Shoppers say no to drugs in food

HEALTH BENEFITS
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The Independent Online
A problem with the humble carrot is the reason why many us first made the switch to organically-grown produce. Last year, the Government admitted that the organo-phosphate content of one sample was 25 times the expected amount. Shoppers were advised to scrub off all the skin, ironically the part of the vegetable where beneficial vitamins and minerals are stored.

The average British consumer ingests more than 40 different pesticide residues every day. We do not really know the dangers we face from current agricultural practices. But more people are just saying no to these legal substances.

More than 100,000 people now subscribe to "home-shopping". Every week, crates of fresh organic fruits and vegetables are delivered to their doorstep. Thousands more routinely head for the organic section of their local supermarket. Their motivation? To safeguard health from the potentially damaging effects of agro-chemicals.

There is stronger evidence - although still circumstantial - against hormones or growth promoters which aim to increase weight and the proportion of lean muscle to fat in beef cattle. The alarm first sounded in 1980 when an Italian schoolboy allegedly began to grow breasts after eating veal containing traces of a synthetic hormone.

In 1989 the European Union banned the use of this and other hormones in meat production, and only last month tightened restrictions further on hormone-treated beef, and widened its ban on other growth promoters, such as clenbuterol or "angel dust", linked with an outbreak of poisoning in Spain in 1990. The British government was a lone, opposing voice in this debate.

The declining sperm count of Western men has also aroused concern about modern farming. The suspicion is that responsibility lies with chemicals in pesticides, plastics, detergents and electronics that mimic the action of oestrogen, a female hormone. A Danish study in 1994 suggested that men eating organically-grown food have twice the sperm count of men who do not.

Organic farming would also avoid the widespread use of antibiotics as preventive treatment in livestock who are not infected. There is concern that the liberal use of such drugs is the farmyard is driving the development of microbes that are resistant to antibiotics.

It is hard to predict what would be the impact on health if Britain returned to a gentler mode of farming. Certainly those who are occupationally exposed to pesticides and other chemicals would benefit but the population could also gain. Most cancer specialists agree that eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat would reduce the number of cancers by at least a third. If those foodstuffs themselves were free of chemicals whose effect we don't really know, then how much greater would that figure be?

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