Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Will Peak Oil Result in an Increased Incidence of Scurvy?

Scurvy....... Ar har, me maties. I said scurvy. For most people who are even aware of scurvy, that is the limit of their familiarity, that scurvy was the scourge of sailors in the old days of European sailing ships exploring and colonizing the world. My concern is that it may well become the scourge of Post Peak man as well.

Scurvy, to put it simply is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. The scientific name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is, in fact, derived from the Latin word for scurvy, scorbutus.[1] Scurvy is an ancient disease. Egyptians recorded the symptoms of scurvy as early as 1550BC.[2]

Symptoms of scurvy include the formation of liver spots on the skin, particularly on the thighs and legs, spongy gums, loose teeth, bleeding gums, bleeding from mucous membranes.[1] It can also manifest itself as soreness and stiffness of the joints and lower extremities, a general state of tiredness and depression, bleeding under the skin and in deep tissues, slow wound healing, and anemia.[2]

Although the symptoms of scurvy have been known for thousands of years, the exact cause of the disease was not finally and definitively established until 1932. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was, in fact, a key part of Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling's research and his serious dedication to spreading the vitamin C story. The British Navy focused on citrus fruit in the diet of their sailors, despite the fact the reason for the benefit achieved was not fully understood. It was, in fact, thought that somehow the acid in citrus fruit was itself the source of the benefit. This led to the consumption of other mild acids as substitutes when the fresh fruits ran out on long voyages. It was this practice, it is believed, that first led to the term Limies to describe the English. It is also believed that the German belief in Sauerkraut as a solution, which it was not, led to the derogatory WWII term Krauts.[3]

Basically a vitamin C deficiency results in an impairment in the formation of collagen in the body. Collagen formation is heavily dependent on the unstable FE2 form of iron ion. Vitamin C is one of the few organic substances that contains this form rather than the more stable FE3 form. It is this impairment of collagen formation that is responsible for the majority of physical symptoms associated with scurvy.[4]

Humans are one of the only mammals that do not possess a functional, intact gene for the synthesis of the gulonolactone oxidase (GLO) enzyme that is responsible for the continual synthesis of vitamin C in the body, as most other mammals do.[5] Somehow, during the course of human evolution, that gene, though still present, has been damaged and is no longer functional. The last item in the reference list, "Synthetic Biology: Creating New Life Forms by Rearranging DNA"[5] makes a strong plea, in fact, that this is one legitimate genetic engineering project that should be undertaken, restoring the gene for GLO enzyme synthesis to working order.

What has all of this to do with peak oil? Am I one of those who thinks everything is pertinent to peak oil? I do believe that peak oil will impact much of human life as we know it, but not everything. So, what does this have to do with peak oil?

Scurvy, though rare and definitely treatable (today at least), is not unknown. Scurvy is a growing problem among today's teens in industrialized societies.[2] Scurvy in infants is a common problem, particularly with the decline in breast feeding. Pasteurization destroys the vitamin C in milk so infants fed a diet based on pasteurized milk are at risk of developing a vitamin C deficiency. This is the reason that all infant formulas contain added vitamin C, and why vitamin C is frequently added to pasteurized and homogenized milk.[3] Scurvy is also common among seniors due to progressive changes in diet and an all too common elimination of fresh fruits and vitamin-enhanced products like fruit juices from the diet.[1, 3] But scurvy is also very prevalent among large numbers of malnourished people in the third world.[1] It is common for people to assume that the Inuit, who had no fresh fruits in their diet, would commonly suffer from scurvy. Their penchant for eating their meat and fish raw, however, provided them sufficient vitamin C from the tissues of the fish and animals they ate.[1]

The high incidence of scurvy among 3rd world malnourished people is a significant red flag for the future. The gradual break down of the global food production/ distribution system, the gradual breakdown of the chemical/ pharmaceutical technology and industry that produces vitamin supplements, the increasing food shortages due to loss of agrochemicals and the yield problems arising from globally depleted soil fertility, the high concentration of population in areas unable to produce citrus fruits, the potential problems of over-winter storage of fresh fruits as the energy to drive refrigeration becomes a chronic problem, and many other factors which will be exacerbated by peak oil, suggest that there will be a potentially major increase in the incidence of scurvy on the other side of peak oil. This problem may only persist for a decade or so while we adjust to the very changed demands of food production and distribution, or it may become a chronic societal problem as it was in times past.

It is an area that nutritionists looking forward to the needs of the post-peak era clearly need to concentrate on.

1. Scurvy - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. Scurvy Isn't Cool!
3. Diseases Info - Scurvy
4. e-Medicine - Scurvy
5. Synthetic Biology: Creating New Life Forms by Rearranging DNA

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