The Relationships Between Human Health and Agriculture

Spedding (1988) defines agriculture as “an activity (of Man), carried out primarily to produce food and fibre (and fuel, as well as many other materials) by the deliberate and controlled use of (mainly terrestrial) plants and animals”1. Inherent in this definition is the importance of agriculture and its impact on the lives of virtually all human beings around the world. Through their ability to control and cultivate whole biological systems for their own purposes and survival, agriculture can be regarded as one of the most revolutionary and distinguishing aspects of mankind.

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In this way, it is also directly linked to human welfare, and one can explore the way advances in the two domains affect one another, building up to an almost symbiotic relationship between human health and agriculture. Even with a cursory thought, there is a significant link between agriculture and human health. Raeburn insists that the main contribution to human welfare is food, and that mankind depends on almost all supplies on agriculture2.

Indeed, humans as heterotrophic organisms are dependent on the intake and digestion of organic substances as a source of energy, required for maintaining basic metabolic activities as well as providing chemical energy. These organic substances are what we normally refer to as food, but also essential are the various by-products of agriculture, the main ones being “food, fibre, and raw materials for industrial use”3 used in our everyday lives to increase our comfort (e. g. otton and wool used for the production of warm clothes). The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”4. This definition allows us to tackle the impact of agriculture on human health from a number of different perspectives. Undoubtedly, the most significant agricultural products contributing to the ‘absence of infirmity or illness’ in human beings are alimentary products.

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The fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, meat, milk, produced by cultivation, contain vitamins and minerals as well as proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids, which are indispensable to maintain a healthy, functioning organism. For example, Vitamin C and E (mainly found in fruits and vegetables) act as powerful antioxidants, protecting cells from foreign toxins and pollutants, as well as cancer-causing agents. Calcium, abundant in dairy products and some green leafy vegetables, is responsible for strong bones and teeth, as well as helping nerve conduction and muscle contraction.

They provide a source of fibre as well, which lowers blood cholesterol levels and is believed to prevent certain forms of colon cancer. Of these micronutrients, a majority are not normally produced by our bodies, hence they must be acquired through diet. According to a recent report from the FAO/WHO Expert Report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, most populations are still falling short of the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables.

An estimated 2. 7 million people die each year from the risks related to low fruit and vegetable intake5. Low fruit and vegetable intake also affects one’s risks of being affected by Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs), such as weakened immune systems, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and various cancers. The total world population has grown from just under 2 billion to about 6. 2 billion in a mere century6.

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This is attributed in part to certain technological innovations in the agricultural domain during the 1950s, collectively referred to as “The Green Revolution”, Through utilization of high-yield crops, irrigation and controlled water supply, and fertilizers and pesticides, the world is producing more food than ever before, mainly by maximizing the output from every hectare of soil. Major arable crops such as rice, wheat, and corn have been experimented on, for they germinate earlier and grow quicker, allowing the harvest of two or three crops a year.

New varieties are constantly being developed, which have led up to a 30% increase in maximum yield, as well as more resistant varieties of crops (e. g. wheat which has become resistant to rust and mildew). Chickens and pigs yield twice as much meat and dairy cows twice as much milk as they did 60 years ago, argues Lomborg. An increased interest in irrigation and water control has allowed drier areas to cultivate their fair share of crops, as well as increasing soil fertility in some areas of the world and increase the harvesting opportunities.

Indeed, irrigated land makes up only 18% of the world’s total agricultural landmass, but contributes to 40% of the Earth’s food7. Fertilizers and pesticides have also proved indispensable for plant growth and warding off disease-causing insects. The Green Revolution is provides evidence of the positive contribution of agriculture to human health and welfare: food quantity and quality produced have increased, making it feasible for the agricultural domain to keep up with the nutritional needs of a rapidly increasing population. A more tragic example of human dependency on proper agricultural methods is the Irish Potato Blight of 1845 to1847.

Whitlock (1965) describes how the popularity of potatoes as a farm crop, after having found their way to Ireland originally from South America through Spain, started to increase, for it was a cheap crop perfectly suited to the needs of a newly urbanized population. Consequently, the Irish population rose from 1 500 000 to 4 000 000 habitants in the course of the eighteenth century. However, the working class’ over-dependency on a potato-based diet resulted in the severe famine that followed the widespread infection of the potato crops by the fungi Phytophthera infestans.

The severe famine over the following years and caused a decline of about 1 622 739 Irish citizens between 1841 and 1851 due to the destruction of the staple food supply of the Irish. The physical and social well being of humans is affected by agriculture both at the consumer level, as well as that of the farmers themselves. Farmers and their families face numerous risks working at the farm, such as zoonoses, overexposure to chemical substances, hearing loss, as well as dangers on the farm.

Consumers on the other hand, face more indirect risks of chemical residues and quality of food produced. Farmers may be exposed to zoonoses, diseases transferable from animals to humans. These diseases have captured society’s attention often over the course of the past few years, mostly due to notorious examples such as the human variant of BSE (bovine spongioform encephalopathy), the Creutzfield-Jacob disease, even though in the period of 1981-85 they contributed to only 4% of all fatal accidents in agriculture8.

Examples also include Farmer’s Lung, a respiratory condition caused by inhalation of fungal spores from mouldy feed or litter, responsible for an allergic reaction in the alveoli and breathing difficulties. Other dangers of normal farm labour include risks of physical injury when working with complicated equipment, like tractors. In 1981-85, about 30% of fatal accidents in agriculture were caused by self-propelled machines, and a further 13% by other field machines9. In addition, hearing loss or permanent ‘ringing’ may occur if working in a tractor for long periods of time without ear protection, for the normal noise level is about 95-105 dB.

Possibly, labouring in the agricultural sector is much tougher than most careers in the service sector, contributing to a higher risk of physical exhaustion and stress, as well as technical risks from different machines. Farmers also risk suffering from depression and marginalization, as well as large differences in income. The number of farmers has decreased dramatically over the last century, and it in this way that social exclusion and depression may threaten farmers, especially in the developed countries where the proportion of working population employed in agriculture makes up only around 3%10, and decreasing constantly.

Risks for the potential consumer include exposure to chemical residues, mostly from herbicides and pesticides used in the production. After the initial enthusiasm following the success of increased use of fertilizers and pesticides during the Green Revolution, internationally accepted quality standards have been set up in attempt to minimize health hazards of pesticide use, such as the WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme (WHOPES).

Some famous examples of potentially toxic chemicals are DDT and paraquat. DDT, a neurotoxic, has been associated with serious damage to the CNS, as well as reproductive abnormalities, in both humans and other organisms. An investigation carried out on a group of men in close contact with DDT at work showed that they appeared to have a decreased fertility rate; in addition, a higher rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, and congenital effects were prevalent amongst their offspring11.

Indeed, the use of DDT was banned in 1972 in the USA, due to excessive use and its persistence in the environment and fatty tissues in humans and other animals. Paraquat, an organochlorine herbicide, is admitted to be generally safe provided certain precautions are taken, but at the same time it is considered to be highly toxic. Its effects can be quite hazardous, from lung scarring, kidney and heart failure, and carcinogenic risks in the long run, as well as skin irritation, nosebleeds, and eye injury resulting from non-lethal long term exposure.

As is the case with many pesticide residues, when consumers are exposed to minute amounts of the substance over a long time period, the chronic effects may have quite a devastating impact on not only human health, but that of other organisms and the environment too. However, it seems reasonable to say that their use in the recent decades has greatly increased yields of the major crops like corn, wheat, and rice, contributing to an increase in the average daily calorie intake of populations, especially in developing countries12.

It may be that usage of pesticides and herbicides proves to be more beneficial than harmful to the human population in the long run, for an increase in yield contributes to a decrease in price of fruit and vegetable produce, essential to our health as we have seen in the previous paragraphs. Lomborg (2001) points out that carsinogenic properties of various pesticides and chemicals have been greatly exaggerated by the press, given that in reality, deaths from pesticide-originating cancers have been found to be less than 1% of all cancer-derived deaths.

The last century has seen mankind blessed with many inventions and technological advances which have allowed him to even further manipulate and control the world and mechanisms surrounding him. The agricultural domain has also had its fair share of innovations, which have allowed it to become more efficient, more intensive, and more productive. These advances, such as the development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and machinery to improve crop yields, appear beneficial to agricultural production, promoting both quality and quantity of food produced.

Worries over human health have also reached the point where agriculture is constantly being driven to more intense measures and inventions to increase yield and quality to the products. However, new as these techniques are, their thorough impacts on human health cannot yet be fully assessed. Most techniques affect us strictly through the food we choose to eat, but some may also involve by-products which are harmful to the environment, thus indirectly affecting our health, as well as that of other organisms and the environment.

Thus, we can say that the impact of agriculture on human health is significant. The varied, and often direct relationships that exist between agriculture and our welfare demonstrate to what extent it is present in different areas our everyday lives. Each and every human being on the planet is somehow affected by agriculture, for its main contribution is food, indispensable for our health and survival (not to forget other important raw materials).

Through the evolution of cultivating land into a wholly organized form of profit-making business, the 20th century has seen the development of agribusiness. We can even consider the relationship between human health and agriculture as being a symbiotic one, where human health works as a guiding force of agricultural innovations, while problems encountered with certain agricultural techniques, methods, and products result in a continuous quest for new solutions to improve the state of human health and agriculture overall.

Albeit much progress into human welfare and how to further increase it through output of improved food materials, numerous controversies still exist as to whether too much importance is being attributed to purely human interests, in the place of more global and environmental ones. Humans must find a compromise between their own welfare interests and those of animal welfare and environmental problems if the expansion and popularity of agricultural innovations is to continue in the future.

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