‘Natural’ does not mean best, better or even good

Article by Ivo Vegter a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong!


A pervasive myth has arisen around the word ‘natural’. When applied to food, medicine, cosmetics or cleaning products by marketing experts, it invariably implies not just a derivation from nature but also that it is better than manufactured alternatives. In fact, it often is significantly worse.

Marketers know very well that the label “natural” is a winner. “Natural goodness,” they’ll declare on an item of food. “Pure and natural,” they’ll gush, on face cream or body scrub. “100% natural, chemical-free,” they state on a hair conditioner. Millions of products and tens of thousands of books extol the virtues of everything from natural foods to natural remedies to natural health for dogs and cats.

Marketers, of course, have only one job. They get paid to make you buy more stuff. If their slogans, labels and taglines do not make a company more profitable, they are replaced. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that marketers are not always entirely honest.

Natural products can certainly rival, or even improve on, those produced in factories, but this is not a general rule. The underlying premise, that “natural” means “best”, “better” or even “good”, is wrong.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “natural” to mean “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”, and “having had a minimum of processing or preservative treatment”. Among its example sentences are several references to natural treatments, natural foodstuffs, natural preservatives, natural pesticides and natural doctors.

The aura surrounding the word “natural” is not at all well-founded, however. One of Oxford’s example sentences, “The additional benefit of using natural treatments is that they have no unwanted side effects,” gets to the heart of the matter.

This belief is not uncommon. According to one study, 56.2% of surveyed users of natural drugs believed they caused no side effects, 44.7% never reported natural drug usage to their physician, and 11% did so only rarely. Another study found that 45% of caregivers approached in a paediatric emergency department had given their children herbal products. Of all interviewees, 77% did not believe or were uncertain if herbal products had any side effects and only 27% could name a potential side effect. Sixty-six percent were unsure or thought that herbal products did not interact with other medications and only two people correctly named a drug interaction.

The problem is that this belief is entirely false, and therefore, dangerous. Natural treatments certainly do have side-effects. They are not tested as rigorously as formally approved pharmaceuticals are, so they are not disclosed as often, but suggesting that natural remedies have no side-effects is a marketing lie, designed to swindle the ignorant out of money to fill the seller’s coffers.

“Complementary and alternative medicines are increasingly used to diagnose or treat allergic diseases, and numerous studies have reported benefits of this type of medicine,” write Niggemann and Grüber in a 2003 study published in a journal about allergies.

“This article presents a review of the literature on risks of these methods. …Organ toxicity has been observed associated with various herbal preparations involving the liver, kidneys and the heart. Some herbs may have cancerogenic properties. Severe nutritional deficiencies can occur in infants and small children given strict alternative diets, resembling ‘kwashiorkor’. …The pattern of side‐effects is similar to that observed by the use of conventional medicine. Therefore, caution may be justified using both conventional and unconventional methods. Only if the benefit is proven and the side‐effects are established, should a given method be chosen.”

Michael Davis, a doctor with the International Essential Tremor Foundation examined five natural remedies for side-effects and drug interactions.

Gingko Biloba is promoted for use in improving cognitive function and blood flow. It has anti-oxidant properties and also inhibits blood clotting. As a result, however, it has spontaneous bleeding as a serious potential side-effect. It also interacts with blood-thinning drugs prescribed for cardiovascular conditions, such as aspirin and warfarin.

St John’s Wort is sold as a natural anti-depressant, and is often prescribed for this purpose in some countries. It does not have to meet the rigorous standards of ordinary pharmaceuticals for efficacy and safety, it interacts dangerously with regular anti-depressants, and can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, allergic reactions, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, dry mouth and phototoxicity.

Ephedra, a plant which contains ephedrine, is marketed for weight-loss, and for use as a decongestant, bronchodilator and stimulant. Hundreds of adverse reactions have been reported, however, including insomnia, nervousness, tremor, headaches, hypertension, seizures, kidney stones, arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke and death. It interacts negatively with caffeine, decongestants, stimulants.

Ginseng is promoted for a lot of things, including stress relief and improved sexual function. There is no evidence that it is effective for any purpose, however. It is generally well-tolerated, but a suspected case of interaction with warfarin, a blood-thinner, has been reported.

Kava is widely used as a sedative and tranquilliser for the control of anxiety and nervousness. It does have these properties, but that also makes it dangerous. It interacts with benzodiazepines, barbiturates, antipsychotics and alcohol. Like antipsychotics, it has motor-function side-effects, including dyskinesia (involuntary repetitive movement) in the mouth and tongue, torticollis (an abnormal twisting of the neck), painful twisting movements of the trunk, involuntary eye-rolling, and exacerbation of Parkinson’s disease. Several cases of abnormal skin conditions have also been reported.

A “100% natural, chemical-free” label is 100% nonsensical. Marijuana is perfectly natural, but its active ingredients are any of a wide range of cannabinoids, notably cannabidiol (which is not psychoactive) and tetrahydrocannabinol (which is).

Everything in the world consists of chemicals. The active ingredients in natural products are chemicals, just like the active ingredients in pharmaceuticals. In fact, very many conventional medicines are derived from pharmacologically active plants and fungi.

Opium is a perfectly natural painkiller and sedative, from which opiates like morphine and heroin were derived. That it is natural doesn’t make it any less addictive, dangerous or deadly.

Digitalis is a herbal remedy derived from the foxglove plant. It is frequently used as a treatment for heart failure, but it is also a potent and potentially fatal toxin.

Aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree. Traditional natural remedies are a great source for research into new medicines.

Any remedy, natural or conventional, may have positive effects and negative side-effects. There is a difference, however.

Consider digitalis. The traditional dosage starts at 1.5g of the actual leaf divided into two daily doses. Purified digoxin, which is the active ingredient, is typically used at daily doses of 0.125mg to 0.25mg. Because of variations in the concentration of an active ingredient in a plant, the dosage is far more accurate when the pure active ingredient has been extracted. This is particularly important in the case of digitalis, since ingestion of even small amounts can be fatal to humans. Even in medically supervised therapeutic use, toxicity is common.

Or take ephedra, mentioned above. Ephedrine is certainly effective as a stimulant, a decongestant, a vasoconstrictor and a bronchodilator. But only 30% to 90% of the alkaloids in the ephedra plant is in fact ephedrine. The final product, as sold in health stores, is extremely inconsistent, and routinely varies from the listed ingredients. The concentration of ephedrine can vary by as much as 1,000%, even between batches under the same brand name. It also contains a lot of other alkaloids besides ephedrine. Some countries have banned it over these safety concerns (although they were no doubt also motivated by its use as a precursor for manufacturing methamphetamines).

Now compare this to the process of creating conventional medicine. The active ingredient or ingredients in a plant, fungus or other substance are identified. These ingredients are then extracted, so you don’t end up with a mixture of dozens or hundreds of different chemicals that can all cause unwanted side-effects.

Unlike herbal remedies, which are largely unregulated, the medicine created from these active ingredients is then extensively tested, first in laboratory settings, sometimes in animals, and finally in human trials. These tests not only determine whether the medicine is effective, and indeed more effective than alternatives, but also in what dosage it should be prescribed, whether the medicine is safe, what side-effects might be anticipated, and whether there are conditions under which the medicine should not be taken.

The outcome is that conventional medicine is purer, more accurately dosed, and better tested for safety than any natural counterpart. There is a great need, for example, to systematically study the safety of drug interactions between natural products and conventional medicines. Natural medicines may sound safe, but they are actually more dangerous than conventional medicines.

When it comes to food, similar arguments hold. There is no inherent reason why natural ingredients should be any better than those that are synthetically produced.

Take preservatives, for example. They generally improve food safety, especially for consumers that do not have access to regular supplies of fresh food or lack reliable in-home refrigeration. They reduce spoilage, curb food-borne infections, and maintain nutritional quality over longer periods.

Whether the preservative is sugar, salt, vinegar, alcohol, herbs, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol (vitamin E), nitrites, sulphur dioxide or sulfites, benzoic acid or benzoates, sorbic acid or sorbates, propionic acid or propionates, or lactic acid makes no inherent safety or health difference. A few people will not be able to tolerate some of these substances, but as with medicines, industrial food additives are likely to be better tested than natural alternatives, so there is more reason to suppose they are safe for human consumption.

Food additives improve taste, appearance, texture, nutrition and other characteristics of food. Regulators have tested a wide variety of additives, both natural and artificial, for safety and effectiveness. In some cases they have been too strict, outlawing substances that were later found to be perfectly safe. Additives that are formally approved are far more likely to be safe than those used, largely untested, in “natural” foods.

The same is true for cosmetics. Whether the product is produced in a scientific manner in a clean laboratory or concocted by combining natural substances, makes no difference to its safety. It is likely, however, that professionally developed and tested products work better and are less likely to have adverse effects than preparations slapped up by small-scale amateurs.

Some chemicals are medicinal or healthful, some are harmful, and some do absolutely squat. Most are toxic in sufficiently high amounts. This is just as true for natural substances as it is for artificial or synthetic substances. If anything, natural products are more likely to be filled with unwanted ingredients, chemicals of uncertain dosages, or additives that are unsafe and untested.

The word “natural” on product packaging should not be a reassurance that it is better, safer or more effective than any alternative product. It should be cause for suspecting the opposite.



Kenya Starts Planting Biotech Cotton Under National Performance Trials (NPTs)

Kenya is one step away from commercializing Bt cotton following the commencement of National Performance Trials (NPTs) to identify suitable varieties for different agro-ecological zones. This comes after the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) granted an Environmental Impact Assessment license to Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Fisheries Organization (KALRO) to undertake the trials.

The planting began on June 11, 2018 in Kisumu, western Kenya, with KALRO’s Bt cotton Principal Investigator, Dr. Charles Waturu, presiding over the event. The NPTs will be carried out in seven sites spread across six counties. GM cotton planting is a significant move in the revitalization of textiles and apparel industry, which the Kenyan government has identified as key in upscaling manufacturing and realizing the ‘Big Four’ agenda, a five-year ambitious economic recovery plan. More than 200,000 hectares are earmarked for Bt cotton.


Speaking at the event, Dr. Waturu said he is optimistic that the data obtained from the trials will be adequate to allow Bt cotton varieties to be registered in Kenya, “I believe the NPTs will give way for commercialization of the GM crop,” Dr. Waturu remarked. “If well-managed, farmers will be able to get up to five tons of cotton from one acre. This is a big boost and we want to move fast to ensure Kenya regains her cotton growing glory,” he added.

The beginning of the NPTs is a relief for thousands of cotton farmers in the country who are excited that they will reap big from Bt cotton once it is commercialized. “We are excited that today marks the beginning of an end to our woes as Bt cotton will significantly reduce exposure to harmful pesticides, boost our cotton harvests, reduce cost of production and increase our income so that we can afford quality education for our children,” said James Midega, a local cotton farmer.

If the trials yield favorable data, farmers are likely to access the Bt cotton hybrid seeds in April 2019. This will be a culmination of a process that started in 2001 when the first application to introduce Bt cotton was made. The first transgenic cotton confined field trials were planted in 2004 and completed in 2010. An environmental release approval by the National Biosafety Authority followed in 2016, subject to meeting some conditions among them, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) clearance certificate. NEMA issued the license for implementations of the NPTs on May 30, 2018.


Re-blog from Crop Biotech Update Newsletter

Ethiopia approves environmental release of Bt Cotton, grants special permit for GM Maize

Africa is raising…. where are we as Kenya? Well done Ethiopia!


The Government of Ethiopia is the latest African country to authorize cultivation of biotech crops by granting two landmark approvals for environmental release of Bt cottonand research trials on biotech maize.

In a letter signed by the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change H.E. Gamado Dale to the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (Applicant), the country will start with two Bt cotton hybrids: JKCH1050 and JKCH1947.

The release for Bt cotton is based on experts’ analysis of the results from two-season confined field trials conducted under the supervision of the Biosafety Affairs Directorate of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change and Biosafety technical working team drown from different institutions that have evaluated the final report submitted by the applicant.

The Ethiopian government has identified cotton as a strategically important commodity crop to supply raw material for the rapidly growing textile sector and to generate thousands of…

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25 years of GMO crops: Economic, environmental and human health benefits

Excellent article by Prof. Stuart Smyth on the benefits of GMOs an analysis over the past quarter century.


By Stuart Smyth

1994 is generally regarded as the first year of genetically modified crop production, the first being the GM Flavr Savr tomato in the US. The crops that will be planted in 2018 represent the 25th year of GM crop production. While many eNGOs of social media ‘celebrity’ rant, rave and troll that GM crops are the cause of every leading social, medical and environmental misfortune in existence, this could not be further from the truth. While GM crops celebrate their 25th production anniversary, these technologies have been researched for a decade longer. During this time, they have been proven safe countless times and will continue to offer more benefits as future technologies are commercialized. This blog summarizes and celebrates the global economic, environmental and human health benefits of GM crops over the past 25 years.

Economic benefits

With the adoption of GM crops rapidly expanding, the benefits from the…

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Biotechnology Aligns to ‘The Big Four’

The 20 years of commercialization of biotech crops has confirmed that they deliver substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to farmers, and increasingly to the consumers. This aligns perfectly with the government’s well-articulated Big 4 action plan for the next 5 years (2018-2023) as Food security, Affordable housing, Manufacturing and Affordable health care for all. The desired position is that Kenyans should have access to safe, affordable, nutritious biotech products. Biotechnology offers the opportunity and the tools to achieve this.

1. Food Security

Agricultural biotechnology has been evidenced to reduce food insecurity by improving crop yields and reducing crop loss. Feeding a growing population is indeed a daunting task for any government. In Kenya, Maize is equated to Food security however production has been on the decline from 42.5 million bags in 2015 to 37.1 million bags in 2016 while the price has been on the increase (Tegemeo Institute Report, 2015). Maize production has consistently been facing three challenges that can be addressed by adopting agricultural biotechnology namely: i) pests and diseases including the recent Fall armyworm (FAW), Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) and Aflatoxin. GM maize has been reported to show resistance to FAW, MLN and aflatoxins securing crop yields and ensuring farmers a bumper harvest; ii) Weeds combated by adopting herbicide tolerant varieties which also favor the dwindling labor force; and iii) Climate change which has endangered maize production through persistent droughts can be solved by adopting the drought resistant varieties.

2. Manufacturing

Significant economic and production advantages have resulted from growing biotech crops globally and regionally. In 2016, GM cotton was planted in 22.3 million hectares globally and income benefits to farmers for 2015 was Kes 340 billion. Pest resistant cotton (aka Bt cotton or ‘white gold’) transformed India to a net exporter by utilization of the cotton oil seed and use of the seed cake as animal feed. The Kenyan government is currently fast-tracking the commercialization of Bt cotton conditionally approved by NBA in 2017. Renewed efforts to revive the labor-intensive textile sector by Government seeks to lift economic contribution of manufacturing to 15 per cent, up from 9.2 per cent in 2016. About 50,000 youth and women will be engaged as part of Bt cotton production revival plan. The State also expects to have expanded acreage under cotton to 200,000 hectares, up from 29,000 currently. It is commendable that the government will enable farmers to plant Bt cotton especially in the poverty hot spot counties enabling them to generate economic gains for the local people. The cotton will also be a fundamental raw product for Rivatex, our premier textile manufacturer. Additionally, the project will ensure goodwill by offering incentives to investors to build more modern ginneries and textile manufacturing plants.

3. Affordable healthcare

In ensuring a healthy nation, biotech is often used in the production of vaccine constituents but also to engineer harmless viruses and bacteria that can provide protection against diseases. It also offers relatively cheaper drug and vaccine delivery tools. Local production of bio-pharmaceuticals like insulin would definitely ensure affordable healthcare for Kenyans. More so, Biotech crops contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases and help mitigate climate change by permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions. This is achieved through reduced use of fossil-based fuels associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide applications and reduction in farm operations such as ploughing in no-till agriculture associated with the use of herbicide tolerant crops. The quality of life for farmers and their families can be improved by the increased income and time savings. Biotech crops and technologies can also preserve water and soil and are key to sustainable agriculture. With advances in biotechnology, bioremediation has become one of the most rapidly developing fields of environmental restoration, utilizing microorganisms to reduce the concentration and toxicity of various chemical pollutants, such as petroleum hydrocarbons, plastics, pesticides and metals.

On the other hand, adoption of alternative food and feed crops like GM Cassava and GM sweet potatoes could lift the burden on maize as a staple food crop in Kenya. Through the biofortification of GM products they play a vital role in ensuring a healthy nation. The Government of Kenya issued the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy and Vision 2030 which ensures achievement of staple foods fortification. Several research institutions across the continent are also conducting ongoing investigations for Staple food fortification such as the Africa Bio-fortified Sorghum (ABS), orange fleshed sweet potatoes, bio-fortified banana and potatoes resistant to late blight. Fortification is done in order to prevent diseases caused by nutrient deficiencies and to restore nutrients that may be lost during food processing.

4. Affordable housing

Last but not least, Biotech trees can also be used in housing sector. GM trees are fast growing with conferred resistance to pest and diseases. Adoption of Nanotechnology also has the potential to develop a multitude of new timber materials which have ultraviolet resistance, fire retardancy, pest resistance, moisture control, and fungal resistance. This will overall reduce the cost of construction of houses nationwide.


Therefore, let us embrace Biotechnology for the great benefits it has to offer to the Kenyan people. #SupportBiotech #Big4ActionPlan


Women in Science

Recently, I was featured in a social media campaign  dubbed Science and She. This campaign was launched early this year  to empower women in science. The campaign  features scientists and science communicators who tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society. Being featured was a remarkable milestone for me as a Biotechnologist. My personal convictions for the benefits offered by  biotechnology which is a key asset for Kenya and Africa as a whole in addressing food insecurity, environmental pollution, ill-health and alleviating poverty were shared all week long.

In my day-to-day work, I engage with a wide range of stakeholders across the biotechnology and biosafety value chain. My resounding task is to enable the development and implementation of science/evidence-based functional biosafety systems, which promote agriculture R&D, facilitate trade and expand consumer choice.

The following week, as an ident member of the African Women for Biosciences, i organized and supported the launch of the network alongside the 7th National Science week in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a dream come true!

The role women play in Science is remarkable despite existence of several women initiatives in ST&I. Their continued efforts are dis-joined due to few networking opportunities which the network aims to provide. Additionally, women in ST&I continue to be underrepresented in leadership and decision-making at less that 20%. Their participation in National development has remained persistently minimal. This network aims to advocate for alignment of African governments’ policies that will ensure women in biosciences are in leadership and decision-making levels including a science diplomacy desk. Last but not least, linkages will be created between women researchers and industry to ensure transfer of cutting-edge technology products from biosciences.

CS Prof. Kobia, Prof. Yaye, DG NACOSTI and AWfB committee
Cabinet Secretary Public Service, Youth and Gender affairs, Prof. Margaret Kobia, Director General NACOSTI, Dr. Moses Rugutt and AWfB committee members.

The network AWfB is all inclusive realizing the critical role that partners play. It aims to include members from academia, researchers, farmer associations, private sector service providers, the media and professional groups that support gender equity. If you wish to join contact the secretariat on awfbsecretariat@gmail.com and follow on facebook AfricanWomenforBiosciences or twitter @AWfBKenya.


GE animals debate in Kenya.

Modern biotechnology techniques have been applied to produce GE Animals since 1982 when research for GE mice (first mammal) was initiated. GE fish research began in 1982 however, not until 32 years later did the first GE animal reach commercialization (GE Salmon approved in 2015). So why did it take so long for us to reach here….? #foodforthought

The GE animals debate has recently been ignited in Kenya. Regulators from National Biosafety Authority, Department of Veterinary Services, Kenya Wildlife Services among others are currently in discussions to forge a way forward on how to tackle this discourse in an effort to be more proactive. A workshop organized in Nairobi, Kenya brought together the various stakeholders to forge a way forward. My take home notes on the topic were as follows:

Why are animals being genetically engineered?

Genetic engineering of animals aims to modify specific characteristics of an animal or introduce a new trait, such as disease resistance or enhanced growth. Previously, scientists have sequenced the genomes of domestic animals, more is known about genes and the traits that they control.  By finding genes that control beneficial traits, we are able to precisely introduce those genes into another animal’s genome, so the GE animal will possess that trait.

A game changer is now upcoming known as Gene Editing or Genome editing. This is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. It is advantaged to be more precise, more flexible, enables multiple gene targets, its relatively inexpensive, easy and efficient and no “foreign” DNA controversies.

What animals are being genetically engineered globally?

In research studies, animals that have been safely genetically engineered include cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, fish, rats, mice and mosquitoes. More specifically documented research for the following projects have been very successful:

  • AquAdvantage salmon, became available in Canada in August 2017. The GE salmon is developed by AquaBounty Technologies to grow twice the size of non-GE salmon for the same growing period.


  • GloFish (glowing fish) is another genetically engineered fish initially developed for pollution detection.
  • Friendly™ Aedes mosquitoes launched in Brazil in April 2015. A 91% reduction in dengue fever cases was recorded in 2016. Dengue fever cases decreased to just 12 in 2015/2016, compared to the 133 cases in the previous year.
  • Enviro-Pig™.  Through genetic engineering, this animal emits 30 to 60 percent less phosphorus than traditional pigs fed the same conventional diet.  This lessens livestock’s impact in the environment.
  • U.K. scientists developed transgenic chickens that have resistance to the most devastating disease of birds and fowls, the bird flu (influenza). This technology has the potential to stop the global threat of bird flu in poultry production as well as in human health.

Is a GE animal an animal clone?  

No.  A GE animal has a deliberate modification made to its genome.  In genetic engineering, scientists can precisely transfer a beneficial gene (for disease resistance, for example) from one animal species to another. Cloning technology is a type of breeding technology to produce an exact genetic copy of an animal – usually a high quality animal with desirable breeding traits.

Why regulate GE animal and their products in Kenya?

It is important that the technology is approved as safe for humans, animals and the environment. Essentially, the National Biosafety Authority working closely with several key regulatory agencies would be in charge of this mandate.

My conclusion: Let’s keep a close watch on this next frontier!