SENSibility 8: The Supercarrot

A genetically engineered carrot has been developed in the US that greatly increases human absorption of the calcium within the vegetable. I am not making this up. A gene has been altered to allow the calcium in the carrot to flow through the plant membranes and out into the digestive tract. The whole idea is not without a normatively positive objective. It seems that getting people to eat the daily minimum requirement of calcium (1,000 mg) is proving difficult, especially for people with dairy intolerances. And osteoporosis is on the rise. A supercarrot would help people get the calcium they need.

The supercarrot will not be on store shelves anytime soon. Clinical safety trials still have to conducted and then of course there is the whole matter of getting regulatory approval. But the fact this is being tried at all interests me. To be fair, the bright orange carrot we all know is itself the product of some creative engineering. It turns out that carrots were not originally orange: this trait was bred into them by patriotic Dutch farmers (the colour of the Dutch royal family is orange). And other vegetables are also being”supered” up (souped up?) such as potatoes that will absorb less oil when fried and therefore make healthier French fries and potato chips, and broccoli that will have more cancer-fighting sulforaphane.

What interests me is why anyone would think of making a carrot (or any other vegetable vehicle, for that matter) a calcium vector.  Calcium can be obtained from a wide variety of non-dairy sources, and many foods are fortified with calcium. So what is the motive behind the supercarrot? Is dietary concern paramount? It might be. Perhaps people are just too lazy to pay attention to the nutritional profile of the foods they eat, or maybe they eat way too much junk food. Desperate, are scientists trying to engineer a rather everyday Joe and Jane kind of vegetable (everyone eats carrot sticks, right?) so it will deliver a mineral we would not otherwise get because no one eats spinach or kale anymore?

Or is something else happening? Is the supercarrot a solution in search of a problem? Who will benefit from the development of the supercarrot? Presumably, whoever holds the patent and rights to the ubercarrot will make a lot of money. I suspect that major agricultural businesses will want to plant and grow the carrot, and will profit accordingly.  Of course, growing food in bulk is not necessarily a bad thing. But there are issues here. Will the natural biodiversity of carrots be impacted by the increased dominance of genetically engineered versions that increasingly take over the market, leading to the slow extinction of natural carrot species? Will genetically engineered carrots impact on the natural “organic” varieties? Will farmers lose the ability to operate their own carrot seed stocks, instead becoming dependent on the seed stocks of those who control the supercarrot patents? In the end, the actual “product safety” issues of the supercarrot may be minor (or even nonexistent). But food safety is not the only issue raised by genetically altered crops of any kind. Do we really need a supercarrot? Do the benefits outweigh not only the potential health risks, but the larger social and biodiversity concerns as well?

I don’t think so. Need calcium? Drink milk. Can’t drink milk? There are dozens of other natural calcium carriers out there (and a lot of unnatural fortified ones as well). I don’t think we really need this, um, product. But maybe that is part of the answer. We sure have a lot of things we do not need, like Hello Kitty toasters and celebrity dating news. But we get them anyway, because there is money to be made. And in the case of the supercarrot, more money to be made than ordinary carrots.

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