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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 11th February 2012

The state of Oklahoma is well on the way to making the commercial farming of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, illegal. I’ve read a number of reports about this situation since it was first mooted in November last year but I still have no idea what is really behind this move.

The first mention I saw of this was a report in ‘Tulsa World’ dated 26th November noting that bills to outlaw the production and transportation of castor oil plants were among the first to be filed for consideration in the 2012 legislative sessions.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Early in December, the Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture unanimously approved a moratorium on the production of castor beans in the state. The Secretary of Agriculture said in an interview that it was clear that the state would pass these bills so the moratorium had been put in place to remove any doubt in the mind of farmers about what crops to plant in March or April 2012.

There’s my first puzzle. The politician behind this proposal, House Floor Leader Dale DeWitt, is quoted, in this report, as saying ‘No one in Oklahoma is growing castor beans for commercial purposes’. So, if no-one is growing it why the need for such a rushed move to outlaw it? DeWitt claims that there are farmers who want to start producing castor beans so the need is to get legislation in place to prevent this happening. There don’t appear to have been any voices raised against DeWitt’s proposal so these alleged farmers can’t be too concerned.

Ricin, the toxic component remaining in castor beans after they have been crushed to extract the oil, has an entirely false reputation as a terrorist weapon. Go to the Ricinus communis page of this site to see the number of times I’ve discussed this in this blog. And Oklahoma was the site of one of the worst terrorist acts committed in the USA (second only to the 11th September 2001 attacks) when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, in April 1995, by exploding a truck mounted bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

So it might make sense, in a ridiculous sort of way, if the proposed ban was a result of fears over terrorists getting access to ricin. But none of the reports I’ve seen suggest that this is in the minds of anyone supporting the proposed legislation.

Rather, the reason being given is because of the perceived threat of accidental poisoning resulting from cross-contamination between Ricinus communis and food crops, notably wheat. No-one is offering any evidence for such cross-contamination occurring. In fact, the lack of evidence points to there being no problem. Much of today’s estimated 1 million tonnes a year of castor beans are grown in India and Egypt. I don’t mean to be critical of those two countries but neither is a place I believe would be capable of maintaining strict separation between Ricinus communis and other commercial crops if that were necessary to avoid contamination leading to poisoning.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

According to DeWitt, wheat farmers and crop producers are concerned about cultivation of Ricinus communis spreading castor and ricin residue into planting and harvesting equipment, storage bins, and vehicles that might also be used for transporting grain.

Ricin is found inside the hard casing of the castor bean seed. To release the ricin you have to crush the bean. If you’re looking to grow Ricinus communis in order to sell the castor oil that is also released when the bean is crushed you’d be pretty foolish to harvest and handle the beans in such a way that they were crushed before arriving at the pressing plant. Systems for harvesting and handling castor beans are intended to avoid crushing the beans so that the valuable oil isn’t wasted. A minimal number of beans will get damaged during harvesting and transport, no method is 100% effective, but the amount of ricin released would be tiny.

DeWitt’s other concern is that some seeds would get spread and Ricinus communis plants would grow in amongst wheat crops and the harvested grain sent for milling could contain some castor beans. I’m no expert on wheat harvesting but I’m pretty sure there is a screening process based on size that it is used to help eliminate anything that is not wheat grains from entering the mills. There’s no way that something the size of a castor bean would be graded as being the same as wheat grain.

The thing about ‘volunteer’ plants, the term used to describe plants found in amongst another crop, is that deWitt’s bill doesn’t prevent them occurring. In order to avoid a spat with market gardeners and the general public, only large scale commercial growing is to be outlawed. Plants grown in private gardens remain legal and plants grown to produce the seeds to sell to private gardeners remain legal. It will remain legal to transport castor beans in bags weighing up to 50lbs (22kg). ‘Volunteer’ plants could occur from this activity except that it has been going on for a considerable time without problem demonstrating that volunteering is not a route to ricin poisoning.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

But, all of the above is irrelevant because of one piece of scientific information. Let’s concede that farmers would harvest and handle castor beans so poorly that many became crushed spreading ricin all over machinery and vehicles. Let’s concede that the wind in Oklahoma is strong enough to lift thousands of castor beans into the air and spread them into wheat fields and that normal harvesting procedures totally fail to separate the castor beans from wheat grain.

If all that happened, you’d have ricin present in wheat flour and that’s very bad isn’t it? Actually, no, because ricin is destroyed at temperatures above 80 C. So, if all the impossible things happened you still wouldn’t have ricin present in bread backed from the flour.

From what has been reported, the proposed ban on growing Ricinus communis in Oklahoma makes no sense. I’m loathe to label politicians as stupid even if all the published evidence points in that direction. I am, however, cynical enough to wonder if the true reason for this ban hasn’t been reported. The reports say that the oil would be used as a biofuel (though this has been studied and there is talk of trial projects in parts of the world, castor oil is not, currently, a known biofuel). I can’t help wondering if this is about attacking alternatives to fossil fuels.

If you’re interested in reading more about this story, I heartily recommend this blog entry from George Smith aka Dick Destiny. His conclusion, which I won’t spoil, seems complete nonsense until you remember that the Oklahoma politicians behind this measure don’t seem to have any sense of the ridiculous.