Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Rape of East Anglia

The weekend before last was one of glorious sunshine, with evenings almost as warm as June. But I and thousands of others could not really totally enjoy it without resorting to drugs.

This is because East Anglia (and many other parts of the UK for all I know) is awash with oilseed rape. And this gives me severe respiratory problesms, as I am a chronic hayfever sufferer. So I have to take expensive, prescription drugs. So what is the real cost of this subsidised crop?

The Government is encouraging and subsidising farmers to grow huge quantities, in order to promote 'renewable' sources of energy -- biodiesel. But what are the true energy costs of growing and processing oilseed rape? The huge quantities of pesticides, and herbicides associated with growing the vast monocultures that now sweep across the landscape. The loss of biodiversity, already reduced to less than that of a supermerket car park; both are relatively easy to measure. And should be.

But what are the health costs? And is it right that I, and thousands of others, should have to resort to taking drugs, in order to be able to carry out a normal day's work, so that agri-business can ruin even more of the countryside?

It is claimed that rape does not actually cause hayfever, but only affects those with multiple sensitivity. Like me. But whereas normally I suffer from hayfever in a relatively mild form, come the season of the rape flowering, I am suffering from breathing difficulties and streaming eyes, and have to dose myself with steroids in order to work.

I have seen papers demonstrating that biofuels, such as biodiesel from rape, are energy efficient -- but these never take into account the fact that in order to grow them, land has to be taken out of food production, and that the food then has to be produced in other parts of the world and imported, with all the associated energy costs.

Any other thoughts?


  1. Interesting take on rapeseed and hayfever.

    I've seen articles here in France claiming that rape is not an allergen as such, but as a powerful irritant it can make hayfever worse if you have it already.

    I'm a pretty bad hayfever sufferer myself, and I know that getting near a field of flowering rapeseed will often trigger an attack.

    This is a topic that's been discussed on the Allergy forum

  2. I too have hayfever, but would suffer equally near a field of beautiful, natural wild flowers and grasses as I would near a field of osr.

    Osr is not only a crop that may help ween the developed world off petrochemicals, but as also something that provides uk farmers with a crop that is worth enough to give some return when sold - allowing them to invest more money into renewable, non chemical, but more expensive,treatments for their land and seed.

    Perhaps it is because osr is bright yellow that it is picked out with such vigour. It seems narrowminded to lambast this plant when it is one of the few viable alternatives growing at the moment.

  3. Oilseed rape and the precautionary principle

    Evidence that oilseed rape causes respiratory illness in rural dwellers - Scot Med Journal. 1995; 40: 074-76. Parratt D, Macfarlane Smith WH, Thomson G, Cameron LA, Butcher RD.

    "...We believe that this study has clearly demonstrated that oilseed rape induces symptoms in a significant proportion of otherwise healthy individuals".

    Perhaps a starting point should be Government recognition that oilseed rape is most definitely a cause of ill health and should therefore be taking precautions to protect public health, until scientific evidence confirms that oilseed rape is not responsible for the alleged widespread allergy/respiratory type symptoms in people living within the outskirts of our towns and villages, due to immunological and/or non-immunological mechanisms.

    The precautionary principle (P.P.) [EC health & environmental law] demands that public health be put before commercial gain until the product (oilseed rape and its associated pollen, VOCs and fungal spores) are proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe and will not (either directly or indirectly) cause or exacerbate ill health.

    The Government has failed in its duty of care to protect public health by not following the P.P. legal framework when evaluating the impact that oilseed rape has on the health and quality of life of both the healthy and the vulnerable within our communities; the young, the elderly, asthmatics, and those with weakened immune systems due to medication and/or serious illness.


  4. Interesting article. The only truly environmentally friendly biofuel that I can see is to use waste vegetable oil that has been used by a restaurant or food processing plant.

    Oil seed rape certainly has the reputation for being really bad for hayfever

  5. The Medical Research Council sponsored a research programme on the effects of OSR. The conclusions were that it is low down the list of allergens, compared with trees and grasses, but it often took the blame because OSR is very visible and smelly. However, OSR gives off volatile chemicals that inflame the nasal tissues of hayfever sufferers and make things worse. The team expressed some surprise that OSR is not seen as a problem on the Continent and in Canada! The study I read is about 10 years old so knowledge may have moved on, but it is still clearly controversial if you browse with Google - this website comes 6th if you do "oilseed rape hayfever"!
    As to biofuels, John's criticism of OSR removing land from food production has hit the mainstream. An article in the Times says that a combination of rising standards of living in China and India, drought in USA and Oz, and also the growing of OSR and other crops for biofuel is causing a cereal shortage. In UK, OSR was traditionally (ie. over the last few years!) grown for human and animal feed and as a break-crop. It now receives a subsidy when it is grown for biofuel. The recent trend has been to remove land from food production by grants for set-aside, so I don't know how OSR is affecting food production, but the president of the NFU has warned of higher food prices as more farmers grow biofuels. You can't blame the farmers: they get good returns on OSR and cereal prices have been dropping.
    How all this squares with the effects of weather and distant events on prices, I do not know. China, by far the largest grower of OSR, has had a massive downturn in production this year.
    But who would want to be a farmer anyway? As well as coping with weather, pests, diseases, market prices, government manipulation and trampling hordes, there are even complaints about the colour of their crops. Bright yellow is thought to be the wrong colour for the countryside. Yet Linnaeus famously got on his knees and thanked God for the sight of a gorse thicket in full bloom.

  6. Hi Robert,
    Yeah, you are indeed correct to draw attention to the MRC funded IEH A3 Assessment 1997 (which has not been published in any of the learned journals). Without going into detail, the conclusions reached in the MRC Assessment (no actual research undertaken; only a study of published literature) were not really conclusive, which is why the problem rumbles on. In fact the MRC recommended that far more detailed research was required to fully elucidate the claims by scientists in the published literature that oilseed rape/rapeseed is the cause of ill health.

    Since the MRC conclusions in 1997, I am not aware of any Government funding that has been made available to elucidate this public health problem. This is despite a letter being published in the BMJ in 1998.

    Dr. Parratt, who is arguably a world expert on oilseed rape allergy syndrome and has actively been researching these public health complaints since 1987. Incidentally, this experience is backed-up with numerous published papers on this subject. Dr. Parratt advised in the BMJ: …*we have sought EU support to compare the putative causes of oilseed rape allergy/irritancy in European countries and the UK. No funding was forthcoming. Until such studies are undertaken there can be no satisfactory resolution of the public concern that oilseed rape is a genuine cause of ill health*.

    In 1997, McSharry stated in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy; …*oilseed rape allergy or sensitivity is a public health concern with economic and political interest. This subject still needs more work. Probably the best prospect will be a co-ordinated multi-disciplinary approach, with respiratory physicians, clinical scientists and plant biologists who have the confidence of the community and local authority in the areas studied*.

    The bright *flashy* colour of oilseed rape is often quoted as a possible cause of public disquiet about this highly lucrative *new* crop. But it is important to put such claims into true perspective.

    There may well be an insignificant percentage of people who complain that this *flashy new crop* is a blot on our traditional agricultural landscape. But equally it is true that the MRC stated in the 1997 Assessment that further research is recommended. This is despite the substantial research that has already been published in the learned journals about oilseed rape allergy syndrome. I think if the MRC scientists truly believed that the flashiness of oilseed rape was an issue they would have recommended *cheap sun specs* rather than further research. It is noteworthy that horses also appear to be affected by oilseed rape (again this is backed-up by published research). Perhaps horses need to wear sun specs also (says he with tongue in cheek).

    The question about why there are no (reported) problems in Canada is an interesting one. None of the scientists appear to offer any scientific evidence to answer this continuing conundrum. Some commentators suggest there could be a conspiracy of silence amongst Canadian farmers, plant breeders and the biotech industry who have each bought into the canola industry.

    It is rather interesting to note that if someone was to challenge the merits of novel foods (from GM crops) the canola industry are quick to close ranks and stifle debate by producing reams and reams of research data to backup their claims that canola is the best thing since slice bread. Yet if someone was to ask the canola industry to provide evidence that canola does not cause asthma, rhinitis, headache and conjunctivitis, there is an eerie silence.

    With regard to your Google suggestion; I have tried this and it throws up some 1,270 entries. This indeed indicates the subject is clearly controversial.

    However, if you were to Google *allergy + canola* (not restricted the search to UK) this throws up 138,000 entries. On the very first page you will find reference to canola allergy syndrome. This site is dedicated to oilseed rape allergy syndrome and highlights the public health concerns and makes clear reference to all available published literature. I believe this impressive listing (in the top 10) appears to support public concern that oilseed rape is a genuine cause of ill health.