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Modern risks: Food

Farm and harm: four cases based on food production

A health warning: I researched these pieces in the mid and late 90s: people quoted may have changed their views since. I haven't. The evidence, too, may have moved on without my spotting it. This entire site is a work in progress: its evidence is offered in good faith and comments are welcome.

(1) BSE

(2) GMOs

(3) Organophosphates

(4) Pesticides, cancer and gender-benders


1) BSE
[This was written years before the October, 2000 publication of the Phillips BSE report which sugested, for instance, that BSE in cattle is a cattle-to-cattle, not a sheep-to-cattle, infection as suggested below]

The last decade has seen man's relations with animals and plants assume a wholly new importance. We have had to adjust to a revolution in our ability to manipulate their very beings. We are bound to feel unease about the consequences, and have already come to believe ourselves damaged by the process. BSE has been a watershed in our thinking.

In truth, though, animals have always contributed mightily to the diseases and illnesses man suffers. Leaving aside the role of rats as vectors of diseases which arise because rodents opportunistically share our lives, our use of animals for food has conspired with hygiene and culinary issues to make us the victims of bugs that pass between the species.

There has always been a cycle of microbial infection passed, and intensified, between animals and us. In that sense, the food scares surrounding, say, cheese - especially the listeria scares of the late 80s - were really completely normal. And then there were the campylobacter scares, and others involving faecal matter from animals infecting us by various routes. Even salmonella in chickens, which caused a tremendous brouhaha nearly a decade and a half ago, is really an ordinary sort of infective issue: a quite normal bug which could arise at any time in a flock of hens and which turns out to be damaging to us but not to them. Some of these problems risk being intensified by careless antibiotic use, either in animals or humans, and the rules governing the use of antibiotics by farmers have recently been tightened-up. But the seriousness of that part of the issue is deeply controversial [1].

All these infective agents are fascinating, and their effects are arguably intensified by modern practices. But we also see a much newer sort of concern. We see an increasing unease about specifically modern techniques of farming animals and plants.

The most glaring example is BSE, the scrapie-like disease in cattle which seems to have transferred itself from sheep into cows, and thence, in a slightly altered form, into humans. As the 90s rolled on, it became harder and harder to make a watertight case against giving up eating beef. Indeed, renouncing beef was probably a more rational response than my own, which was to eat more of the stuff. These things are a matter of temperament. Mine directed me to dislike and defy scare-mongering.

Still, once we had found in 1986 that some cows were suffering from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy it was clear that there was a question mark over England's iconic lunch. The trouble is that this is not saying very much: for several years no-one really knew whether the problem would becomes serious in humans at all. Even now, the matter will not finally be settled for years, because BSE-type diseases have long incubation periods.

There have been many revelations about the BSE epidemic in cattle and people, and they are at the moment emerging not least because of the kind of public inquiry which the British are very good at [It is due to report this year, 2000]. One important message of the case is one which the press will studiously ignore: that this is the most open society in the world. With rather little fuss, the affairs of state come under intense scrutiny whenever anything goes wrong.

Speculation about any wrong-headedness or worse amongst politicians will probably put commentators and their public off the scent of the most important issue. Irrespective of what they said or advised, was the regulation of the crisis well or badly done?

From the start of the BSE outbreak, the Government got almost everything about right. The Ministry of Agriculture did preliminary research. The scientific great and good were corralled under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Southwood and reported first in 1988 and then 1989. Southwood reviewed MAFF's evidence, and plotted the rules on cattle feed which were likely - consistent with the known facts, and intelligent hypotheses - to make sure that cattle did not receive any more of the likely infective agent, or pass it on to humans. The scientific judgements which were made were immediately exposed to inquisition by other scientists and the media. Journalists of every complexion interrogated the scientists (those on the official committee and their critics alike) very rigorously. I remember being anxious that the judgements had to be made on fairly shaky and incomplete evidence, but also thinking that the right things had been done. Southwood agreed with the Government scientists' assessment that it was "most unlikely" that there would be problems for beef-eaters, but added that that if he and they were wrong "the implications would be extremely serious". Quite. I went on eating beef.

Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. The original thinking about the cause of the outbreak probably remains broadly sound. The main "official" theory suggests that bits of sheep infected with scrapie (which is like BSE) were fed to cows. Only a change in the market meant the stuff wasn't being pressure-cooked, a development no-one considered important at the time.

It may turn out that feeding the relatively uncooked remains of sheep to cows was only part of the story. Some witnesses to the inquiry believed that it was increases in the sheer bulk of animal protein which was fed to cattle which made the difference. It may be that the cow herd was infected with scrapie-like organisms anyway, but that these intensified to the point of becoming clinically evident with the new practices. It may even be, as has been claimed most controversially by Mark Purdey, an organic dairy farmer, that OPs reduced cows' immunity to the organism (see organophosphate link). So we may end up wishing we had banned OPs on those grounds.

But the scientists were within their rights to suppose that people probably wouldn't get infected even now that cows were. People had been eating the scrapie organism for centuries without problems. Anyway, and even though the risks of inaction seemed small, the feeding practice was actually stopped and the organs thought to be capable of carrying the disease were (fairly efficiently though by no means as thoroughly as was required) removed from the human food chain, whether they came from infected cows or not. There has always been far too much political effort to reassure the public on this matter, but there certainly wasn't a systematic cover-up or even much incaution in the government's approach.

The inquiry may settle on the view that some officials did not encourage research or publicity as they should have; there may be criticisms about the handling of relations between the farming and health ministries. There is some evidence that different parts of various ministries were not as frank as they might have been. But any scientists who now claims that his or her work was suppressed needs to consider whether they acted with ordinary courage in staying quiet at the time. In a world in which journalists are well accustomed to receiving nods and winks from scientists and officials all over the official and semi-official system, anyone who had a serious anxiety about the way things were going could have got their message out into the open.

In any case it will probably also turn out that their failures, whatever they were, produced rather small additional risks to those incurred by the original failure to notice - what probably no-one could have noticed - that feeding practices were allowing an organism to multiply.

BSE is often cited as a case of unnatural practices bringing about a new disease, whose incidence is in some sense deserved by innovative man. There is much talk about how we should have known that feeding material derived from animals to a vegetarian animal was bound to give rise to difficulties.

This argument is very flawed. Man has suffered zoonotic disease throughout his consumption of meat and animal products, but he has also suffered disease from his vegetable intake. Eating animals is probably more risky, simply because it is more complex, and because faecal matter, flesh and juices are such good conveyers of micro-organisms. Yet the BSE case really arises only because of a misunderstanding we made about the nature of the proteinous material we were feeding cattle. It is true that we put the cattle in the way of getting a zoonotic disease, but they are not strangers to zoonotic diseases, and would have been so even in the wild, and even without this change in their habits which made them carniverous and cannibalistic. Obviously, we need to be careful, but there is no reason to suppose that we have flouted some simple rule, some simple principle, of importance. Rather, we have taken an unwitting risk, as we must from time to time, and some people have suffered very horribly because of it. But we have not taken a different class of risk than is inevitable, nor have we been any slower to learn from our mistakes than might be expected of extremely intelligent and observant people.

(2) GMOs (Top)
We find the same difficulty as we move toward an increasing dependence on biotechnologies and genetic engineering.

The green movement has grasped this new opportunity vigorously (see my paper on GMOs, at "Links"). Here is a new technology to replace the nuclear fear as a bogey appropriate to our age. With his nuclear technologies, man had got into the engine-room of the physical world, the atom, and produced technologies which were obviously powerful. Now, science has delivered a technology which has its hands on the gene, one of the main levers of the engine-room of life itself.

The parallels are irresistible, but they are flawed. Nuclear fission always and inevitably involves hugely powerful forces which inevitably need containment and constant management. But biotechnologies are rather different. They certainly need careful development, but there is a strong chance that they can be developed with many and widespread benefits and rather small disadvantages. Not least of the differences is that the biotechnologies are being explored in a crucible of debate, investigation and regulation quite unlike anything seen before. For instance, the American chemicals and life-sciences company, Monsanto, one of the main protagonists, has been maintaining a website on which it posts a wide range of disinterested and partisan information on the matter, as well as providing hot-links through to many other sources of information and opinion.

On this site, one comes across a New Scientist article (31.10.1998) in which the industry's strongest and most persistent critic, Jeremy Rifkin, outlines his opposition:

"Genetic engineering is going to produce chemicals, building materials, plastics, fibres, new sources of energy as well as drugs and vaccines. Watch the industry. It is very impressive what has happened. In the past year, Monsanto, Novartis, Hoescht Chemical in Germany and Du Pont have all made a decision to shed or sell parts of their chemical divisions. They are all life science companies now. For them, the metamorphosis is to genetic commerce.... I use the new term "genetic pollution". I think it is going to gain currency very quickly. We need to look at the scale of what is happening. Right now, the life science companies are introducing scores of genetically engineered organisms into experimental field tests and several into commercial production.... It is the scale that is important. Thousands of introductions propagating in land, water and air over the next twenty years: the life sciences companies want to have the land full of genetically engineered crops, both food and pharmaceuticals, in less than 10 years. But have they addressed the issue of whether genetic pollution can spread ? .... The obvious first problem is build-up of herbicide resistance in weeds. Instead of spraying here and there infrequently, you actually have that herbicide-resistant gene in your crop so you can spray and kill everything in sight without killing your crop. If you are putting a herbicide-resistant gene in every cell of every plant over millions of acres, you certainly up the ante for the emergence of resistant strains of weed.

..... But what if genes jump between species ? The scientific community once said that was absurd. Now we are beginning to weigh the evidence. Danish studies of a herbicide-resistant gene show that during pollination it will jump easily over long distances."

On their website, the Royal Society (Britain's most prestigious science body), posted the deliberations of its own task force on biotechnology, and it is interesting to see how all the points Rifkin raises are indeed covered, but from a position which, whilst not relaxed and certainly not cavalier, strongly implied that these biologists believed that a step-wise advance could be made. Wholesale escapes to the wild were unlikely; monster genes were improbable.

Interestingly, the firms themselves might well find it in their own commercial interests to develop technologies which went toward systematic environmental safety for their products:

"In the past few years,", wrote Martin Brookes in the New Scientist (31.10.1998), "patents have been issued for techniques linking 'suicide' genes to DNA 'switches' that can be tripped inside pollen cells, wrecking their development, and also for techniques based on genes that kill off hybrid seeds as they attempt to germinate. Some companies even aim to turn crop fertility into a trait that can be switched on or off with sprays. 'We are going to see a lot more of this technology,' says [Arnold] Foudin, assistant director of scientific services at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA):

'Not that environmental protection is the engine driving this push. Far from it. Companies see the control of plant fertility as the key to preventing growers from pirating their technology. As long as crops remain fertile, there is a risk that growers will secretly use transgenic seed which they have saved from the last season. If that happens, company profits will take a dive.

'At present, not all plants are amenable to sterility engineering. But there's no denying that if it is perfected, engineering sterility would be an effective way of laying to rest the spectre of the transgenic superweed. Then, what's good for the company coffers might also be good for the environment.

'This puts opponents of biotechnology in something of a bind. They see the new sterility technologies as an attack on the age-old rights of farmers to save and store harvested seed. Yet they also complain about the risks of "genetic pollution"'."

It really is very unlikely that this technology will go away, and it is surely in nearly everyone's interests to find an intelligent way of legislating it into existence with as much regard to the real risks and benefits associated with it as is sensible and proportional to the risks and benefits we can see.

It is of course right that campaigners should seek to remind people that "progress" can have an undeserved imperative. For Jeremy Rifkin, this seems very important:

"The life sciences industry may find it difficult to believe that its agenda could be rejected but remember that the baby-boom generation rejected nuclear power, the crown jewel of 20th-century physics. When I was growing up in the 1950s that would have been unthinkable."

There are of course difficulties with this example. It may be that we should be developing more nuclear power, rather than seeking to turn our back on it. But in any case, these new biological technologies are being developed with a degree of questioning which simply never arose with nuclear. That is why it is perverse of its opponents to inveigh against the new technologies as though only the critics stood between the companies and a hedge-to-hedge, sea-to-sea ocean of GMOs.

Whilst eco-warriors in 1998 dug up fields of GMO trials, the Government's own independent watch-dog was cautiously reassessing one controversial case of a field-full of modified oil seed rape which was quite near an organic crop, whose owners were required to be free of GMO "infection". The Government's independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) thought the adjacent fields of non-engineered crops might be "infected" by the GMOs at the rate of one plant for every 40,000. That was, they thought, a baddish case, and not an alarming one. It was computed before they were told that the GMO field and the vulnerable organic fields were much further apart than at first thought. The point here is that infection by GMOs is no worse, and in this case no more likely, than infection by any other sort of seed. It was believed to be fairly easy to compute the odds - the risks - at issue. This is the sort of pragmatic, nuanced thinking which will probably feed the new billions soon to join the planet. It will probably keep us tolerably safe too. Things will go wrong, but they are unlikely to be catastrophic. Indeed, rather like nuclear risks, they will probably turn out to be surprisingly small, and surprisingly similar, to the natural risks we must take anyway.

(3) Organophosphates (Top)

Two of the most famous cases of modern risks going badly awry are the cattle disease, BSE, and its appearance now in humans, and nervous diseases supposedly caused by organophosphates used as sheep dips.

It is instructive that they are very different cases. For a start, BSE is an agent which may have jumped the species barrier between sheep and cows, and then jumped another, into people. With OPs, we have a pretty normal form of potential contamination of the human system by an industrial chemical, which gets to us - in this case - because of the farmer's working practices. The sheep is not itself the vector a disease, either in harbouring it or in passing it to us.

There are, though, similarities. In both, the supposed poisoning of people is believed by many to have been in effect covered up. The evidence about both has accumulated with time, and government has had to react to uncertainty, in very similar ways. What is more, in the case of OP poisoning, it would take only a little more evidence to wrong-foot the government's long-running view and policy on the matter. It could, for instance, be that we are now, in 1999, in the same position with respect to OPs that we were in very early 1996 about BSE. This is a sleeper which might yet became a dynamite issue.

Already, in the past three or four years, many shepherds have dramatically changed their practices. They are no longer dipping their sheep with organophosphates (OPs). Unease about the chemicals has spread. The OPs are wonderfully toxic against the army of mites (which produce the notorious "scab"), and the lice, ticks and blowfly, which afflict sheep. But they are also cousins of chemicals which have been used in chemical warfare against humans too.

Until 1992, dipping (not necessarily with OPs) was compulsory, as it has been for most of this century. Not that the diseases of sheep were new. Shepherds have always used anything to hand to try to keep their animals clean. Sheep historically were herded through streams (the farmhands nearly as immersed as the sheep), and smeared with everything from tar to elder leaves. As a last resort, the maggoty wounds infected by blowfly were scraped out with a penny, and there was a feeling that the coins' copper might help sterilise the wound. Lime, lead-oxide, mercury, turpentine and - finally - arsenic were all used. W H Hudson, writing on shepherding in the mid and late nineteenth century talks about the problems one shepherd had in getting paid whilst laid off, probably suffering arsenic poisoning after dipping in a stream-side tank, when he inadvertently swallowed some of the mixture. Goodness knows what the effect must have been on the shepherd's dogs, which within living memory were often ritually chucked into the mixture at the end of the session, and whose life-span must have allowed a considerable build-up of poison.

In 1800, Lord Somerville in Norfolk had introduced systemic dunking of his flock in an arsenic solution. By the turn of the last century, compulsory dipping had come in, and shepherds were watched by the village policeman to ensure that each sheep endured a proper baptism by chemical. So successful was this policy that by the 1950's sheep scab was banished from the nation's flock. But it returned twenty years later, and compulsory dipping was reintroduced. For the next twenty years, sheep were rounded up and made to jump into a tank, usually in an organochlorine dip. These chemicals were effective, but also, notoriously, very persistent in the environment. It seemed sensible - less risky - to switch to organophsophates, which bio-degrade readily.

For the last ten years or so, there have been growing fears that this latest chemical has its own problems. Official report after official report defends their use, provided proper care is taken, but the reassurance does little to dent concern.

Always the villains in the pesticide story, farmers now surprise themselves by fearing that they are victims. But are they at last falling prey to the dangers of the chemical world so many of them have defended for years - or to the suburban nervousness of so many of their new neighbours?

There are something like 80,000 sheep flocks in the UK. Now that farmers are simply required to maintain disease control by hook or by crook, some now dip against blowfly, but others only dip against scab, and a few not at all. Scab is a horrible disease, driving sheep to distraction by its persistent itchiness. After years in which it was virtually non-existent in British flocks, it has made a comeback. This need not continue: there are replacements for OPs. But that is not by any means the end of the story.

For many of the proponents of continued use, banning OPs on present evidence would be a dangerous concession, not to justifiable caution, but to irrationality. In 1993, years into the controversy, John Thorley, secretary-general of the National Sheep Association, called for information from his 9,000 members (about a quarter of the total using dips). "Out of that number, 75 responded and out of those 30 indicated a problem." He sympathises with the sufferers, but cannot see that OPs have been demonstrated to merit a ban.

One survey in the mid 90's by the National Farmers Union (NFU) suggested that a third of dippers who use OPs suffer some effects. Probably most of these experience the same sort of discomfort as someone using gloss paints (the industry suggests that this may be because both paints and sheepdips contain solvents). A majority of shepherds and sheep-dip contractors do not claim any ill-effects, often after years of intensive - and often careless - use. Bob Blanden, a sheep dip contractor, who believed in being very careful, and has felt no ill-effects, said: "I've had massive exposure, and I'm not alone. I can get pretty depressed at times, but I don't think it's OPs. We use dips sensibly. If you wear the correct clothing then I personally feel they're OK".

But there have been persistent and serious accounts of suffering. Some sheep farmers believe they experience effects such as anxiety and fatigue, and in some cases, paralysis. They join an army of modern people who suffer "non-specific" symptoms, taking many forms and plausibly caused disparately. In the view of some campaigners against OPs, many people who have never dipped sheep in their lives are in contact with OPs from other routes (the flea-collar on their cat, for instance). With or without OPs, people are suffering ME-type effects, some very profound, of the kind which have been claimed for some Gulf War veterans, and some water consumers who in 1988 received aluminium sulphate from an accident at Camelford, in Cornwall. These last displayed much the raft of symptoms claimed for OP-exposure, but claimed to be victims of a wholly different chemical (aluminium-sulphate).

The most important non-official player in the Camelford saga was Elizabeth Sigmund, whose self-styled South West Environmental Protection Agency was very successful in casting doubt on the several official reports which proposed that the very real illnesses people suffered after South West Water polluted their water were more likely to be caused by anxiety whipped up by an irresponsible press than by the chemicals in their taps.

Even those (and I am one of them, see my book, Life on a modern planet) who think Mrs Sigmund was wrong about Camelford are free to think she may have got the right end of the stick about OPs. Certainly she has been the first port of call for many sufferers who feel they have few other sources of redress. Elizabeth Sigmund said hundreds of sufferers have directly got in touch. But she went on: "I'm told by nearly everyone who gets in touch that they know others who are affected but don't want to get involved.

"I think this situation is different to Camelford because we have got good clinicians looking at these people and quite a reasonable number have specialist clinicians who say that they are suffering peripheral neuropathy. The problem is that proving a causal link is almost impossible because it is illegal to test such dangerous chemicals on human beings.

"But we have got evidence of a connection between their exposure to OPs and their having the symptoms. That's good circumstantial evidence. The exposure is closely followed by the symptoms." Mrs Sigmund argued that OPs should not be used until they are cleared of some of these charges.

Some - a very few - link heart problems to OP exposure and can cite medical literature and their own doctors to support their case. The best known of these is Gary Coomber, a Kent farmer whose case was been taken up by Alan Care of solicitors Leigh Day, one of the most successful of the new wave of law firms pursuing personal damage claims.

And yet the nag remains: if there are tens of thousands of users, why are only a few hundred people suffering sufficiently to do something about it? The people reporting major effects may demonstrate that OPs are dangerous to only a few people, perhaps because of their genetic make-up. But many of these people may merely demonstrate that some farmers are prone to what a reactionary sort of mind is inclined to think is Syndrome Hysteria. Indeed, is it a matter of either-or? Maybe some people are victims of small effects which they are psychologically - and innocently - inclined to magnify into much more serious symptoms.

So tricky an area of debate needed a proper forum, but after years of bubbling under, it wasn't until 1995 one was found. In June of that year the NFU and the British Medical Association held a symposium in London. It was the first time victims (real or imagined) and medical experts met properly to thrash out the very different perceptions of what is going on. The conference heard papers which left most people feeling that the case against OPs, even at low doses, was growing in seriousness.

It came by the two classic routes by which we think about environmental health issues. First, there is epidemiological data. Some credible people are reporting damage. But such anecdotal evidence is always fraught with difficulties, for all that it has the moral authenticity of being an account of personal suffering. More systematically, a study by the Institute of Occupational Health at Birmingham University, published that spring, found damage - admittedly very slight - even amongst sheep-dippers who had not, unprompted, reported effects. The difficulty is that a similar study might just as easily have found none: studies of these sorts of subtle effects are notoriously variable and controversial.

Second, the conference heard toxicological evidence as to how such damage might be occurring and why it might not have been understood before. In particular Dr Goran Jamal, a consultant clinical neurophsyiologist at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, and a member of the medical and scientific panel of the Veterinary Products Committee (the Government independent advisory group), suggested that studies on the nervous system might have concentrated on pathways which would not have been good markers for the sort of effects OPs could be expected to have, and ignored more susceptible pathways.

Dr Jamal stressed another important point: that whilst OPs do not, in the jargon, "persist and bioaccumulate" in the human body (ie, they do not hang around and concentrate themselves in particular parts of our bodies), the damage they may do is of the kind which is permanent and accumulates with each new dose. In other, words: you don't get better between each "hit", but rather the effect of each hit adds up.

Not exactly to the surprise of the campaigners, who have become cynical of the regulatory process, in July 1995, the Veterinary Products Committee endorsed the "steady as you go" approach. The IOH's study was to be seen, the committee said, as valuable but inconclusive. In particular, the authors of the report were declared to have gone beyond their own findings in suggesting in a paper for the Lancet that there was strong evidence of long-term health effects from OPs. As usual in such things, the committee endorsed the quest for more data. Using this view, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food supported continued use of OPs, and tenders for further epidemiological studies were invited.

Whether all this will end in a ban on organophosphate sheepdips is unclear. At least one senior and informed health specialist says privately that he wavers dramatically in his reading of the seriousness of the problem. It certainly seems right to distrust anyone who says they know, either way, whether OPs are as villainous as commonly supposed. What we do know is that there are alternatives, mostly pyrethroids, which are expensive, more complicated to use, arguably less effective and may turn out to produce their own "victims". They certainly require much the same safety precautions as OPs.

It might seem obvious that on the kind of evidence which now surrounds the OP issue, one might just as well play safe and ban the stuff. Campaigners stress that this is why we have the "precautionary principle", which, as interpreted by them, says that "reasonable doubt" is enough to criminalise suspect chemicals.

In the real world, the precautionary principle is open to many definitions and, especially in an age when campaigners are pointing the finger of blame at all sorts of chemicals, often on shaky evidence, it becomes important to think carefully about how much and what sort evidence should be required for a ban. Why not advise caution and advertise the alternatives?

The Government and its advisers have always said it is important to take precautions when using OPs, which are obviously potentially very dangerous. But farmers often ignore such warnings. At the June 1995 meeting, several farmers stood up and said that they could not be expected to read the precautionary messages on chemical containers. This comes close to saying that farmers are too lazy or stupid to be in modern animal husbandry. Others said that they could not be expected to go to the admittedly quite serious inconvenience of wearing the right protective clothing (whose effectiveness seems real, but marginal). One wonders if this sort of argument would wash with firemen, divers or soldiers. A third group of farmers said they should not be expected to pay extra for safer products: which all of us have to do all the time, even in industries of marginal profitability such as sheep farmers claim theirs to be.

In 1995, Bob Blanden, the contractor whose teams use Ops to dip about 80,000 sheep a year, said, "The protective clothing is not onerous. I've never understood the objections to it. You're not having to dress up as though for chemical warfare. Leggings and boots are fairly important just to keep dry. Wearing gauntlets isn't difficult".

But the sufferers deserve sympathy, not least because they feel they have no obvious official champion for their cause. A likely port of call - the Health and Safety Executive - is regarded probably unjustly as just as likely to prosecute farmers for breaking the rules as to sympathise with their illnesses. GPs are notoriously sceptical about ME-type complaints. So the ill farmers have tended to go to self-appointed voluntary groups, which, so far from being sceptical about the new world of chemophobia, are among its main proponents.

In 1995, Mr Coomber felt he had been badly let down, "by nearly anybody who's had anything to do with us, really. Who are you going to see with this problem? You can't see a toxicologist employed by the National Health Service. Their experts don't see patients. We've had to go to America and Israel for expertise. We've allowed chemical companies to license their own products, really, because the licensing body is run on licence fees, and they monitor their own products." Mr Coomber, hardly surprisingly, turned to alternative chemicals.

He felt that the Government and the industry form an unholy alliance. Yet one could as easily say that the firms which make OPs can claim to operate within tight regulations. This truer view may lead to the real point of principle in the issue. It is, finally, Parliament which produced whatever OP poisoning there is. At every step, democratically accountable regulators believed they were doing the right thing. They may, of course, have fallen prey to the problem all regulators face when they have endorsed a product or procedure: they are reluctant to admit they may have been wrong. If the industry fears a flood of damages cases if the regulator concedes misjudgement, there are lawyers and scientists who believe that the Government equally worries that such an admission might open it up to accusation and litigation.

It is, unfortunately, unlikely that the small crop of legal cases now being pursued will lead to argument in open court. Too often in this sort of issue, the parties settle in closed rooms without the matter being thrashed out in public. We may never have a judge's or a jury's plain man's view of the evidence surrounding OPs, nor use the OPs case to begin to build a social consensus of where scientific evidence - or anecdotal evidence, for that matter - fits into our decision-making.

Meantime, the flight from OPs continued. Chris Akrigg, a university-educated shepherd in Wharfedale, switched from the chemical years ago: "We went to a pyrethrum, which is apparently safer for us. We had always used OPs and I personally have had no ill-effects. But there's just so much argument and if there's any danger at all and you know there are alternatives, the cost doesn't really enter into it for me". That sounds rational enough for all working purposes.

(4) Pesticides (and gender-bending chemicals) (Top)

The difficulty in many other cases of industrial contamination and risk, real and otherwise, is that we all receive huge amounts of scarifying information, and that it has taken many years for any seriously competing view to break through.

One man in particular is a hero of this cause. Professor Bruce Ames (interviewed by me in 1996) has so many important things to say, it is a blessing that almost all of them are very cheering. In particular, he believes that man-made chemicals are at most a trivial cause of cancer. "They're simply a red-herring", he said. "The average American family pays about seven thousand dollars a year because of various regulations, and half of that comes because of the Environmental Protection Agency. We are regulating residues of synthetic chemicals when they occur at levels tens of thousands of times less than naturally-occurring chemicals which are in every cup of coffee." He is as robust on the latest environmental scare. Men and women may be receiving man-made "gender-bending" estrogenic chemicals, but they really don't seem to matter.

Lean and whiskery, the Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, is a striking figure: "I'm half a biochemist and half a geneticist", he said. His work is amongst the most cited in the literature, he is a member of the American National Academy of Sciences.

If environmentalists have one preoccupation in common it is a generalised dislike of industrial capitalism and a generalised affection for regulation. Ames said, "There is politics in all of this, I think. People on the left tend not to like industry; they think of themselves as working from altruism whilst industry works from greed. And the right tend to feel that bureaucrats are working in their own self-interest", said Dr Ames. He is one a handful of scientists who weigh in on environmental matters, from global warming to gender-bending, often publishing through the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His writing appears, for instance, in the CEI's book The True State of the Planet [2], a title designed to pun on the far more familiar annual, The State of the Planet, from the green Worldwatch Institute.

If one had time for only one of his insights then it would have to be this one: Eat your vegetables. He suggests there is an evolutionary explanation why every mother has always known the power of this rubric: "The tribes whose mums that didn't tell their kids to eat up their veggies died out". Oddly, and more certainly, it is now known that plants make their own pesticides, and that there are far more of these in our diet than the man-made kind.

This picture of a naturalness tainted with its own risks was reinforced by Dr Roger Fenwick, of the Institute of Food Research (one of the semi-official science institutes administered by the Agricultural and Food Research Council. A few years ago, in an article for the inhouse science magazine of the Bayer corporation, he wrote that there are approximately 1000 chemical additives registered for food use, and around 300 chemicals registered for use in cultivation and preservation. The effects of these are mostly well-researched and well-known. This specialist in the implications for human health of naturally biologically-active compounds in food continued,

"In comparison there are perhaps half a million natural chemicals present in food plants, this number increasing as a result of processing, whether domestic or industrial.

The majority of these natural chemicals are unidentified but they undoubtedly make a significant contribution to the flavour, texture, appearance and nutritional value of the resulting food. In marked contrast to the man-made chemicals in our diet, only a small proportion of these compounds have had their biological properties examined. Yet contrary to public opinion, these natural compounds can have nutritional significance and, not infrequently, may be harmful."

Dr Fenwick went on to list some of the fatal or dangerous toxic effects of some of the most "natural" and even hyped plants such as cassava, yams, legumes and perhaps especially comfrey ("a highly toxic plant causing liver damage and death").

The point here is not that we should become wholly relaxed about anything man-made nor neurotically anxious about anything natural.

"...what I am suggesting is that this concern extend equally to all chemicals, irrespective of origin. After all, if our bodies do not differentiate between artificially and naturally produced chemicals, why should we?"

Curiously enough, several decades of anxious investigation of the effects of food-stuffs and diets have strained and strained, and produced little more than a mouse. Richard Girling, writing in the Sunday Times Magazine (20.12.1998), reported on a vast array of research, especially concerning the supposed dangers of eating meat and of being over-weight, and talked to many leading figures in the debate, with the overall conclusion that cancer and heart disease could not be neatly correlated with any particular habit.

Girling notices but does not really clear up a serious difficulty in such matters. He alerts us to the way the government occasionally indulges in nannyism, but stresses that at least the state is not abandoning us:

"You could not count the number of committees and sub-committees, steering groups and task forces that have been assigned to keep death off our plates. It is an acronym-collectors' dream world. Worrying away at salmonella and E-coli, for instance, is the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF). The Department of Health (DH) has separate committees on the Toxicity, Mutagenicity and Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (Cot, Com, and Coc respectively), which monitor foods at the level of their chemical components. In this they are aided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which has a steering group on Chemical Aspects of Food Surveillance (SGCAFS), which in turn has a Working Party on Naturally Occurring Toxicants in Food (WPNOTF). There are many more. They all publish annual reports, most of which pass quietly into the science libraries without ever attracting the smallest amount of interest.

In many ways, this is just as well. If we were kept abreast of the full range of everything which attracted the committees' attention, we might stitch our lips together permanently, rather than take the risk of actually letting anything past them."

This is the real difficulty. We need to develop institutions which enable scientific evidence to be gathered and assessed, but to insulate them as much as possible from the requirement, and even their own desire, to produce simplistic advice.

Girling quotes work by the Institute of Public Health at Cambridge University which suggested that meat-eating was not a very good indicator of good or bad health, but that the consumption of rather more than ordinary amounts of vegetables was quite well associated with good health.

This accords well with Bruce Ames's understanding of the role of vegetables: "The quarter of the US population that eats least of them has a doubled risk of most cancers and heart attacks compared with the quarter eating the most," says Dr Ames.

Indeed, even a heavy smoker who eats vegetables and fruit halves his or her risk of lung cancer (it will remain a large risk). Of course, and by the way, it is not clear that it is socially responsible to give up smoking: Dr Ames suggests that one should "smoke for Britain" in the sense that a shortened life was cheaper for the welfare and health services. It was a joke, but its larkiness is of a piece with his understanding that ecological life is full of ironies and paradoxes. Amongst them is the idea that many environmentalists want pesticides banned or made expensive: this would make it even less likely that poor people would eat more of the foodstuffs they most need. Something of the same argument applies to organic farming, quite aside from its likely very small addition to the riskiness of the vegetable diet.

Ames was amused to note that a student of his had been working for the firm making Hershey bars: she had argued that folic acid (a micronutrient Dr Ames especially admires) could very easily be added to the chocolate of the bars and would confer benefit. "The federal Food and Drugs Administration said Hershey would do it over its dead body. Apparently Hershey bars are a bad thing and it would be wrong to add something good to them!" Of course, for their part libertarians might object to the scheme on the grounds that it amounts to social engineering.

It is the Gradgrind skills of number-crunchers which reveal to us the growth in well-being so many of us find hard to believe. As men and women (in spite, apparently, of their being fattier and plumper than men) nearly everywhere in the world live for longer and longer, it is becoming more and more clear that rates for almost every sort of cancer (except in the lung) are steady or falling. "The idea that there is a cancer epidemic is just a lie", said Dr Ames.

Breast cancer is not rising. Stomach cancer is falling: "We're doing something right there, but we don't know what," said Dr Ames about the latter scourge. It is true, however, that more people now die of cancer than ever before: but that is because they now live long enough for that to become the case. "We need the Third World to get rich enough to live long enough to die of cancer, like us", said the wry scientist.

This is the sort of data he gains from epidemiolgists. He keeps in touch with two of the most celebrated: Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto at Oxford University, who demonstrated the seriousness of smoking years ago, and have since demonstrated that man-made pollution simply cannot compete with tobacco and a lousy diet - and genetic bad luck - when it comes to early death. Sir Richard has always argued that up to two percent of fatal cancers may be caused by pollution, but not more.

Dr Ames is more bullish still. "I think the figure is nearer one percent", he insisted. "But that's mostly dirty air, for instance: I think chemical pollution is really even more trivial."

The contribution for which Professor Ames will go down in history was his explanation of why it is likely that man-made chemicals are having at best a minute effect. Thirty years ago, he researched various food additives to see if they might be carcinogenic. In the process, he invented what came to be called the Ames test. Using chopped rat's liver as a medium, he tested whether chemicals damaged DNA cells: their being mutagenic was for years thought likely to be a nearly perfect proxy for their being carcinogenic. With qualifications, the test remains extremely useful and has saved the lives of thousands and probably millions of laboratory animals because, as Dr Ames said, "A little rat's liver goes a long way".

Over the years, Dr Ames became sceptical of the usefulness of much live-animal cancer testing. Put simply: the high doses involved cause cancer rather than reveals it. But the really shattering revelations came when he realised that half the chemicals tested on live animals were showing as carcinogenic, and that was true whether they were natural or synthetic. The tests, if accurate, would make us very worried about natural and wholly unavoidable chemicals. In the degree to which they are less than accurate, they do less to reinforce the view that we should be worrying about man-made chemicals.

All this would be frustratingly incomplete without some better explanation of why people do get cancer. Dr Ames believes we get the disease because we live long enough for a natural (and mutagenic) process of oxidation finally to do us in. "The existence of masses of long-lived humans is a modern phenomenon", he said. We live longer not because we have cured cancer, obviously: rather, we live longer and become prey to it. It happens that many animal biological processes oxidise cells: in rats the process happens eight times quicker than in humans, so they live short lives. In humans, the process is slower, but inevitable in the end. Evolution mostly engineers for creatures to live long enough to reproduce, but has produced in humans the kind of intelligence which has enabled us to control our environment well enough to live for long enough to accumulate the cancer-causing side effects of our metabolic activity.

We are also, to return to Girling's theme, eating what Dr Ames calls, "Way too much fat". Again, evolution has programmed us to gorge on this vital and historically rare commodity.

However - to come full circle - vegetables and fruit are great anti-oxidants and can help delay death. They also give us many other cancer-delaying micronutrients. There's no need for faddy eating by the way: "Just five portions a day of fruit or vegetables, that'll do it", said the good doctor.

The message comes too late, in a way. Cancer scares are harder to launch now than they used to be, and the campaigners have moved on to new territory. The same principles guide them: they need a man-made cause of a frightening problem which is thought to be on the increase, but a cause whose mechanics, whilst widely advertised by serious people, are not yet so well understood that their seriousness (or lack of it) is clear. Above all, they need a problem whose alleviation is uncertain and which may, just may, turn out to be difficult and expensive.

Enter, the gender-benders. These are the endocrine-disrupters, and in particular the oestrogens and oestrogen-imitators which can effect (for good and ill) the reproductive and immune systems of animals, including man. They are supposed, rather uncertainly, to be having a deleterious effect on mankind.

The uncertainty begins with the problem of whether there is a problem. Various researchers have, over the years, suggested that male humans especially in the Western world have suffered a decline in sperm. Citing this evidence, the Medical Research Council's "Environmental Oestrogens: Consequences to Human Health and Wildlife" [3], ended its section on the matter by noting reports that suggested there was no such effect and concluded:

"In summary, although a number of studies have drawn attention to the possibility of decreasing sperm counts over the last few decades, the evidence is not entirely convincing. Furthermore, reanalysis of the date of Carlsen et al (1992) but covering only the last two decades (1970-1990) indicated that sperm counts were not decreasing (Brake and Krause, 1992). In addition, a comprehensive study in the USA, where potential variables were minimised, showed no evidence for decreasing sperm counts or distribution over the period 1951-1977 (MacLeod and Wang, 1979). However, the most recent study of Parisian sperm donors (Auger et al , 1995) did demonstrate a decrease in the quantity and quality of sperm during a 20 year period (19373-1992) in the study population. Toppari et al (1995) concluded that the available evidence points to a rise, in Europe and many other countries, in male reproductive disorders involving sperm counts and probably sperm quality. Clearly, much more study and analysis is required to establish with certainty the position regarding time-related trends in sperm quantity and quality and their possible impacts on male fertility, particularly in the general population."

The same picture of uncertainty applies to several other problems which have been prayed in aid of the idea that our species faces an endocrine system crisis. Even though it is clear that there has been a rise in testicular and breast cancer, it is much less clear why that might be. Indeed, the Ames-hypothesis that a rich diet may lie behind various problems is borne out by evidence that testicular cancer rates were lower than normal for the cohort of men born during the Second World War, and that Oriental men are less threatened by the disease than their Western counterparts.

Richard Girling points to a fascinating line of research in Australia which spotted that sheep there were becoming androgynous in various ways, the result, it is believed, of farmers letting the animals get at too much clover, a natural producer of plant oestrogens (phytoestrogens).

There are, Girling notes, other plants which could produce the same feminising effect, notable amongst them soy, which is used in oriental products and in plenty of processed Western ones too. But it may be that so far from worrying about the supposed androgenysing effects of soy, we should be celebrating its potential for reproducing in the West the eastern advantages of relatively low risk of hormone-related cancers such as breast, prostate and endometrium.

The green campaigners naturally seized on the oestrogen issue, and especially so since the evidence that industrial activity lay behind the problems seems so compelling. In 1996, the campaigners had to hand what seemed to them a book which would do for the gender-benders what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had done for the pesticides and wildlife issue thirty years before. The comparison was drawn in a foreword by Vice President Al Gore, an environmental commentator who could be relied on to get the wrong end of most sticks (as was evidenced in his book on the environment). Dr Theo Colborn, Dr John Peterson Myers and Dianne Dumanoski published Our Stolen Future, first in the USA and then in the UK5.

It is not a particularly extreme book, and not the worst of a genre of scare-mongering tomes which are generally extremely and even dangerously poor. It is bad enough, though. Professor Lewis Smith, director of the Medical Research Council's Institute for Environment and Health at Leicester University was quoted in the Daily Telegraph (2.5.1996) as accusing the book of making as "pure assertion" links between pollution and human health. Along the way, he suggested that our new laziness and lack of exercise may be as much a cause of any decline in sperm quality as a chemical, whether natural or unnatural. He went on: "We've given ourselves over to suspicion and prejudice. We must get back to running society on evidence-based assessments. Otherwise we are going to make very costly decisions. If we do not make decisions based on the evidence, it is back to the Dark Ages".

The peculiar thing about this book is that it is a rather interesting summation of some scientific insights which its authors think support their general purpose. Along the way, they retail the story of the Australian sheep, and they remark on the feminising influence of marijuana-smoking. They do so to show how gender-benders work, but they return quickly to their main theme: the effect of man-made chemicals. They never suggest how ambiguous is the evidence of feminisation in nature and man, nor to the huge regulatory success, especially in the past twenty years, in reducing people's exposure to most of the organochlorine chemicals they are so busy condemning. Above all they ignore the huge effort, easily tracked by anyone with access to a public library or the Internet, made by governments all over the world, and within their supra-national organisations (notably the OECD), to track down and develop evidence about all these supposed problems and their solution.

On gender-benders, Dr Ames said: "I think the campaigners are making exactly the same sort of mistakes they made with cancer. They always ignore the natural background level of the chemicals they're interested in." He has severe strictures for Our Stolen Future, "The book lacks understanding of toxicology: whether the amounts consumed have adequate potency to account for the effect of concern." In fact, he said, synthetic oestrogens are "miniscule" in effect compared with the background level of hormones in the body, and the plant hormones in our normal diet. He believes the weak oestrogens in fruit and vegetables may well actually protect women from breast cancer.

Paradoxically, Our Stolen Future made the point that Rachel Carson dwelled too heavily on carcinogenic effects in her controversial account of modern chemicals and thus she missed the opportunity for a prescient exploration of their supposed gender-bending effects. The authors might have noticed that the world has moved on in other ways. Our Stolen Future produced an ambivalent set of headlines for its publishers: thirty years on, the public is at least now alerted that all these matters are the subject of debate rather than mere outrage. The book did have its moment in the sun, but there was plenty of comment about the poverty of its arguments. These were not criticisms of good science, nor Panglossian attempts to swallow every industry message. They were criticisms about scares or accounts of scares which do not trouble themselves with the complexity - the fascinating complexity - of the real world.


[1] Antibiotic Resistance: the threat to international health, 1997, The Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE.
[2] The Free Press, Simon and Schuster
[3] Institute for Environmental Health, University of Leicester, PO Box 138, Lancaster Road, Leicester, LE1 9HN
[4] Our Stolen Future: How man-made chemicals are threatening our fertility, intelligence, and survival, by Theo Colborn, John Peterson Myers, and Dianne Dumanoski. Little, Brown, 1996

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