Public needs science-based information


I READ with great interest the letter written by Capt Dr Wong Ang Peng (Rtd), president of the Society of Natural Health Malaysia, published on Jan 5 (“Making the case for palm oil”, Views, The Star; online at tinyurl.com/star-palm-oil).

Dr Wong articulated the health benefits of palm oil and did a great comparison of the environmental sustainability of different oil-producing crops, namely soy, canola and corn, with oil palm in terms of pesticide and herbicide usage. I cannot agree with him more on this.

In fact, oil palm is the most efficient oil-producing crop in the world, which means we can produce more oil using less land, thus reducing the need to deforest.

Unfortunately, I did not agree with everything his mostly science-based letter said. Dr Wong wrote, “The prevalence of heart diseases here is much lower than in Western countries that consume more canola, soy and corn oils (mostly genetically modified crops)”.

What has heart disease got to do with genetically modified (GM) crops? From 1996 till today, there is no scientific evidence at all that shows GM crops cause heart disease.

The traits introduced through genetic modification (a tool in modern biotechnology) in corn, canola and soy are insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits have nothing to do with heart disease. In fact, insect-resistant crops have helped reduce the use of pesticides, as 671 million kg of active ingredients have been saved since 1996. The adoption of GM crops increased farm production that saved 183 million hectares of land from cultivation and ploughing since 1996 – a huge contribution in conservation of biodiversity.

Dr Wong further mentions that the vitamin E from olive and sunflower improves lung functions, whereas the vitamin E from canola, corn and soy are associated with lung infection and asthma, noting that olive and sunflower are not GM crops.

However, the type of vitamin E in these crops has nothing to do with the genetic modification the crops have undergone. This is basically the different forms of vitamin E made by these crops naturally. Olive and sunflower produce the tocotrienol vitamin E, whereas canola, soy and corn are rich in the tocopherol type. Tocotrienols have more health benefits. In fact, GM technology could be employed to make crops produce a healthier vitamin E and lipid profile.

It is important that the general public are presented with science-based information that will help them make informed decisions. As Malaysia wishes to be a knowledge-based economy, we need to nurture a science literate society.

DR MAHALETCHUMY ARUJANAN

Executive Director

Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre