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Oil Seed Rape (Allergy)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10.54 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : My purpose in drawing this subject to the attention of the House is to air an issue that is important to the health of the many sufferers who blame flowering oil seed rape for their allergies and to meet the needs of those involved in agriculture, for whom this crop is an important source of income. Both the public and farmers have a right to seek action from the Government in producing a solution to a proven problem.

Oil seed rape is a relatively new crop, appearing in the mid and late 1960s in England and Wales and from 1981 in Scotland. Its popularity, encouraged by Common Market subsidy, has seen a 25-fold increase in its planting in Europe, a 47-fold increase over 21 years in the United Kingdom, and a spectacular rise in Scotland from 0 per cent. to 14 per cent. of the United Kingdom total in only nine years. There has been an estimated 25 per cent. rise in the planting of the crop this year alone.

To clarify the extent of the situation, perhaps the Minister will inform the House, if he can, of the acreage of oil seed rape and of spring-sown oil seed rape that will be grown in 1990 as a percentage of previous years. What are the Government's figures for the acreage of brassica compestris or turnip rape that is to be grown in 1990 and its percentage change? I ask that because I should like to know whether the Minister is aware of the extent to which those forms of rape will extend the flowering period of the rape crop and thus the period during which complaints may occur. If he does not have those figures to hand, perhaps he will respond in writing at a later date, because far from going away, the problem is here to stay and is increasing rather than decreasing.

Oil seed rape is a popular and lucrative cash crop, which is very much suited to Scottish conditions. It is a major agricultural income-earner and has seen a massive and rapid expansion in its planting and thus in the exposure of the public to its effects on health. That creates problems for the general public, agricultural workers and livestock. The Minister may be aware of reports suggesting that oil seed rape may cause disease in animals, especially horses and dogs. I should be grateful if the Minister could make it clear whether he believes that the problem requires urgent investigation.

Other factors such as spring sowing, mild winters and new varieties are extending the oil seed rape flowering season and are adding to the problems. Quite simply, this is a situation on the move. Changes in varieties are occurring, especially from single to double low breeds, and in species, with the introduction of brassica compestris rape as well as of spring-grown brassica napus rape with its extended flowering period. All those changes in agricultural techniques will increase and influence allergic responses among the general public and agricultural workers.

Has the Minister any information to hand about the effect of the introduction of double low varieties of oil seed rape on allergic responses? Can he provide any facts about the effect on human health of sulphur-containing

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matabolites in cruciferous crops? On what exactly is the present policy of non-intervention based? There is now solid evidence pointing to oil seed rape as a source of health problems. Stories of harmful effects of the crop on health were at first anecdotal, with patients who reported to general practitioners' surgeries showing a wide range of symptoms during the oil seed rape flowering season. Doctors in Angus have consistently drawn that to my attention over many years.

Oil seed rape, with its bright yellow flower and heavy scent, is in some ways a very obvious and easy target at which to direct blame for a range of allergy symptoms, such as eczema, hay fever, coughing, sneezing, headaches, asthma and simple general debilitation. The question is : is it the culprit? Now, thanks to the Angus district council and Dundee university joint research project, there can be no doubt that there is a definite link between oil seed rape and allergic responses. Nor can there be any doubt that the problem is widespread, posing the real possibility of a public health nuisance and of a specific health hazard to agricultural workers.

During the 1989 flowering season, an epidemiological study was carried out in the village of Bowriefauld near Letham, in Angus. Angus district council, to its great credit, funded that study in response to allegations of public health nuisance. Eighty-five adults and 40 children were studied, and medical information obtained before, during and after the flowering season--using questionnaires, diary cards and standard skin and blood tests, along with the monitoring of pollen counts, wind-speed direction, temperatures and pollen collected by the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Invergowrie. The results were both startling and clear : 46 per cent. of the study population reported symptoms at the time when oil seed rape pollen counts were high and when no other pollens were present. The culprit is clear. Half of those individuals confirmed positive allergy tests. Allergy skin testing revealed that reactivity increased from 5 per cent. before the flowering season to 38 per cent. after the season. That is a massive rise compared to the 20 per cent. sensitivity normally shown for most allergic substances. Many previously non-allergic persons became reactive--suggesting that oil seed rape is a very potent inducer of allergy. Individuals sensitised to oil seed rape were very likely to become sensitised to other substances also, such as grass pollen, animal danders, and house dust mites. All that suggests that oil seed rape might well be triggering off allergic reactions to other substances. That must be a cause for concern.

As almost half the study group had symptoms that were due to oil seed rape, does the Minister agree that it is reasonable to infer that half the population in areas where oil seed rape is grown may equally be affected by these problems? Do the Government not regard it as alarming that oil seed rape may contribute to the development of other allergies and that it may seriously disturb the immunity of people in contact with the crop? If that is not a spur to action, what would be?

The study gives rise to major doubts about oil seed rape and should have been the stimulus for further detailed research to discover the exact nature of the problem and its solution. But, so far, Government funding has not been forthcoming. Previous experience at the Scottish Crop Research Institute reinforces the evidence and has revealed similar problems for staff working with brassicas as well as other related plants. The problems range from rashes and

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blisters, especially on the face and hands, but occasionally more widespread--for example, for staff wearing shorts or short-sleeved shirts--all the way to asthma and hay fever. For some staff the problems have become so severe that they have had to discontinue work with brassica crops. For others there has been a need to avoid contact with those crops, most usually at the time of flowering, either by not entering the glasshouses or seed production tunnels where the plants are in flower, or by wearing gloves or using barrier creams.

There has always been some doubt as to whether pollen alone is involved. Some staff complain of discomfort from breathing what they describe as acrid vapour given off by flowering brassicas. Others are aware of a strong smell, often as far as half a mile from the flowering crop, but suffer no ill effects. Yet others cannot smell the crop but suffer ill effects, which disappear as soon as they are no longer in close proximity to the crop. The men and women working with the crop know and confirm the views of the wider population. The Minister will know that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland has funded research into the harmful effects on deer of ingestion of oil seed rape. That shows an odd sense of priority, given the human suffering. The Minister disagrees, but, as far as I am aware, money was made available for research on animals but none has so far been provided for research on human beings. That is the point of raising the matter.

The Government denied any link between ill health and oil seed rape when I first raised it. I note that in his reply to me of 29 June 1988 the Minister, Lord Skelmersdale, admitted :

"Oil seed rape pollen may be allergenic and affect the upper respiratory tract causing allergic rhinitis and the airways causing asthma."

The Angus district study confirms that. Deeper and more detailed probing is required.

The scale of scientific investigation has to be expanded to ensure that the high responses observed initially are maintained in a larger study, and to relate more closely the symptoms observed to specific events in the growth and flowering of oil seed rape. We need to ascertain whether the problem relates purely to pollen release or involves chemicals released by the plant, some of which are mustard oils, which are known from other work to cause acute irritation to skin and mucous membranes.

Given the economic importance of oil seed rape to the Scottish economy, the problem should be resolved by modification of the crop's characteristics and not by its elimination or its restricted growth in unpopulated areas. The required research is such that funding from Government agencies is essential. That is my plea to the Government. In view of the fact that in Tayside there is an established research group, drawn from several institutions, with the necessary expertise to research the problem, and that two and a half years of experience is already credited to the group, can the Minister explain why it has not been funded, and why funding has not been made available for studies during the 1990 flowering season? Again, is the Minister aware that medical, immunological, agricultural and environmental expertise have been co-ordinated through the environmental health department of Angus district, the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie and the medical school of the university of Dundee?

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The ability to tackle the problem exists already. Is the Minister aware of any other research group with such expertise? If so, has the problem been studied in depth over a period? I am anxious that those with expertise should tackle the problem and produce solutions. The means of solving the remaining parts of the medical jigsaw puzzle are there. Is the Minister aware that the problem has been investigated in Tayside for two and a half years? Will he not use the existing expertise and knowledge urgently? I ask him to introduce immediately a two-pronged attack on the problem, with the funding of research into new, non-allergic strains of oil seed rape which would ensure that agriculture will not awaken in a few years to find the health risk totally proven and a major financial crisis on its hands. That can be avoided by action now to investigate and eliminate the problem. Failure to do so will represent serious neglect by the Government.

The second line of attack must be to discover through medical research the exact nature and cause of the allergies which would lead to their elimination and to the end of the suffering of large numbers of people whose only crime is to live near or pass by fields of flowering oil seed rape.

I pay tribute to Les Cameron, the director of environmental health, to the convener of the committee, who happens to be my wife, Councillor Sheena Welsh, and to the councillors of Angus district who have supported the work done by Dr. Parratt of Ninewells hospital and Bill McFarlane Smith of the Scottish Crop Reserach Institute, all of whom have done a public service in providing scientific evidence to track down the source and cause of this major health problem. We do not know the exact nature of the problem, although the symptoms and the human misery attached to it are clear and obvious.

The Angus district study shows that 40 per cent. of persons living in one rural environment become sensitive to the pollen of oil seed rape during the flowering season and many have hay fever symptoms as a result. Conventional grass fever affects at most, only 15 per cent. of the population. Oil seed rape is a major environmental hazard during the months of April to July. That period may well be extended because of the extra growth in the new types of crops.

The position deserves closer attention to seek out the truth and remedy the problems. The Government must act now, rather than awakening later, in a year's time or so, to find a major crisis in one of the nation's leading crops. If oil seed rape is poisoning the general population, we must find out why and cure the problem. Inaction will only inflict greater misery on the population and unnecessarily endanger the livelihoods of farmers. The Government should act now.

11.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) on securing an Adjournment debate on a matter of considerable concern. It was first drawn to my attention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr.

Buchanan-Smith). I know that the hon. Member for Angus, East has been active on the matter. I join with him in passing on congratulations to his wife and others who have spent some time in considering the issue.

Many people have been worried that oil seed rape has increased the severity of hay fever attacks or has affected

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people not previously prone to hay fever. The Government are aware of those concerns and, through various research agencies, are promoting investigations into those links.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about the acreages of various types of oil seed rape under cultivation. I am happy to write to him, but it would be best if he put down written questions to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who is present, because I know that there is wider interest in the issue.

It is true that we currently produce around 1 million tonnes of oil seed rape a year. Production of rape seed oil is encouraged under the EC oilseeds regime, under which subsidies are paid to processors of Community seed. Oil seed rape is grown for the production of rape seed oil and meal, which are extracted from the seed by oil seed processors. The oil is used mainly by the food industry, as a cooking oil or in the manufacture of such products as margarine, shortenings and confectionery.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is an important alternative crop to cereals for United Kingdom producers. Unlike cereals, which are in surplus in both the Community and the United Kingdom, we are not self-sufficient in seed oils and meals. Rape seed is thus a valuable crop for United Kingdom farmers and makes an important contribution to both our food industry and our balance of payments.

The question of allergenic responses to oil seed rape has to be seen against that general background. The growing of oil seed rape does seem to be associated with an increase in the number of those suffering from allergic reaction. Those reactions may be severe ; they may cause headaches, cold or "flu-like symptoms", sneezing, coughing, sore throats and even asthma.

Of course, some people are likely to be sensitive to the pollen of oil seed rape, just as others are sensitive to the pollens of other plants, grasses, trees and various natural substances. Oil seed rape pollens may well cause respiratory symptoms, as do other pollens in those that are sensitive to them. Oil seed rape pollen is heavy and, unlike other pollens, is not widely disseminated by the wind. It is therefore usually localised in its distribution. While these allergic conditions are generally not life- threatening, they are obviously upsetting for the individuals concerned.

The hon. Gentleman argued for research to find out the nature of the problem, but throughout his speech he appeared to have identified the nature of the problem. Contrary to what he implied, there is no conclusive proof of any link between the growing of oil seed rape and any increase in numbers of allergy, hay fever and asthma sufferers.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : The reason I am sure of my facts in the matter is that the study conducted in Angus, which was almost pioneering work, showed a definite link and, though on a small scale, it showed enough of the open window to require more study to be conducted. That additional study may lead us to the exact route and nature of the problem. The Angus study showed a definite link. The important point is to find out what it is-- whether it is the pollen or some associated chemical--and I am pleading for funds to ensure that a wider study takes place to pin down the exact nature of the problem.

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Mr. Forsyth : I am, of course, aware of the studies to wich the hon. Gentleman is referring. Mr. Leslie Cameron, to whom he referred--the director of environmental health for Angus district council--has published has findings from a study which was based largely on anecdotal evidence of people living in villages surrounded by oil seed rape. About 45 per cent. claimed that their health had been affected by the crop.

That was interesting, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that it was not necessarily conclusive. Indeed, I understand that a separate, and as yet unpublished, study undertaken in Oxfordshire is likely to contradict those findings. I understand that those results will be subject to professional peer review before publication. The Medical Research Council is the main agency for the disbursement of public funds on medical research, including research into allergy and oil seed rape. It has ready access to the best scientific advice on the selection of projects and has great experience in the selection of soundly based and promising research proposals. The MRC currently funds £1 million of research into allergies. So the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Government are not providing resources in this area was a little unfair. I am able to offer something to the hon. Gentleman in response to his criticism that there is no research in this specific area. I am pleased to say that my right hon. and learned Friend recently offered financial support for a project based at Aberdeen university. The grant of some £63,000 has been awarded to the department of environmental and occupational medicine for a three-year period. That important project will involve a cross-sectional epidemiological study of 2,000 adults in three north-east Scottish general practices with the aim of measuring the prevalence of seasonal allergic symptoms in oil seed rape and non-oil seed rape-growing areas. People with seasonal symptoms will be selected as cases for case-control studies, with particular reference on allergy to oil seed rape and fungi associated with oil seed rape and exposure to volative chemicals associated with oil seed rape plants. At the same time, the pollen levels in the air in the study areas will be measured and chemical analyses of volatiles, especially dimethyl sulphides, about which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned, arising from oil seed rape fields will be made. The results of this research should identify the size of any health effects of oil seed rape cultivation and point towards possible causes.

I have mentioned the grant for the work at Aberdeen university and I have described the study. There is also the question of agricultural research. The Scottish Crop Research Institute, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has considerable expertise in the characterisation of crops, varieties, pollens and volatiles as part of its programme of research and development on brassica crops, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. To listen to the hon. Gentleman, one might think that the Government were doing nothing in the matter.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : Not enough.

Mr. Forsyth : It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that, but we are clearly doing more than he was aware of when he rose to speak in the debate. The expertise developed by the institute through that programme would be available to medical researchers.

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DAFS officials have already had discussions with the institute director about the possibility of more detailed research on oilseed rape, such as research aimed at eliminating or altering in a breeding programme the substance thought to induce the allergic reaction. The director is currently arranging a meeting of interested parties, the main aims of which would be to review the evidence for and against sensitisation by, and allergic reaction to, oilseed rape, for which the hon. Gentleman was asking ; to review the need for further research and development, which meets the hon. Gentleman's point ; and to consider the requirements for, and targets of, such research and development.

The meeting, which is to take place at the Scottish Crop Research Institute in the near future, will be attended by representatives of the institute itself ; Angus district council ; the department of medical microbiology, Ninewells hospital, Dundee ; the department of environmental and occupational health medicine, Aberdeen university ; the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ; and DAFS. Following the meeting, the institute

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director will make a further report to DAFS. Obviously, in matters of this sort questions of research priorities must be addressed, and it is important to be clear about the true causes of the allergic reaction before proceeding further with a breeding programme, but it should be clear from what I have said that the Department has the matter under active review. The report, and any recommendations it contains, will be given very careful consideration.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Angus, East for raising this matter. I hope that what I have said will serve to reassure the House that my Department and the other Departments involved take this matter seriously and that work is currently being undertaken to establish the role of oil seed rape in allergy. The support that the Department is giving to the research project at Aberdeen university should lead to a greater knowledge about the real, or perceived, effects of oil seed rape.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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