UK Chief Scientific Advisor reports on acrylamide

The UK's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Guy Poppy, has released the latest Science Report for the government, focusing on acrylamide. In the report he advises that the levels we are exposed to “could be increasing the risk of cancer” but there is not enough evidence to support claims acrylamide produces harmful effects on the nervous and reproductive system. Acrylamide naturally forms when cooking food, in a process called the Maillard reaction, where an amino acid and sugar combine. It is also found in cigarette smoke. The most important amino acid in the production of acrylamide is asparagine – found in starchy foods such as potatoes and cereals. The process of browning food means acrylamide is being produced so cooking at high temperatures (over 120oC) for long durations is particularly harmful. Roasting, frying and baking have been highlighted as key producers of acrylamide. Acrylamide has been shown to damage DNA, causing cancer and has been categorised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a recognised human carcinogen. Worryingly, children are now exposed to many sources of acrylamide, with starchy foods (e.g. potato crisps, chips, baked breakfast cereals) making up a large proportion of kids’ diets. Acrylamide has never been detected in uncooked or boiled food. Reducing acrylamide in our diets without changing what we eat is difficult as it occurs naturally when cooking, but the report advises that we cook food to a lighter colour and carefully follow instructions to avoid overcooking. The FSA aims to work with retailers in future to decrease the content of acrylamide in food.

GMO beet farmers feel the full force of consumer power

A few years ago, US beet farmers in states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan and Idaho, switched to growing genetically modified (GM) beets. They were expecting lower costs and increased yields, but they didn’t count on US food companies increasingly shunning GM crops in response to consumer demand. Reuters reportsNow, as public sentiment moves against GMO crops and imports of cane sugar rise, sugar beet growers have seen their share of the U.S. sugar market slip to the smallest on record”, and that “Companies including Hershey Co, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., Unilever Plc. subsidiary Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. and General Mills Inc. have pledged to ditch GMO ingredients in some products, bowing to customer pressure”. Cane sugar imports are now rising, and “Beets’ share of all US deliveries… fell to less than 41 percent of the U.S. total of 11.8 million tons (10.7 million tonnes) in the last fiscal year, a record low, down from 47 percent of 10.4 million tons in the 2008 crop year, the year the biotech seeds were introduced on a commercial scale, according to U.S. government data dating from 1992”. A perfect example of consumer power in action.

Morrisons to cut food waste by donating products

UK, supermarket giant, Morrisons, is to become the first to donate all unsold food to community projects. The scheme will begin in early 2016 after successful trials in 112 of its 500 stores. Legally Morrisons cannot give away food past its ‘use-by’ date but the give away will include food past the ‘best before’ date – which only relates to quality not safety of items. Donated items will include fresh produce and tins and cans. The head of corporate responsibility, Steven Butts, says they aim to donate up to 3,500 tonnes annually and "The challenge is finding the right community partners to work with. What we have available will vary". The chief executive of FoodCycle, Mary McGraths, was pleased by the announcement “This will allow us to feed more people who are at risk of loneliness, isolation and hunger and we would urge other organisations to take part”. The supermarket is the first to begin tackling the 15 million tonnes of food thrown away by supermarkets and households (the most in Europe) at a cost of £5 billion.

Gardening in an allotment is good for well-being

A study in the Journal of Public Health has shown that gardening in an allotment for as little as 30 minutes a week can be beneficial to health. Gardening was shown to significantly increase mental well-being by decreasing fatigue, depression, tension and anger; while increasing self-esteem. Results also showed a decrease in BMI and weight problems compared to non-gardeners. The focus on allotments is particularly important as more people live in urban spaces, without access to their own garden. Allotments could “play an important role in promoting mental well-being in people residing in urban areas” said Dr Carly Wood, who conducted the study. She suggested this preventative approach could provide “substantial savings” to the NHS, where the cost of treatment of obesity and mental health are spiraling. However, there must be better use of neglected land to increase access to allotments, many of which have long waiting lists.

New initiative to find HIV vaccine receives EC funding

A new €23 million initiative to accelerate the search for a HIV vaccine has begun, financed by the European Commission. The European AIDs Vaccine Initiative (EAVI) brings together leading researchers from across the world to develop protective and therapeutic vaccines. The World Health Organization estimate there were 35 million people living with HIV at the end of 2013, with 2 million people infected each year. $22 billion is spent every year on treatment currently and a new vaccine would aim at cutting that. The search for vaccines has gone on for 30 years but new synthetic biology techniques are being combined with isolated antibodies found to block HIV infection in new research. Professor Robin Shattock, the coordinator of EAVI at Imperial College London has said, “creating an effective vaccine against HIV represents one of the greatest biological challenges of a generation”.

Large-scale production of herbal drugs planned in India

The State Government of Chhattisgarh plans to produce Ayurvedic medicine on a large-scale as part of its ‘Made in Chhattisgarh’ initiative. Drug manufacturers would be invited to set up herbal drug production units for greater distribution of products. Presently 87,065 tonnes of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) are exported but the majority is supplied as raw material. The demand for Ayurvedic treatment has increased in recent years both nationwide and internationally as people search for natural therapies. Chhattisgarh is a famous herbal state, with over 1525 MAPs. Forty percent of raw MAPs are taken to Kerala, which members of Chhattisgarh recently visited to learn about marketing, processing and production of natural drugs. It is possible this initiative would also help the state’s economy, as this would bring money to tribal communities who harvest the plants and fruits.

Open field GM trial plans cause outrage in Tanzania

The Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity (TABIO) has recently published a press release entitled “Civil Society Outraged at Secret GM Maize Trials”. They are outraged at government plans “to conduct open field trials of genetically modified (GM) drought tolerant maize and insect resistant GM maize at Makutupora, Dodoma”. TABIO claim “While these trials will start in April 2016 there has been no consultation with concerned stakeholders, civil society organizations, farmers and consumers as required by law. The application for regulatory approval has not been made public and no environmental impact assessment has been carried out, both of which are required by the national biosafety regulations”. TABIO call upon the government and the Commission for Science and Technology “to urgently ensure that the national regulations are fully implemented and, that the public is given a chance to comment on the proposed trials and participate fully in the decision making process as required by the Biosafety Regulation”. They also request that, “a comprehensive environmental impact assessment is done before any field trials are carried out or GMOs and their products are introduced into the human food and animal feed supply”.