14 January 2000

Intensive

cost to human health an issue

A COMMON claim at the organic conference was that the costs of environmental degradation and damage to human health from poor nutrition must be included in cost comparisons between intensive and organic agriculture.

David Pimental, professor of ecology and natural sciences at Cornell University in the US, said intensive methods based on near-monoculture cropping regimes that were supported by chemicals alone would not meet the needs of the growing world population. Already some 3bn people – about half the worlds population – were malnourished.

Prof Pimental said 30% of the worlds crop land had been abandoned in the last 40 years because of wind and water erosion. And 10m ha (24.7m acres) a year was still being lost worldwide because of mismanagement of soils.

He added that despite the use of pesticides, crop losses due to insects had increased from 7% in 1945, when crops were grown in rotation and no insecticides were used, to 13% in 1997 when half the maize was mono-cropped. And the World Health Organisation claimed 220,000 people died each year from pesticide poisoning, and 26m people suffered pesticide-related illness.

Michael Crawford, director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Health at the University of North London, said many health problems could be explained by the fact that human physiology was still adapted to wild food. While the post-war drive for cheap food in quantity had succeeded, it had resulted in too few antioxidants and too much saturated fat and pesticide residues in food.

That huge increase in food production had been accompanied by an increase in deaths from heart disease, breast and colon cancers.

Prof Crawford said there was now an urgent need to convey to the public the link between food quality and how it was produced and its effect on the long-term health of successive generations. For instance, beef fed intensively on a mainly concentrate diet had fat with high levels of saturated fatty acids but grass-fed beef had far more of the more desirable unsaturated types.

"For the new century we have two options but no choice. Carry on as we are and see an increase in neurological disorders, a decline in average IQ and an increase in anti-social behaviour. Or grow and eat healthy food and see health and IQ improve. We have no choice. The target must be healthy food."

But broadcaster John Humphrys warned the conference not to over-simplify or exaggerate the health benefits of organic food before proof was available. If intensive farming was producing unsuitable food it had only been in full swing for about 20 years and so all those born in that period were part of an ongoing national experiment, he said.