • Some of their chemicals last a really long time – which is sometimes good and sometimes bad.
  • They are really good at making polymers.
  • They make some extremely toxic things.
I’ll give a few examples below.


Creative Natural Chemistry

The diversity of naturally occurring chemicals is staggering. Humans regularly take advantage of this, particularly when we need ideas for things like pharmaceuticals or crop protection products. Sometimes we extract the chemicals from a plant or other living thing. Often we grow tanks of microbes to harness their ability to make a chemical we find useful. In cases where the amounts of the chemical are too small to be practical from the natural source, human chemists can synthesize the same compound to fulfill the quantity needed. An example of this is a new potato sprout inhibitor. In many other instances, a natural chemical serves as the inspiration for human chemists to experiment with similar structures leading to the discovery of particularly useful drugs, fungicides, etc.
nature-ideas
Taxol structure image by Calvero. Pacific Yew tree image by Jason Hollinger via creative commons. Azoxystrobin fungicide structure by Yikrazuul.   Strobilurus tenacellus mushroom picture by Tatiana Bulyonkova at Mushroom Observer.


Complex Natural Chemistry


Some of the most abundant chemicals in nature are simple. Nearly 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen in the form, N– just two nitrogen atoms bonded together. Nitrogen goes through natural cycles that are important to all living things but often stays in relatively uncomplicated forms like ammonia (NH3) or nitrate (NO3). On the other hand, natural chemicals can be complex, so much so that it would be challenging for even a skilled human chemist to make them.
One of these complex examples is called spinosad and it is produced by a microbe called an actinomycete. We have found this to be a particularly effective insecticide for use on crops yet quite benign for the environment and not toxic to people. The chemical company that produces this for farmers relies on the natural microbe to produce this complicated bit of chemistry.
spinosad
Structure of Spinosyn image by Capaccio via creative commons.


Long-Lived Natural Chemicals


Most naturally occurring chemicals are part of a cycle in which chemicals combine, making a material, but then eventually break back down into basic constituents to begin the cycle again. Some naturally produced chemicals are relatively long-lived. This can be a good thing in the case of the chemicals that are found in the organic matter of a healthy, undisturbed soil. These are not just any plant or microbial product; they are specific compounds that slowly cascade through a series of breakdown products.

For instance, plants make a group of complex, phenolic chemicals, called lignin, which are important for strengthening their cell walls. Lignin is quite resistant to microbial breakdown, although some fungi can and do destroy it, even as they decompose wood. Lignin is a major component of what is termed humus – the component of soil that helps to buffer nutrients and retain moisture. When soils are converted from wild land to cultivation, there is a dramatic increase in the rate of breakdown of these chemicals and thus the release of the carbon dioxide.

Some long-lived, natural chemicals, however, are less desirable. Under low oxygen conditions, soil-dwelling microbes can interconvert forms of nitrogen (e.g. ammonia to nitrate or nitrate to nitrogen gas). In that process, they “accidentally” make some nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas because it lasts longer in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, human activity can exacerbate the production of this naturally generated chemical from farmed soils. Adjustments in farming practices can lead to a better balance of the production of natural chemicals that help or hurt greenhouse gas levels.


Fancy Polymeric Natural Chemicals


In the 1967 movie The Graduate, the character played by Dustin Hoffman is lectured about how the future is going to be all about plastics. Indeed, many people were excited in that era about polymers that chemists were developing, like nylon and polyester. These are based on long chains of monomers attached end to end.

Many of the most abundant natural chemicals on earth are also polymers, which are long chains made of simple sugar molecules. Depending on which sugar and how the sugars are linked together, the polymers result in anything from the cellulose that makes cotton fiber to wood or even the alginate from seaweed we use for thickening foods or the starch that is the primary energy source in foods like pasta, bread, rice or potatoes. Increasingly, we are tapping in to the enzymatic tools found in microbes in order to make polymers from renewable resources.

Variously Toxic Chemistries


Most people associate the term natural with the terms safe and wholesome. This impression has been created by decades of marketing, not by any understanding of the chemicals in nature. Many natural chemicals are perfectly benign; however, nature’s assortment of chemicals also includes many that are toxic by various mechanisms.  Lots of plants make chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten or otherwise bothered. We have all heard about nasty plants like poison ivy or even lovely plants like the Colorado Columbine which are dangerous to eat.
nature-toxic
Cut Granny Smith apple image from Wikimedia. Cauliflower image from Calliope via creative commons. Hot pepper image by Andre Karwath via creative commons. Capsaicin structure by Jurgen Martens. Nicotine structure by NEUROtikerCyanide structure via Wikimedia.
Food plants also make some fairly toxic chemicals. The seeds of many familiar crops, including apples, cherries and peaches to name a few, contain a chemical storage component called a cyanogenic glycoside. When the seed is damaged, enzymes release hydrogen cyanide from the glycoside. Hydrogen cyanide is very toxic! It is a good reason not to eat those seeds, although it would take a lot of such seeds to hurt a person. The capsaicin that we enjoy in hot sauce is an insect protection chemical made by the pepper plant to defend itself. It is moderately toxic to us but not at the doses we normally consume. Quite a few plants make nicotine to ward off insects including tomatoes, cauliflower and eggplant. Nicotine is very toxic but not at the doses these crops produce. As with any toxic chemical, natural toxins are only an issue to humans at a certain dose.

Some natural chemicals, however, are extremely dangerous and we don’t want those in our food. Mycotoxins are a particularly nasty category of natural chemicals produced by certain fungi. One such chemical, called aflatoxin, is among the more toxic chemicals in existence and is also a potent carcinogen. Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, fungi can produce aflatoxin in food crops. In the developed world, a system of controls and testing keeps us well protected from this; in the developing world, though, aflatoxin is a major cause of death both through acute and chronic effects because it contaminates staple foods like corn or groundnuts.

nature-aflatoxin
Aspergillus infected groundnut image from International Institute of Tropical AgricultureAflatoxin structure by Ju

Some natural chemicals are elegantly selective in their toxicity. A soil bacterium, called Bacillus thuringiensis (usually called “Bt”), makes proteins that are specific in their toxicity to only certain categories of insects. One strain of Bt makes proteins that only effect beetles while another’s toxin only affects caterpillars. None of these Bt proteins are toxic to humans or almost anything else. We have made excellent use of these natural chemical toxins as sprayable insect controls and by genetically engineering plants to make their own supplies of the protein resulting in the plant being insect resistant.

Conclusion


Yes, nature does a great deal of chemistry. For us, these chemicals can be a source of good things, a source of good ideas, and sometimes a hazard or problem.

you are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com