Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by the Soil Association (R 10)


  A fundamental change in the basis of human nutrition occurred when synthetic fertilisers and pesticides replaced the natural (organic) mode of crop nutrition.

  Despite its importance, there has never been a review of the consequences of this and other aspects of the intensification of agriculture on human health. The emergence of nvCJD is one of many serious developments that need studying (1).

  While improvements have occurred, particularly in disease treatment, there has been a general deterioration in health, including increases in: food poisoning, allergies, food intolerances, cancers, infertility, sexual development disorders, respiratory sensitivity, antibiotic resistant bacteria and mental health problems.

  Possible links between intensive farming and human health include:

    —  pesticides and cancers, infertility, early puberty, degenerative disease, lowered immunity and mental health (4A);

    —  agro-chemicals and micro-nutrients, disease resistance and cancer (4A);

    —  intensive housing and food poisoning and antibiotic resistant bacteria (4B);

    —  concentrate feed and E.coli, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (4B);

    —  OPs and copper/manganese imbalance and BSE/nvCJD (4B);

    —  large abattoirs and food poisoning and antibiotic resistant bacteria (4B);

    —  low genetic diversity and disease epidemics (4C); and

    —  excessive hygiene and asthma, allergies and lowered immunity (4C).

  The Soil Association believes that there is a direct link between food production methods and human health, and that this is a major cause of current health problems and the cost of the NHS. If correct, the implications are enormous (5).

  For example, if intensive farming practices account for a fifth of the current NHS budget, £12 billion could be saved annually were these practices avoided. This is more than is needed to make all of UK agriculture organic (5).

  We therefore urge the Select Committee to propose (7):

    —  a programme of research into the health effects of intensive farming;

    —  a quantification of the health costs of (i) intensive and (ii) organic farming;

    —  "joined-up" agriculture and health policies;

    —  a refocus of health and agricultural policies on "health" and not "hygiene"; and

    —  investment in organic food and farming.



  The Soil Association believes that there is a direct link between the method of food production and health. One of our main aims as an organisation is to create a body of informed opinion on this subject. The emergence of BSE and nvCJD have had dramatic consequences. As well as serious problems for much of British agriculture, major cost to the Exchequer, and its impact on human health, there has now been a critical examination of the Government's management of the subject through the Phillips report. However, for us, nvCJD is just one of a large number of important human health problems that have arisen with the introduction of intensive farming methods and that urgently need studying. We therefore greatly welcome this Committee enquiry into Government research, in particular its wish to look into other aspects of intensive agriculture that may affect health. This paper briefly sets out the issues, our specific comments on TSEs are provided in section 4.11.

  A seismic change took place when agriculture moved from traditional farming methods to modern, intensified farming. Over 50 years ago, we unknowingly altered the fundamental basis of our nutrition to one that was and remains an untested alternative. When synthetic fertilisers and pesticides were introduced into agriculture, we replaced the natural mode of crop nutrition with a very different one. That this fundamental change was taking place, however, was not generally realised and as a result the consequences for human health were never publicly identified or examined. Other major changes brought further implications for health.

  We believe this work is long over due and wish to draw the Committee's attention to many of the key areas where research should be focussed. As health is important for every individual as well as for society and the economy as a whole, it is essential that all links between food production methods and health are properly understood. For 25 years after our establishment in 1946, the Soil Association undertook research in this area. The scale of the task, however, was beyond our resources, and should rightly fall to government. The following section gives the background to the development of our views and of organic farming as, in our opinion, a safer, healthier alternative. The rest of the paper discusses the various links that we have identified between intensive farming and health.


  The conclusions of the organic movement were reached through research and observation. It was from these findings, which remain of great relevance today, that the principles and practices of organic farming were developed. Paramount among the conclusions is the idea that health in crops, animals and humans depends on the use or non-use of soil organic matter and soil life as the basis for growing crops.

Medical Observation

  In 1939, over a quarter of a century after the National Insurance Act, a committee of Cheshire GPs considered in a paper ("Medical Testament") how the health service was faring in its two objectives, "the prevention and cure of sickness". They were confident of the second, evidenced by a fall in fatality, but not of the first, the prevention of disease. They concluded that there were still high levels of sickness and, moreover, that this seemed to have resulted from a life-time of faulty nutrition.

Rat studies

  Observations in India, by a Sir Robert McCarrison, led to the same conclusion: he found great variation in physique among the numerous Indian races, but noted that when all factors were equal (climate, customs, endemic diseases etc) except that the diet differed, the physique of the people was also different. He went on to conduct several studies on rats, and found that when different groups were fed the diet of different Indian races, the physique and health of the rats directly mirrored the physique of the people on each diet. Those rats fed the diet of the people with the best physique had no case of illness during two years (equivalent to 50 years of human life). Furthermore, when rats were fed a typical UK diet, they ended up having exactly the same diseases found commonly at the time and also had very poor social interactions (the rats became very aggressive), unlike those fed the best Indian diet. These experiments suggested that good food could well be the most important factor for ensuring good health.

Plant and animal nutrition: naturally organic

  Other research exposed a similar relationship between plant and animal nutrition and health. Moreover, this led to the identification of the source of the health giving properties in food. It was found that in nature, plants are nourished by the nutrients supplied to them by the soil life and the soil life derives its nutrients from organic matter in the soil. This was quite different from the mode of nutrition being introduced at the time with artificial inorganic fertilisers, where plants receive their nutrients directly from the soil from minerals in solution (mainly N, P, K).

  Startling discoveries were made by the academic, Sir Albert Howard, also in India. In his work over a period of 21 years and using large areas of land, he found that if the soil organic matter was replenished through the regular addition of composts made from vegetable and animal wastes, then the resulting crops were practically free of disease. They appeared to have a natural immunity to disease and, furthermore, this resistance was passed to livestock when fed on these crops. The animals were found to be resistant to infective, parasitic and degenerative diseases. Remarkably, these animals did not even pick up diseases when brought into close contact with infected animals (eg with foot and mouth). Separately, observations of plant roots found that mycorrhiza (special fungal networks in the soil) were naturally associated with wild plants and crops of all habitats and climates (including cereals, grasses, potatoes, leguminous crops etc). In agriculture, it was found that the healthiest crops had the most extensive mycorrhizal networks, while in unhealthy plants, mycorrhiza were minimal or even absent.

  Work in the UK with pine seedlings established a link between the presence of mycorrhiza and the beneficial effect of composts. Experiments showed that the compost was not nourishing the plant directly but nourishing the mycorrhiza and it was the mycorrhiza which were nourishing the plant. Other experiments showed that it was not simply the nutrients in the composts which were needed, since a supply of the equivalent amount of inorganic nutrients as contained in the compost resulted in noticeably less growth.

  It is now known that mycorrhiza naturally form close physical associations with plant roots and in one important group the fungal hyphae actually penetrate deeply into plant root cells. In this way and through the actions of other microbiological soil life, plants are naturally supplied with a whole range of nutrients that would be otherwise too distant, insufficiently supplied or physically unavailable for uptake by the plant roots alone. It is also known now that the use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides actually inhibits the microbiological life in the soil. The logical conclusion is that this therefore limits the organic nutrient supply route and thus introduces questions over whether the same range and quantity of nutrients and other health promoting substances are being supplied to crops (and therefore to us).

  For the organic movement, the ultimate conclusion of these observations is that good health in crops, animals and humans depends on soil organic matter providing the basis for crop nutrition via soil life. We note, however, these experiments have not been properly replicated or developed in modern times.


  Since the initial introduction of pesticides and fertilisers, agriculture has become increasingly intensive, especially for crop production and dairy, pig and poultry rearing. In the UK, the intensification of livestock production greatly increased after 1953 when parliament permitted the use of growth promoting antibiotics. It was not realised at the time that these would also have a disease suppressant effect and thus enable the introduction of more intensive livestock housing, otherwise impossible from a disease control point of view. Intensive housing for dairy, pigs and poultry with the associated routine use of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs is now normal in the UK. For crop production, the greatest period of intensification was during the 1970s, when fungicides were also introduced and insecticides were more widely used. Both of these developments followed the move away from mixed farming systems which was prompted by the increased cereal prices and other aspects of the Common Agricultural Policy.

  It is often claimed that these developments cannot have harmed our health since we now live longer, are taller, are less likely to die young of infectious disease or die of malnutrition. However, this is a simplified picture.

Changes in health

  There have actually been many negative health trends since agriculture intensified:

    —  Life expectancy:  though average life expectancy has increased (from 49 in 1900 to c 75 now for women and a little less for men), this hides the fact that actually in the last few decades this has resulted from reducing the number of deaths occurring in the early part of life, rather than extending the age at which we die once middle aged. Life expectancy at 50 has remained roughly the same for some time, and we understand that it is even decreasing in the Netherlands (one of the world's highest users of pesticides);

    —  Food borne diseases:   food poisoning cases have risen sharply since the 1970s; from an average of 8,000 cases in the '70s to 94,000 cases in 1997 (according to the Public Health Laboratory Service, PHLS), ie a 10 fold increase in reported cases in 30 years. Furthermore, a Food Standards Agency survey just found that there were actually five million incidents of food poisoning in 2000. Moreover, new and more virulent strains have emerged. E.coli 0157 and Salmonella typhymurium DT04, for example, have both developed since 1980;

    —  Cancers:   the lifetime risk of developing cancer across all ages has increased from one in four to one in three. There has been a particularly large increase in those cancers related to reproduction such as testicular and breast cancers. The chance of getting breast cancer has risen from one in 20 in the 1960s to one in 11 now (and in parts of the US, it is now one in seven) (Dr Vyvyan Howard, University of Liverpool). Indeed, the UK now has the highest death rates of breast cancer in the world. There has also been a ten fold increase in childhood leukaemia over the last 80 years (Professor Mel Greaves, Institute of Cancer Research);

    —  Fertility and sexual development:   of probably the greatest concern must be the trend in falling fertility. Sperm counts in Europe have now fallen by a half since World War II; in the US, where records started earlier the fall is about two thirds. Of almost as much concern is the falling age of puberty, happening in both Europe and the US. There also appear to be changes in the pattern of human sexual orientation. Although we do not know how much this is simply due to more openness of this subject, we do know that sexual changes are well documented in fish and linked to chemicals in water;

    —  Allergies and food intolerances:   cases of allergies and food intolerances have increased almost epidemically in recent years;

    —  Asthma and respiratory sensitivity:   incidence of these has increased since the 1970s. Adult asthma has more than doubled among non smokers, from about 3 per cent in 1972 to about 8 per cent now;

    —  Antibiotic resistant bacteria:   finally, there has been a growth in the emergence of antibiotic resistance bacterial infections, which threatens a large increase in fatalities from once minor illnesses or from infection in previously routine medical operations. Food poisoning is not only increasing, but becoming more antibiotic resistant. For example, the most serious strains of salmonella typhymurium have increased from only 5 per cent resistance to key antibiotics to 95 per cent resistance today, and many strains of this bacteria are resistant to at least five antibiotics (PHLS). This development requires urgent attention as no new class of antibiotic is close to commercialisation.

  In addition, while we do not have detailed information on changes in incidence in the following areas, we are concerned that apparently high levels may also reflect links to food production methods:

    —  diseases of the immune system;

    —  mental health: we understand that mental health problems have increased greatly and are still increasing;

    —  degenerative disease: such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases;

    —  TB and Crohn's disease: there has been a small rise in cattle forms of TB in humans; Crohn's disease is currently estimated to affect about 80,000 people in the UK; and

    —  ME.

Analysing and explaining these changes

  Firstly, while the death rate of the British population has been brought down, it seems clear that there has meanwhile been a serious degeneration in the basic health of the population, ie our ability to avoid contracting the above health problems. Secondly, when considering life expectancy and that one would expect it to have fallen if the intensification of agriculture has a negative effect on health, it must be remembered that those who are old now and therefore defining current life expectancy, were actually brought up before agriculture became intensive.

(i)  Explanations for positive changes

  A brief consideration suggests three obvious reasons why certain aspects of health, including the death rate here, have improved, or not been worse:

    —  medical advances: modern medicine has clearly brought about a revolution in our ability to treat illness, as well as, to a limited extent, improved our ability to avoid illness (vaccines against infectious diseases);

    —  cold chain: the introduction of the cold chain for food handling and distribution after the farm must have greatly reduced the opportunities for bacteria in food to reproduce (making the upward trend in food poisoning even more striking); and

    —  access to food: it seems clear that access to food among the poorer sections of society has increased, as evidenced by the great fall in the percentage of household income being spent on food (from around a third in the 1940s to c. 10 per cent today). This will have reduced cases of malnutrition.

(ii)  Explanations for negative changes

  There would appear to be at least four main reasons why the declines in health outlined have occurred:

    —  air pollution: we are aware that there are a number of pollutants in the air, especially in urban areas;

    —  lifestyle: people take less exercise, eat more "junk" food and it is generally felt that modern life is much more stressful in many ways that previously;

    —  agricultural intensification: in terms of general timing, there is a good match between intensification and many of the negative health trends. Although people have access to a greater variety of food, it is our view that the quality of food has seriously deteriorated with intensification, through the introduction of various contaminants in food and a reduction in micronutrients; and

    —  food processing: in our view, the inappropriate treatment of food post farm gate, including a reduction in nutrients and the addition of various artificial additives, has been a major negative development in food quality and health. Many additives have been linked to health problems, especially mental health problems.

  Although no-one knows the exact contribution of each of the above to today's health problems, based on the early findings of the organic movement, independent advice and our own experience and judgement, we are strongly of the view that agricultural intensification and food processing are major contributors to most or possibly even all of the above health problems. That we are all intimately exposed to the result of these two factors is evidenced by the fact that people today have between 300 and 500 synthetic chemicals in their bodies. Even if the first two reasons, air pollution and lifestyle, are also major contributors, and we believe they are, we think it is highly likely that a serious deterioration in food quality has reduced the disease resistance of the modern human body and made it vulnerable to other environmental factors. By "quality", we mean (i) the presence of chemical residues that may negatively affect health and also burden the immune system, as well as (ii) fewer micronutrients such as trace elements and other substances that play a role in human health (ie we are not referring to cosmetic quality or macronutrients).

  This view is based on all the information we have available to us. If this conclusion is correct, a new approach to public health would be needed if we are to prevent, rather than simply react to the serious public health problems of the future. We are very well aware, however, that there is still only limited scientific evidence in support of this, mainly because most of this work has not been undertaken. In the next section we outline a number of likely links between intensive farming and health. We present all of these as candidates for urgent research.

  Meanwhile at a policy level, for something as important as human health, the organic movement believes the precautionary principle should be applied. On this basis and the movement's knowledge of the natural (organic) mode of plant nutrition, organic food and farming was developed. Organic standards address both agriculture production and food processing, through prohibition or restriction of those practices, treatments and additives that we believe are likely to compromise health, and through the prescription of positive, alternative practices.



  1.   Pesticides residues and cancers, infertility, early puberty, degenerative disease, reduction in immunity and others: About 450 synthetic chemicals are licenced for use in agriculture in the UK. Between 1995 and 1999, annual monitoring has found that between 25 per cent and 31 per cent of foods contain detectable residues, with 1 per cent to 1.6 per cent of these in excess of the advised maximum level (MRL). We understand that, unlike natural toxins, the body cannot break down synthetic compounds; hence, the 300-500 synthetic chemicals found in the body of the average person today. These compounds have been extensively tested and are supposedly safe but, while the immediate and other effects in controlled situations are known, the long term and cumulative effects have never been tested on humans and hardly anything is known about the "cocktail" effect—the effect of more than one such compound acting together.

  Up to 80 pesticides are considered potentially endocrine disrupting (EDCs), affecting the hormone system (five of the 12 most commonly found pesticide residues are EDCs). These have been linked with decreasing male fertility, breast cancer (in Lincolnshire, for example, where lindane was extensively used, breast cancer was 40 per cent higher than the national average), foetal abnormalities and early puberty in females.

  The cocktail effect refers to effects resulting from combinations of pesticides, that do not result from either of them individually. It appears to be a real and important phenomenon. For example: experiments show that while either alone was benign, the combination of two widely used pesticides (Maneb and Paraquat) caused the exact pattern of brain damage found in Parkinson's disease (Study by the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry; Journal of Neuroscience, 15 December 2000). However, hardly anything is known about this subject as there is little way of identifying the toxicology of mixtures. Testing for all possible effects of all possible pairs of the hundred's of licensed pesticides would require many thousands of studies; testing for the effects of three, four and all larger combinations would be completely impossible. Considering the total number of combinations, even if only a small percentage, 1 per cent say, have major health implications, this amounts to a very large number of health effects that are not being recognised.

  We are also concerned that the very large number of food contaminants entering the body is a major burden on the human immune system. This alone may have significantly reduced the body's ability to fight disease and resist environmental stresses.

  2.   Exposure to pesticides and fertility and mental health: Direct exposure is also a concern. Dutch research has found significantly lower rates of fertility among people occupationally exposed to pesticides (E Tielemans et al, "Pesticide exposure and decreased fertilisation rates in vitro", The Lancet, 354: 7 August 1999). In contrast a Danish study found a test group of organic farmers had sperm counts 50 per cent higher than the national average. As far as mental health is concerned, a study of young children in an area of Mexico, for example, found worryingly lower mental capabilities between those in more intensively farmed areas and those in less intensively farmed areas.

  3.   Agro-chemicals and supplies of minerals and other micro nutrients: As the presence of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides suppresses microbiological life in the soil, it can be assumed that the normal supply of nutrients via soil life to plants is also limited. It therefore needs to be asked whether the new nutrient route is supplying the same quantities and range of nutrients as the natural route. Nutrition in non-organic farming is mainly based on the regular addition of N, P, K with other minerals added when it is considered there are shortages for the plant. Uptake by the plants is through simple diffusion, as opposed to the direct supply into the roots via soil mycorrhiza that occurs in the organic route. If, in non-organic farming, lower quantities of all the minerals and trace elements that we need are being taken up by the crops, a reduction in the level of such nutrients would follow in our diet. This problem would appear to be exacerbated by the emphasis in intensive farming on using the three main fertilisers to push plant growth, presumably causing as a side effect the drain of other minerals and trace elements from the soil's reserves.

  This theory seems to have been very much borne out: a Government study of mineral levels on fruit and vegetables found reductions in six minerals of between 15 per cent and 76 per cent between 1940 and 1991 (The Composition of Foods, MAFF and the Royal Society of Chemistry, 1991). Research is needed to examine such trends and consider what exactly the implications are for human health.

  4.   Agro-chemicals and disease resistance and cancer: We also believe that intensive farming is limiting the supply of natural products that counter disease in humans. Plants naturally produce "secondary metabolites" to regulate cell growth and hormones and also counter disease, and these compounds have been found to have positive health effects in humans. It appears they eliminate cancer causing free radicals and are more powerful than anti-oxidants, such as vitamins C, E and selenium. For example, studies of broadleaf vegetables such as lettuce, have apparently shown that when they are attacked by viruses, they produce compounds called salicylates. These are related to asprin and are thought to be natural anti-cancer agents. Professor Robin Phillips, a leading cancer expert at St Mark's Hospital, Middlesex, has suggested that the production of vegetables in controlled conditions—as they generally are now for supermarkets—may prevent them being exposed to natural infections and thus from producing a high level of these substances. Research from Denmark and Germany has shown that non-organic food has lower levels of secondary metabolites than organic foods and a link has been found between the use of artificial fertilisers, especially nitrogen, and lower levels of secondary metabolites in plants.

  In addition to promoting nutrient uptake, soil microbiological life has been found to play a major role in nature in promoting plant disease resistance. For example, it seems that populations of benign microbial out-compete pathogens and their presence sensitises the plant's immune system (similar to vaccination).


  Intensive housing and food poisoning: In our view, intensive livestock housing provides the ideal breeding ground for the spread of infection and development of new strains of food poisoning bacteria, because of the close proximity as well as the elevated stress levels of the animals. This is, itself, a major health problem.

  But, to control the inevitable high levels of animal disease in intensive systems, the routine use of antibiotics to suppress disease is obligatory, and this has brought additional problems for food poisoning. Many of the antibiotics being used initially for growth promotion have been found to encourage the spread of salmonella. It seems that while salmonella bacteria are of a type called "gram negative", these antibiotics killed "gram positive" bacteria and were therefore killing off the bacteria that were competing with the salmonella bacteria, encouraging their spread. This was revealed by detailed UK research in the '70s and '80s and was shown to have been the cause of the increase in salmonella in poultry. This appears to have been confirmed by the fact that since the ban on two antibiotics in 1997 and 1999 (avoparcin and virginiamycin) levels of salmonella have now fallen. An MLC survey published last year, found a carriage rate of 23 per cent of salmonella in pigs, and 94.5 per cent for camplylobacter in pigs.

  5.   Intensive housing and antibiotic resistance: The use of antibiotics in agriculture has turned out to have been a major contributor to the rise in antibiotic resistance: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now accepted that antibiotic resistance in salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli has come pre-dominantly from farming use, as has resistance in enterococci, a serious hospital superbug (VRE).

  In the UK, apart from on the minority of extensive, outdoor farms, antibiotics are still used routinely for poultry, pigs, dairy cattle and some intensively reared beef cattle. Despite the ban on seven out of 10 "growth promoting" antibiotics, and the modest reduction in the use of some others in recent years, the overall problems arising from the use of antibiotics in livestock production are still serious and total use per animal is considerably higher than it was 30 years ago. This is because antibiotics are still required for disease suppression in intensive systems. In addition, intensive systems further increase antibiotic use by the need to treat the whole unit when some animals fall ill.

  6.   Stress and disease: A link between stress and greater susceptibility to disease is generally accepted. Intensive rearing systems, both through the restricted physical conditions but also through pressure for high levels of productivity, mean animals are much more physically and mentally stressed than they would be naturally. For example, the average cow's yield has gone up from 3,000 litres per year 20 years ago to 5,800 litres today, with many cattle achieving over 10,000 litres. Piglets, which were traditionally weaned at seven to eight weeks old, are now being weaned at three weeks. It would seem logical that this aspect of intensive farming has significantly increased the level of disease in animals and thus food borne disease in humans.

  7.   Concentrate feed and E.coli food poisoning, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and weight control: Dairy cattle, which once fed mainly on grass, are now typically fed a high proportion of concentrates (soya and maize grain; maize, for example commonly forms 30-50 per cent of the diet of dairy cattle). Concentrate feed introduces at least two specific health problems. The most important appears to be the effect on E.coli. It has been found that the level of virulent strains of E.coli 0157:H7 increase dramatically in the guts of cattle which are grain fed. Research at the University of Cornell found that grain fed animals generate over 100 times as much of the E.coli as hay fed animals. (J. Couzin, 1998, "Cattle diet linked to bacterial growth", Science, 281: 1578-1579).

  Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a natural fatty acid found in dairy products, beef, and poultry. It is thought to help prevent cancer, enhance immunity, reduce the effects of diabetes, reduce heart disease and perhaps also help weight control. Though once common in the British diet, agricultural changes mean levels have fallen. CLA in milk, for example, depends on a high level of forage (grass, hay or silage) in a cow's diet. Animals fed concentrates, however, have been found to result in only 20 per cent of the CLA of those fed forage (Michel Pariza, University of Wisconsin, report from USDA, published New Scientist, 22 April 2000).

  8.   Manure waste and disease: Pathogenic organisms can be transmitted through the application of untreated or inadequately treated animal manures on fields. Properly treated, manures are an effective and safe fertiliser. However, in intensive farming systems, because the main source of nutrients are inorganic fertilisers, manure is not always seen as a valuable resource but instead treated as a waste. There is therefore not the same attention given to composting as there is, for example, in an organic system where manure is one of the basic resources of the system and there are standards for composting.

  9.   Feed additive residues and heart attacks: We are concerned over the extent to which a number of relatively toxic feed additives being routinely included in poultry rations to control coccidiosis and other parasitic infections may be having harmful effects on human health. The wider effects of these substances have been inadequately studied. However, there is already some evidence linking them to a range of possible health problems including spontaneous heart attacks.

  10.   Fertiliser and mycobacterial disease: Some soil bacteria can cause animal diseases. For example the group called mycobacteria include the four strains which cause TB as well as the bacteria, MAP, which causes Johne's disease in cattle. There is now strong evidence that Crohn's disease in humans may be caused by the same bacteria that causes Johne's disease in cattle. Most mycobacteria, however, do not cause disease and it is believed that both humans and cattle acquire immunity through general exposure to "environmental" mycobacteria. For example, exposure to the other strains may help humans and cattle be resistant to the strains which cause TB.

  It is possible that the use of agro-chemicals changes the susceptibility of animals to these diseases through their effect on the balance of the soil microbiological population and the soil environment. Recent research at University College London found that ammonium based nitrogen fertilisers change the balance of mycobacteria away from the slower growing strains that would tend to confer immunity and in favour of the faster growing strains. Other research at the University of Michigan established a link between an increase in soil acidity (associated with the application of ammonium based nitrogen) and a strongly increased incidence of Johne's disease: for every 0.1 per cent increase in acidity, there was a 5 per cent increase in the risk of Johne's disease being found in cattle herds.

  11.   OPs and copper/manganese imbalance and BSE: While not discounting the likelihood of contaminated animal feed as having contributed to the spread of BSE, we think it is very important that the role of organophosphates (OPs) and an imbalance in copper and manganese in the origin of the epidemic are properly investigated. Mark Purdey has provided very good evidence of a link which seems far stronger than the contaminated feed explanation alone. We regret that his efforts have been so heavily discredited without foundation.

  According to Mr Purdey, prion proteins are distorted when exposed to a deficiency of copper and an excess of manganese, as prions then bind to the latter instead of copper as they do normally. It appears that the emergence of BSE and nvCJD all around the world can be explained in such terms. For example, UK cattle farmers were required to apply an organophosphate, phosmet, to their animals at particularly high doses during the 1970s; this chemical captures copper in the body. Meanwhile, cattle were being fed chicken manure from birds fed manganese supplements to increase their egg yields, ie providing an excess of manganese. A similar copper/manganese imbalance also helps explain the regional incidence of nvCJD in humans in the UK. Of the two main clusters, one is in Kent in the middle of a fruit and hop growing area where large quantities of OPs and manganese based fungicides are used. The other is in Queniborough in Leicestershire, which has a dyeworks; these use large quantities of manganese.

  In France, phosmet was first mandatory in Brittany: 20 of the initial 28 cases of BSE emerged there, and the subsequent spread of BSE in the rest of France mirrors the use of phosmet. Apparently, in every case in Iceland, Colorado, Slovakia and Sardinia, BSE/CJD clusters can also be explained this way.

  In a laboratory study, a team of biochemists in Cambridge have now found that when copper is substituted by manganese in prion proteins, the prions adopt precisely the same distinguishing features which characterise cases of BSE.

  12.   Hormone growth promoters and cancer: In 1997, the World Cancer Research Fund and the COMA Committee both produced reports on diets and cancer which linked bowel and some other cancers to the consumption of red meat. Close examination of the data reveals that this link was predominantly found in studies in North America and some other countries where hormone growth promoters are used, while eight studies in EU countries, where they have been banned for more than a decade, failed to show any such association. We note that the British government has recently restated its opposition to the ban on hormone implants in beef cattle and there is continuing pressure from the World Trade Organisation for the EU to relax its ban.

  13.   Large abattoirs and meat cutting plants and food poisoning: We believe that there is a strong link between the size of the unit and the level of risk of the spread and transfer of food poisoning bacteria. This is for four reasons: (i) in large units, if problems with food poisoning bacteria occur, then the number of retail outlets affected and consumers potentially affected is also large. Small units, on the other hand, mean any problems are much more contained; (ii) large units have more surfaces which can support populations of bacteria. Apparently, large meat-packing plants in Europe and North America have 2-3 km of conveyor belt. Work in America has found that these cannot be properly cleaned and are harbouring thriving populations of bacteria, particularly the virulent strain of E.coli 0157:H7 (New Scientist article, 11 March 2000); (iii) large abattoirs mean livestock has to travel further. This means greater animal stress levels which can increase the level of bacteria 1,000 fold through faecal contamination of the hides (report form the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: "Safer eating—microbiological food poisoning and its prevention", 1997); and (iv) finally, large abattoirs service the more intensive animal production units, so the chance of a problem occurring to begin with is greater (we believe intensive housing systems encourage greater levels and more virulent strains of bacteria).

  With the large decline in abattoir numbers in the UK, from about 1,385 11 years ago to about 330 now, there has been an increase in the number of carcasses handled by large abattoirs. Though less than 200 of the remaining 330 abattoirs are "commercial abattoirs" (meaning that they process 5,000 cattle or 25,000 sheep annually), in total they handle c 95 per cent of throughput in the UK. We greatly welcome the Government's agreement to provide additional funding and change inspection charges to a headage basis, as we believe this will prevent the sector declining any further.

  MAFF have admitted in correspondence (April 1999) that small plants probably pose a lower risk to public health than large plants. If meat hygiene control is to move towards a risk based approach, it is important that the relationship between plant size and risk is properly understood.


  14.   Genetic diversity and disease susceptibility and epidemics: We believe that the level of genetic diversity within agriculture is a key factor for public health. In our view, agricultural genetic diversity can help determine whether local crop and livestock disease outbreaks remain local/regional or become national epidemics. It seems logical that the less diversity there is in the system, the wider and faster new bacterial, viral or other pathogenic strains can spread throughout the national agricultural base and, where transmittable to human beings, have the potential to become national health problems. Crop and animal breeding has now become such a specialised and centralised industry that diversity has been severely eroded. In our view, this represents a major and increasing risk to national health (and to confidence in British agriculture): there urgently needs to be much greater understanding of this subject. The Irish potato famine of 1846 is an example of a past national crisis which followed low genetic diversity in the crop.

  15.   Excessive hygiene and asthma, allergies and lowered immunity: The current approach to avoiding disease is through "hygiene"—restricting exposure to pathogens—rather than through the positive development of "health"—the development of resistance to disease. This is being applied at an agricultural level and in food processing and handling. While it is clearly important to take precautions to avoid dangerous pathogens such as E.coli 0157, excessive hygiene could also be a cause of many health problems. To ensure that in our pursuit of the former we are not doing more harm than good, there needs to be a much better understanding of the beneficial role of most bacteria. It is our view, that the current emphasis on hygiene is already excessive and the balance needs to be reviewed.

  Apparently, this notion that there may be a serious downside to hygiene has been discussed in medical journals and scientific meetings for some time. A feature of biological systems is "hormesis", a process whereby exposure to low levels of otherwise harmful or similar agents can result in a stimulating or other beneficial effect. It is well accepted that low levels of physical stress, through exercise, makes people fitter and stronger and more healthy. We believe regular exposure to low levels of microbes has a similar positive effect on health. Thus, an insufficient exposure to bacteria through food and other routes, means that the immunity of many modern humans has probably been dangerously lowered, such that we are thus more likely to succumb when exposed to more serious levels of infection.

  This explanation has apparently already been blamed for the rise in asthma and similar illnesses, and it seems this could also be a cause of cancer, together with the lowered level of natural anti-cancer agents in the modern diet mentioned previously. For example, asthma, hayfever, and eczema are all more common in professional and small families than in working-class and large families, where exposure to microbes would be expected to be higher. It is thought that microbes "train" the immune system not to overreact to dust and pollen.

  Last year, Professor Mel Greaves of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, also suggested a link between childhood leukaemia and excessive hygiene, including the consumption of "perfect" looking fruit and vegetables. If young children are under exposed to microbes as they are growing up, then when they go to school, for example, the sudden strong immune response that would be triggered on exposure to germs, would mean a large release of chemicals in the body, which he believes might damage the bone marrow. We further believe that lowered immunity might be an important factor in the modern incidence of many diseases.

  In the light of the intentions of the European Commission and the Food Standards Agency to develop new measures including HACCP, and recent consultations on the use of irradiation, we believe that it is extremely important that the relationship between hygiene and disease is much better understood. Equally, so that more appropriate policies can be adopted in future, it is important that "health", in terms of disease resistance and appropriate nutrition is also well researched and understood. We consider this subject area to be a priority.


  The Soil Association believes that there is a direct link between intensive farming practices and a decline in many aspects of human health. If our proposition is correct, the implications are enormous:

Individual Quality of Life

  Good health is basic for the quality of life of each individual person. Minor ailments such as allergies and food intolerances bring discomfort and inconvenience to large numbers of people. Other problems such as diabetes can have a major disruptive effect on a person's life. Poor mental health or early puberty can affect the development and thus fortunes of a person. Major problems such as cancer, degenerative disease and antibiotic resistant bacteria can cause death and trauma.


  Health problems such as mental illness and, possibly, early puberty could have an important negative effect on the whole of society. Young people affected may play truant or leave school without qualifications, leading to more crime or more teenage pregnancies. Adults with mental illness may find it hard to find and stay in jobs.

National Economy

  Health spending is a major cost for the Government. The NHS budget is £59 billion annually and there is always enormous pressure to increase funding. Physical and mental health problems also bring major costs to other Government departments, such as through demand for social security and increases in crime. As long as the Government's health policy focuses on treating as opposed to improving health, these costs will only increase. In comparison, only £3 billion is spent directly on UK agriculture each year via the Ministry of Agriculture, and an additional c £1.6 billion is spent annually on the external environmental costs of intensive farming (J Pretty et al, An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture, 2000).

  In view of the overall cost of health problems, even a modest improvement in health would result in important savings. Apart from food production methods, pollution and lifestyle, other origins of health costs must include accidents and genetic defects. While these cannot be avoided, food production methods can be addressed and may have the benefit of reducing susceptibility to other problems, such as those arising from stress. It is for this reason that we consider that agriculture should be treated as the nation's primary health service; it could be the simplest, most cost effective and most extensive means of reducing the Government's health costs and improving the population's health.

  For example, even if agricultural methods account for only, say, a fifth of the total NHS budget, £12 billion could be saved annually, plus part of the costs of social security and crime (depending on the health problems involved). This is far more than would be needed to convert and maintain all of UK agriculture to organic farming (ie avoiding all the practices that are implicated in agriculturally related health problems).

  In other words, the health and associated costs of the UK's agricultural policies are almost certainly far greater than the direct costs spent by MAFF. The health implications should therefore be one of, if not the, most important consideration in the design of the Government's agricultural policy, something which is not the case at the moment. There is therefore an urgent need to estimate the costs to the Exchequer of intensive farming and develop joined-up health and agricultural policies. Equally, research on the health effects of farming methods should form a major part of the Government's agricultural research budget.


  The relationship between agriculture and health is complex and not yet well understood. To assist progress, we suggest the following principles should be used to guide research and policies:

  Subjects for Government Research:   Government research should be particularly targeted at:

    —  delivering public benefits, eg improving health, the environment and animal welfare;

    —  delivering Government policy eg barriers to the introduction of solutions;

    —  informing and advising Government policy development;

    —  solutions which are not easily marketed and therefore tend not to be supported by industry, eg cultural agricultural methods for disease control rather than product orientated methods.

  The general subject of the link between agriculture and health stands out as a major gap, which we propose should in future become a priority.

  Addressing causes, not symptoms:   Care should be taken that the ultimate or underlying causes are being addressed, not simply the symptoms or most immediate explanations; otherwise problems and costs can eventually be far greater. Despite its founding objectives, the National Health Service concentrates on treating illness; it does little to prevent illness. Likewise in agriculture, many conventional treatments (such as the use of agro-chemicals) treat only the symptoms and often exacerbate problems in the long-term or create new ones.

  "Health" rather than "hygiene":  This is a particular example of the above. Hygiene regulations, if excessive, might actually reduce health through decreasing natural immunity and can also have the perverse effect of promoting intensive farming and the associated health risks through their economic effect. While introduced to address health problems caused primarily by intensive farming (eg BSE), hygiene regulations bring by far the greatest economic burden to less intensive and smaller food production units. The case of small and medium sized abattoirs going bankrupt through the cost of daily inspection, is a clear example. It is therefore extremely important that the concept of positive "health" gains clear appreciation as something separate from, and much more important than, "hygiene". This will require radical changes in thinking.

  Conditions that increase health risks:   Some systems are inherently more risky than others. For example, the chances and consequences of a hazard emerging grow with (i) the scale on which the practice/product is used, and (ii) scale of the system into which a hazard would emerge. Research is needed to identify such factors and investigate their role in current health problems. In agriculture, the following all appear to increase risk:

    (i)  centralisation of agricultural inputs;

    (ii)  density of livestock housing;

    (iii)  scale of production and processing units; and

    (iv)  low genetic diversity.

  Areas where research tends to be limited:   "absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence". The current approach that problems are not considered until there is strong empirical evidence of a problem, is not acceptable. Equally, the possibility of important benefits in an alternative approach (such as organic farming) needs consideration, whether there is proof or not. This is because, whether or not we have the definitive scientific knowledge, decisions still have to be made. Also, having information of just some aspects of an issue should not be confused with knowledge of the whole, as is very often the case.

  Currently there is a very strong dependency on scientific evidence in decision-making. However, certain aspects of a subject are much more easy to research than others, and as a result scientific knowledge and its ability to assist decision making, is heavily weighted towards these. For example, it is comparatively easy to ascertain direct and short term effects in controlled circumstances; but much more difficult or expensive to identify indirect or long-term effects and effects on complex systems. It is for this reason that we do not know what the cocktail effects of pesticides are or the exact health benefits of eating organic food. However, this does not mean that these areas are any less important, indeed, they may be more important than the areas we know. We therefore, urge, that these aspects are identified by Government scientists and addressed as part of the decision-making process through alternative ways.

  Generational effects:   research on health effects needs to consider the possible effect over generations. Studies on cats have shown that negative effects may increase with each generation. In a study, cats were fed a defective diet. While the first generation showed some but minimal health effects, the next generation had several health problems, while the third had many severe problems from birth. Currently, people under 25 are the first generation to have grown up fully under the results of intensive farming. If something similar happens to humans, then much more serious health changes would be ahead of us.

  Joined up thinking:   a programme of Government research on the effects of intensive farming and health would be major progress in "joined up" thinking. It is also important that the designers and advisers in any such research are "joined up" and that Government agricultural and health policy also develops common objectives and co-ordination. We would be happy to assist in this.

  Common sense, informed opinion and precautionary principle: where scientific evidence is absent, common sense and informed opinion should be used to make judgements. This requires researchers to be prepared, and make an effort, to advise policy officials of their opinion in areas where definitive evidence is absent, something scientists currently often shy away from. For areas as vital and basic as food and health, and the environment, it is important that the Government uses the precautionary principle wherever there is significant uncertainty and where outcome of an error could be serious (eg for GM foods!).


  There has been a large number of negative developments in health since the introduction of intensive farming. Research and understanding suggest numerous possible links. We believe that the method of food production may be the largest and most accessible influence on human health and health costs and propose that agriculture be treated as the nation's primary health service. If our proposition of a major link between agriculture and health is correct, the implications for society and the economy are immense: the economic savings, for example, of avoiding those farming practices implicated in health problems could be of the order of £10 billion annually, possibly much more. This is far more than is needed to have all of Britain's agriculture organic, which would bring other important Government objectives of sustainability, rural employment, high animal welfare plus additional economic savings through the savings in environment costs.

  Despite the importance of the subject, research into the relationship between agriculture and health has been lacking. We greatly welcome the Committee's interest in the subject now and propose the following recommendations:

    (1)  A programme of research into the health effects of intensive farming.

    (2)  A programme of research into the health effects of modern food processing.

    (3)  Quantification of the health costs of (i) intensive farming and (ii) organic farming.

    (4)  "Joined up" Government policy development for agriculture and health, with health becoming a major factor in the design of agricultural policy.

    (5)  A review of the Government's health and agriculture policy to focus on the development of "health" and not "hygiene".

    (6)  Investment in the development of organic food and farming.

6 February 2001

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