Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Fruit Hunters [Review]

I found myself in an Annapolis pub, discussing dental anthropology over oysters on a cool, wet Maryland evening. Raw oysters are not my favorite bivalve, but I enjoyed hearing Jim describe his Madagascarian classroom, where he was studying the diet of lemurs for his Ph.D.
I asked him what type of foods human teeth are adapted for. "Well..," he hesitated, explaining the controversy over whether teeth are adapted to chew an animal's main food, or its food of last resort.

"Okay, but what are human teeth adapted for?"

It was always a nice reward after a 110 degree bike commute to stop for figs in the shade of an abandoned field. My grad school roommates and I would often meet in the kitchen after work to discuss the tree's progress and plot to strip armloads of the soft, aromatic fruits before the birds caught on. I remember Mel spilling grocery bags full of homegrown pomegranates across our seminar lunch table and myself crushing walnuts against tree trunks on the department farm. Pausing in dusty redwood clearings to sample blackberries among the hoppers, wasps and rattlesnakes. Or pulling down rain-sopping mulberries on a dark summer night, waiting to help Amelia move.

There's something peaceful and familiar about foraging for fruit. I always felt that my research time spent pawing through low evergreen canopies on Sonoma ridges, searching for bright orange patches was apt for an animal adapted to find colorful fruit in a sea of leaves.

These memories came back to me as I sank into Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters. I was immediately hooked by his playful use of language and allusions, and by his somewhat stream of consciousness rhythm (which struck me as oddly reminiscent of my own attempted style). He quickly convinced me that the world is full of many thousands more species and varieties of fruit than I could ever imagine, or that a dedicated fruit hunter could ever track down. He wound stories of explorers and ancient mythology, illuminating a world where mundane, everyday fruit were hiding centuries of stories.

I enjoyed as he rattled off random facts about random fruit:
Grenades were inspired by exploding dehiscent pomegranates. (Grenade is French for pomegranate). Explosive dehiscence also occurs in wisteria and sesame fruits (hence, "Open sesame!")
Some fruits mimic centipedes, worms, spiders and horned beetles so bird and insect predators will disperse them.
Giant fruits that have lost their ancient animal disperser (e.g. avocados, prickly pears, osage oranges and papayas) are known as "anachronisms."
Fig wasps (which symbiotically pollinate fig flowers and raise their young in the fruit) are dissolved by the chemical ficin after they die within the fruit.
The miracle fruit contains sugar-mimicking chemicals that stick to the tongue, making all sour foods taste sweet, and was outlawed by the FDA (i.e. sugar industry) in the 1960s.
Maraschino cherries are just the worst quality cherries, bleached, dyed and flavored artificially, but were adapted from a sour cherry liqueur, popularly used in Eastern Europe to preserve sour Marasca cherries.

Unfortunately, he began to lose me after the second chapter. The rest of the book increasingly follows the adventures of wealthy eccentrics whose tales don't live up to the hype of their mystical fanaticism for fruits.

He lost me altogether as he began to spout random "facts" on agricultural science that were flat wrong:

It is NOT a secret which foods have been genetically engineered.
No commercial tomato ever had flounder antifreeze genes in it.*
He refers to black sigatoka disease as being caused by a virus.
GMOs ARE tested for safety - by the USDA, FDA and EPA.
He also reported numerous absurd health claims about different fruits (possibly tongue in cheek)

He also makes sweeping generalizations about the dangers of pesticides. Every single molecule that exists in the world is toxic at some concentration (yes, even water). It's beyond irresponsible to conflate the ability of pesticides to injure experimental animals with the danger that trace residues pose.

His funniest screw up was his shock at seeing the fine print on a California IHOP that warns of the presence of "chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm." He blamed it on industrial, processed food, but a better journalist would have learned that California passed some law requiring these signs everywhere (e.g. every apartment I'd lived in).

All in all, it's worth reading if you have nothing better to do. I was fascinated by the beginning, but any given fact (including the ones I listed) are dubious.

* Here's the history behind that dumb tomato with flounder genes rumor:
For years now, it's been a routine academic approach in plant biology to express foreign genes in experimental plants to see what happens. In this study, they expressed animal antifreeze proteins in a plant. They make the (far-fetched) suggestion that expressing native plant antifreeze proteins in crops could protect them from freezing damage. These plants are not grown commercially and were probably destroyed as soon as the experiment ended.
R, Baden C, Penzes E, Lund P, Dunsmuir P. 1991. Expression
of antifreeze proteins in transgenic plants. Plant Molecular Biology
17: 1013±1021.


  1. GMOs ARE tested for safety - by the USDA, FDA and EPA.

    Very poorly, and not to the satisfaction of the European scientific community. For example, see this which is by no means the only indictment of GMO safety testing.

    The absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence expect in the context of a very thorough, long-term testing process involving at least several full reproductive cycles and hopefully more than one kind of test species. But somehow this concept is disregarded when it comes to food technology safety testing.

    You note that the food industry is in bed with their regulators --
    The miracle fruit contains sugar-mimicking chemicals that stick to the tongue, making all sour foods taste sweet, and was outlawed by the FDA (i.e. sugar industry) in the 1960s. -- but assume that the GMO henhouse is safe, depsite the fact that it is being guarded by the same fox.

    California passed some law requiring these signs everywhere (e.g. every apartment I'd lived in).
    Well, actually, these signs are all over the place because suspected toxins and carcinogens are ubiqutous in the industrialized world. Lead was quite common until recently. Brominated fire retardants still are literally everywhere, in all kinds of consumer products and manufacturered goods. Bisphenol A is in much of the food supply. Etc. They are considered "safe" because no one has proven that they cause cancer or other harm.
    The California law is unfortunately probably counterproductive, because it acclimates people to the idea that they are everywhere and it's OK because there are no immediate and obvious bad effects. But it does highlight an unfortunate reality of modern life.

  2. It's ironic that you cite that article, which I just deconstructed on the Food Policy blog!

    "Good scientists go astray when they
    leave their area of expertise to offer opinion when they have not studied the literature, when they selectively ignore information,or when they let their politics and beliefs interfere with the objectivity of
    their science."

    This quote comes from an excellent (though not open access) letter to the editor from Nature Biotechnology:2002-12, 20:12. I have never met a plant breeder or plant geneticist who sees GMOs as scary, or even as an unprecedented change in the extent to which genes are transmitted between species. The scientists who oppose GMOs tend to be social scientists or animal molecular biologists who simply don't understand how traditional breeding changes the plant genome. GMOs haven't been "proven" to be safe anymore than the existence of tigers hasn't been "proven" not to cause cancer - but in both cases an INFORMED observer would see no theoretical basis for either blanket generalization. There was a lot of buzz about the Hadron Collider creating a black hole that would swallow up the Earth - but not one of the fear mongers was a nuclear physicist. When I want to ask an "expert" about nuclear physics, I'm gonna ask a nuclear physicist.

    Although the seed industry is responsible for "proving" the safety of each new GM product, the determination that GM technology is not fundamentally risky in general was made in academia. In fact, this consensus is so strong that assessing the safety of GM traits is not considered to be an interesting question by plant geneticists, and I know of no one(besides myself) who actively works on this subject.

    Companies have repeatably proven that they can't be trusted to regulate themselves, which is why we have government regulatory bodies. Anyone who actually works in this field though would be more likely to argue that the regulations are excessive. Why are all our GM crops produced from massive, multibillion dollar, international companies and not tons of little startups (like the traditional technology sector)? Although molecular biology itself is expensive, no start up can afford to spend literally millions and millions of dollars over a decade to get their new product approved.

    At the end of the day you can't live in a bubble - you have to accept that there are some inherent risks of being alive. It's ultimately up to the people to vote for whatever level of freedom vs. security they want, but personally I think it's pretty silly to fret about these vague imagined dangers when most of us ride in cars every day (which is absurdly more risky than pretty much anything else we do).

  3. That's interesting. My understanding was that the scientific community outside the US was not so copacetic. Is the opposition of the EU, Japan, etc to GMO crops entirely politics and mass hysteria?

    I do not claim to know that GMOs are unsafe to eat. I am not comfortable with the level of testing or study that has taken place, given that these items are both ubiquitous and impossible to control once released. Perhaps that is ignorance on my part, but how well would it work if Firestone produced 10 million defective tires and then could not issue a product safety recall?

    I also know that the confluence of money and politics has created a situation in which manufactured products are presumed safe until they are proven dangerous, even when there is no real basis for that presumption other than the fact that no one has acutely and demonstrably died of acute exposure. The ubiquitous nature of chemicals that "maybe" cause cancer is one example.
    In my own field (buildings), watching the vinyl industry and the bromiated fire retardant industry try to position themselves as healthy, safe and essential has provided a closeup look at this particular dance.

    At any rate, the clear dangers of GMOs are the legal/IP ones. Ask Percy Schmieser about that. I'm also pretty unclear about the ecological implications of growing thousands of acres of a generalized pesticide, both in terms of by-kill and in terms of encouraging the development of resistance.

    I agree that we have to each make individual choices about our risk tolerance. However, releasing these organisms into the environment and, unlabelled, into the food system, does not support that right of choice.

  4. I think "politics and mass hysteria" is an unfair characterization. I completely understand how genetic engineering sounds unnatural and scary to non-plant geneticists. Very few people realize that all the theoretical risks of genetic engineering are ALSO risks of traditional plant breeding - and in the past 10,000 years have either proven negligible or manageable.

    I've heard lots of European/African/Asian plant geneticists and breeders express support for genetic engineering but (as I'm relatively new to the field) it's possible there are some opponents I'm not aware of.

    One of the most famous living plant pathologists once suggested to me that part of the opposition in Europe may be cultural: American plant pathologists have always emphasized solving ag problems with genetics, while European ones have favored pesticide sprays.

    Your examples of chemical manufacturers illustrate how we can't trust industries to regulate themselves AT ALL. I don't know how cautious we should be with every new products, but as soon as there's suspicion of dangers, the government should come down on them like a ton of bricks.

    I'm actually curious about the details Percy Schmieser case (one of my friends was actually neighbors with him!). If the public account of the story is true, then Monsanto should have been ripped into, but if he stole seed/broke the terms of his contract (like some of the farmers documented in Food Inc.), then he's at fault. I'm not going to speculate about his case, but I'm very concerned about how we define intellectual property.

    The development of resistance argument is a total red herring and a good example of "threats" of genetic engineering that are a part of all forms of agriculture.

    I'm against GM food labeling because genetic engineered plants are not fundamentally different than bred plants - this would be a case of ignorance trumping progress.

    I do agree that it makes sense to be more careful with organisms that we release into the environment (and largely lose control over), but I think our government is doing a decent job at that. I'd personally like to see genetic engineering regulations streamlined so that academics and start ups can participate, instead of leaving it to multibillion dollar companies. The hype of genetic engineering was largely built on high risk, altruistic projects that are simply not on the radar of the big companies.

  5. I think one of the biggest problems in this country is that the vast majority of people don't understand science and don't WANT to understand science. They'd rather sit and listen to some blowhard alarmist screaming about the next scary substance that's going to kill us all...except, as you point out in your example above with the fruit hunters, these blowhard alarmists don't always understand science anyway (or choose to ignore the facts) to exploit for their own ends. It's really hard to be an educated consumer of information when you don't know when people are just making shit up that sounds accurate or alarming.



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