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Technology and obesity

In the example of wastage I singled out the USA, as Americans are among the leaders in the league tables of obesity, but virtually all the advanced nations have similar problems. The causes are many, most of which are squarely based on our use of technology without sufficient thought as to the consequences. Therefore, far from criticizing our dependence on technological advances across agriculture and medicine, I place the blame for the negative side effects entirely on our human characteristics of greed and gratification.

With rapidly expanding populations, one classic error has been to attempt mass production from vast acreage of monoculture products, such as the immense grain fields of the American Midwest. This was possible because of the development of petrol-driven farm machinery that could work over large areas at a high speed. The technology delivered high output, but persistent replanting of a single crop depleted the soil of key nutrients. Consequently, there were serious side effects of soil erosion. The soil that was farmed was light, and in a region of low rainfall it was initially held together by deep-rooted grasses. Farming destroyed this root structure and left bare soil in the winter, so under high wind conditions, it fragmented and caused the immense ‘dust- bowl’ problems of the 1930s.

Higher productivity was, and is, also achieved by chemical treatments. Yet again this is initially valuable and effective, but repeatedly working and treating the fields for a specific crop is not. An additional downside is that the run-off from the land has high concentrations of the added chemicals (such as phosphates) that are undesirable, as they have disastrous side effects in the drainage systems, and eventually contaminate the sea and marine life.

Further, monoculture over large areas has negative consequences for the survival of wildlife, including bees and other insects that are essential for crop fertilization. Reliance on a single crop type is similarly hazardous if there is a disease that targets it, as then the entire crop can fail.

It is easy to see how to extend this catalogue of potential damage. The problems apply equally to naturally evolved crops as to ones in which humans have made some genetic modifications to eradicate poor responses or to enhance productivity. The pattern is that new agricultural technical advances invariably offer an initial good return, but over a long period the yields fall even lower than the natural level, and there are many other unfortunate side effects.

A notable success story, but with drawbacks, is fish farming. It is possible to produce large quantities of fish in pens, but inevitably there are diseases that thrive in the fish due to their being contained in high densities within the enclosures. The easy solution is to use biological antidotes such as antibiotics. It is a short-term fix to the problem that leads to many longer-term negative consequences. A long-term danger from feeding chemicals and drugs to animals is that these same chemicals (hormones, antibacterial and growth-enhancing compounds) reach us, and many other plants and creatures, either directly from the food, or indirectly from waste products that are used as fertilizers. In many cases—for example, with fish and chicken—it is impossible to selectively dose those that are sick, so the treatment is more extensive and generously given to the entire shoal or flock.

In all situations of drug or insecticide delivery that cannot be targeted at the creatures and plants that need it, the approach is to use excessive amounts of the chemicals. These are randomly dispersed, and reach many other creatures and plants. Natural selection takes over as a result of the antibiotic usage, and drug-resistant strains then emerge as the dominant variant. This is an ongoing and increasing problem. Transfer to humans should be included in this scenario: normally the first signs appear with the farmers and workers in immediate contact with the region, but the second stage, where it reaches the rest of the population, will inevitably follow. Examples are extremely numerous.

Of yet more concern is that already more drugs are used on animals than humans, and in some countries there is no legislation to limit either the scope or the quantities that are dispersed or injected into the animals. The negative side effects are predictable and observed, but the drugs are assumed to be cost-effective in the short term for the farmer. Excluded from all this is the global view of who has to meet the costs of further drug developments and medical bills for those infected as a result of the applications to animals and crops.

Vast amounts of growth hormones are used to speed up growth or productivity. The immediate positive feature is that, even using the expensive additives, the food seems to be cheaper. Whether or not the flavour and texture are as good is often questionable (e.g. ‘perfect’ supermarket apples are often tasteless and with a powdery texture). They may well be free of bugs, but this is because self-respecting bugs discriminate against poor-quality fruit. Apples from my garden may be imperfect in shape, but they have excellent flavour and texture. Precisely the same is true of locally raised chicken and pork, which can noticeably differ, and be superior to, the supermarket versions.

Unfortunately, taste and texture are no longer the main driving factors for our choice of nourishment. In part this is because the majority of us are city dwellers, and we do not expect to buy directly from the grower. Further, there are many imports and special deals in the shops (20 per cent off for large volume, or three for the price of two), plus imported foods for which we have never experienced how the original should taste. Supermarket presentation is important for sales, so taste and waste are not their first priorities. Many farm products are grown or engineered to match the supermarket (and public) preference, but really surprising for me was to discover that many crops now contain less than half the nutritional value of the equivalent crops available in the UK during the 1940s, when the war and lack of imports forced us to use gardens and allotments to survive. Modern shopping is easy and costs us little effort, but home-grown food from my gardening friends is distinctly better in taste and texture than the items I purchase.

Shelf life is important in marketing, but this is generally aimed at the appearance of the product, not the taste. Short shelf lives for food are frequently not logical, as in the original preparation of, say, Parmesan cheese or Serrano ham, both products are kept for more than a year before they are considered to be fit to eat (i.e. it takes this long to achieve a good flavour). This longevity is not reflected very well in the sell-by dates. Sell-by and best-before dates can be unrealistically short, and so are potentially a cause of waste. I have seen two-year values attached on both honey and wine. Clearly these instructions are inappropriate. Similar short-term values on tinned food are often equally absurd. In one family, I am amused that the daughters who visit their father carefully scan his cupboards and throw out tins as soon as they reach the best- before date. He never complains, but retrieves them after they leave.

Tinned food can be resilient, and tins of beef from the First World War have been opened and claimed to be palatable. I accept that the throwaway dates differ for the type of content, but they tend to err heavily on the side of caution rather than the common sense of the user. It is of course true that the very early attempts at making sealed cans used a lead solder, and the lead contaminated the food. The consequences were dire. It is thought that the Frobisher expedition to find a NorthWest Passage through the Arctic used such tins, and the lead induced madness, which contributed to their death in the extreme weather conditions.

To preserve appearance, there are other more exotic treatments of the food. One such is irradiation with fast electrons or gamma rays. The high-energy radiation doses increase shelf life appearance, but the radiation doses that are needed to kill the causes of rotting and decay are frequently so high that there is a change of flavour and loss of nutritional value. A further anomaly is that for some products, the radiation treatments are only allowed in some countries, but not in the UK. However, food that was irradiated abroad can be sold in the UK. This oddity can mean goods are shipped abroad, irradiated, and then returned with an enhanced shelf life. The gains seem bizarre, as they may have spent several days ageing in transit and processing.

One example of biologically induced change (i.e. technological advance, from some viewpoints) is seen in milk production. This has almost doubled over the last decade, but was achieved by placing a strain on the animal, which resulted in a shorter productive lifespan. Clearly, this farming approach is bad news for the cows, but less obviously, it may result in milk of a lower quality and flavour. The hormonal or other biological treatments will be transmitted directly through the milk to us, or indirectly via drainage and water purification plants. Yet again, the contaminants affect humans and other animals. So even if there is no direct link to us via the milk, we may still be contaminated via many other routes. Maybe I have changed, but to me it seems impossible to buy milk in supermarkets that has the same taste as 20 years ago.

Linking such contamination to our health and development is never easy, as there are so many factors involved, but a few clear examples have emerged. For example, at a time when growth hormones were used in high quantities in chicken, some southern European men developed breasts that correlated with their national enjoyment of chicken dishes. Similarly, a recent report from the USA noted that in certain sections of the population, young girls show breast development several years younger than previously. A highly speculative comment is that this may be linked to diet and a food product that has been hormonally treated. No direct evidence has yet been reported, but it seems an obvious potential cause of this sudden biological change.

Farming involves highly interactive and interrelated processes, and because our instinct is to focus on a single problem, the solution that we find may be brilliant for solving it, but consequences and additional problems may not appear elsewhere for many years. The commercial benefits make us ignore the longer-term effects, but once entrenched, it is difficult to stop and change the practice. The delay before we recognize unfortunate side effects can be considerable; for example, in farming and medicine. Chemicals and drugs received in childhood have effects that may not be evident until maturity, or even in old age. I will expand on this in a later section.

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