Tasty chemicals: is your food safe?

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There aren’t many companies in the world that would pay out ten billion dollars in compensation if there wasn’t a problem. Yet that is how much the giant German drug company Bayer is reported to have agreed in order to settle claims made by users of products containing glyphosate in the USA who believed it was the cause of their cancer.

Any reasonable person might assume that once a huge payment like this was made then the product would cease to be sold, in case it was harmful to human health. Yet that is not what is happening. Glyphosate is widely on sale in the UK without any warning.

Few people know which products contain glyphosate. Indeed, most people will never have heard of it. Yet they might very easily pop down to the garden centre to buy some weed killer to spray around their garden to keep it looking ‘nice and tidy’. A high proportion of those weed killers contain glyphosate. Roundup is, perhaps, the best-known brand that does.

As I write, Amazon is offering to sell customers in the UK a large plastic container of Roundup with its own fast-action pump for quick-and-easy home use – without a word of warning that farm workers and gardeners in the States have experienced concern over their health. Ten billion dollars’ worth of apparent damage to health doesn’t stop the product from being sold and doesn’t, apparently, warrant a health warning.

Humans aren’t the only creatures who have been reported to experience health problems from glyphosate. It wouldn’t occur to many people that they were likely to harm bees by spraying a weed killer in their garden. Yet there have been studies indicating that glyphosate damages helpful creatures living in the guts of bees and that it may also interfere with their navigation systems.

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This is not the same chemical as the neonicitinoids that have also been associated with weakening honeybee communities by damaging bee navigation systems. Neonicitinoids are a pesticide that penetrates every cell of a growing plant and then poisons insects that try to feed off the plant. Every scientist agrees that in high enough doses neonicitinoids will kill bees. Yet the producers have tried very hard to convince decision makers that in the wild no bees will ever get a high enough dose to kill them. Researchers have shown that directly killing the bees is indeed highly unlikely but that indirectly doing so by confusing their ability to navigate really is a genuine problem. As a consequence of this and other problems, the vast majority of the now notorious neonicitinoid chemicals were suspended from legal use across the EU. The manufacturers continue to insist they are safe and to press for their legalisation. Neonicitinoids are almost certain to be back on the list of sprays used on products sold in the UK once any trade deal with the US is agreed.

That would add to the already alarming cocktail of sprays that are permitted for use on apparently healthy food that people in the UK eat every day. In his book, The Garden Jungle, David Goulson documents how the average apple orchard in the UK receives 13 fungicide sprays, five plant hormone regulator sprays, five sprays of insecticides, two herbicide sprays and one spray with urea. Think on that the next time you tuck in to an imported apple that has been transported across the planet to appear on your plate. Then think hard about how much you can rely on receiving accurate and reliable warnings from producers about what their products do to your body or to other creatures.

It is highly unlikely that any politician in the US will sign a new trade deal with the UK unless that deal allows its farmers to export large quantities of food grown using a greater range of chemicals than British farmers are allowed to use.

Remember that when someone tries to tells you that there is no problem about washing chickens in chlorine because it is a safe chemical that is used in swimming baths. The issue isn’t what the chicken is washed in. The issue is the high-risk practices which are used to produce the food in the first place – with lower food hygiene and animal welfare standards, leading to higher instances of bacteria on the meat – and the way problems aren’t openly admitted and addressed but are covered up.

It seems that it is worth 10 billion dollars to some companies to carry on selling chemicals without alerting people to the existence of rather expensive concerns about their safety. How much is it worth to you to be able to trust the regulation system that protects the quality of the food that you eat?

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