SUGAR, SHARKS, AND COVID-19
What could sugar, sharks, and a pandemic possibly have in common?
Turns out, a lot. And the connections raise issues that go to the heart of our outlook on the environment. Let’s take a closer look.
These apex predators of the ocean are essential to a healthy marine eco-system. They’ve earned our respect as kings of the abyss. Sharks have a number of unique adaptations. Their sharp teeth are produced in a conveyer-belt fashion and are continually lost and replaced. They can have up to five rows and 3000 teeth in their mouth at any given time. Sharks have predatory adaptations that contribute to their extraordinary speeds, including their streamlined shape, paired fins, and lack of a swim bladder.
But sharks have another distinctive feature that has recently caught the attention of researchers. They have an especially large liver that produces massive amounts of oils. Those oils contribute to their buoyancy. The oils contain chemicals, including squalene. In plants and animals, squalene is a precursor to the formation of compounds like steroids and cholesterols, which are important physiologically.
What’s the connection to COVID-19?
Squalene has many uses in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, rubber, chemicals, aromatics, surface-active agents, and in finishing natural and artificial silk. It’s also a bactericide.
Squalene is used as an adjuvant, an ingredient within vaccines that improves vaccine effectiveness. In fact, shark-based squalene is used in vaccines for influenza and some COVID-19 vaccines. As a result, sharks are frequently (and often illegally) harvested to obtain these products.
What does sugar have to do with all this?
Most people consume some form of sugar every day -- in coffee, tea, processed foods, desserts, and sweets; it literally is everywhere. Sugar is naturally made in all plants through the process of photosynthesis, which is like a recipe—you add a little carbon dioxide (that we breathe out), some ultraviolet rays, and few drops of water to make sweet glucose and oxygen (what we breathe in). It is a beautiful, interdependent cycle in which both plants and animals rely upon on each other.
Much of the commercialized sugar we purchase is grown as sugarcane in monoculture (cultivation of a single crop in an area) on farms. Sugarcane is a perennial grass that is easily grown in mass quantities. It flourishes in southern states and in places like Brazil. Sugarcane is also used to create molasses, rum, livestock feed, ethyl alcohol, and secondary biofuels.
In addition to creating sugar, sugarcane, like many plants, produces a natural organic compound called … you guessed it: squalene. This fact has been identified by Amyris and Novavax, two large corporations that are using cutting-edge science to help avoid the further decimation of shark populations. Their conservation efforts are to be applauded. Amyris has developed a process to naturally produce sugarcane-derived squalene. Novavax, a vaccine-development company, created the vaccine NVX-CoV2373, which uses the soapbark tree-based squalene alternative. Soapbark trees are common in Chile. I am sure sharks will think this is sweet!
What environmental impacts may need to be considered?
Brazil is the world’s largest sugarcane producer, with 9.1 million hectares in 2016/17 dedicated to its production. It is used as one of several crops for biofuel. This is an extensive area of land to be dedicated to just one crop. These massive tracts of dedicated land for sugarcane and ethanol production can cause excessive water use, soil erosion, and other problems. We know it contributes to loss of biodiversity.
If we are to sustainably use or care for resources, whether plant, animal, or otherwise, then part of our responsibility is to weigh impacts and make decisions based on hard-to-quantify factors. These decisions are important – with respect to sugar, sharks, and COVID-19, we have conflicting goals. We want to avoid decimating endangered shark populations for squalene and reduce carbon emissions by using biofuels, but we also want to avoid biodiversity loss through monoculture. There are negative implications to every choice. As we become more aware of the impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change, we will be forced to confront increasingly more controversial questions like those outlined here.
We have to ask ourselves some tough questions. What are our priorities? How do we weigh the value of one living creature against the potential impacts on others? Are these tough choices legal issues? Political ones? Are they rooted in our perspective on the natural world - for example, whether we view the natural world through the lens of faith, science, or philosophy?
Perhaps it's a mixture of all of those.
One thing is certain. We need a foundational set of priorities to apply to these often-difficult decisions. For the Bible-believing person of faith, that priority is clear. We view these thorny issues through the lens of stewardship of the Earth’s resources, as commanded in Genesis 1:26-28.
Stewardship, as we shall explore in our next blog, requires something more than simply conservation or resourcefulness. It requires that we responsibly and sustainably use, plan, protect, and manage resources. It requires action. The manner in which we navigate a sustainable future should reflect the character of God through truth, transparency, feasibility, accountability, gratitude, and non-complacency.
These Biblical concepts provide a foundation upon which we can navigate interconnected and complicated systems.