Farmers face potentially crippling problems in the next few years unless immediate steps are taken to match the growing public demand for healthier food, a leading food and agriculture expert said last night.
The growth of supermarket chains with great purchasing power and the will and ability to respond rapidly to changing consumer demand has shifted the balance of power from the food producer to the food consumer, Dr Verner Wheelock, director of food policy research at Bradford University said.
In the past two years pasteurized skimmed or semi-skimmed milk has taken about 16 per cent of the British milk market, he said.
The increasingly health-conscious British consumer is likewise eating much more lean meats such as chicken, than fatty meats such as lamb, more low-fat spreads and poly-unsaturate margarines instead of hard margarines and butter, more high-fiber breads and cereals and less whole milk.
The consumer is also increasingly worried by artificial additives, preservatives and colorings in foods, by hormones and growth promoters in meats, and by the use of pesticides.
Dr Wheelock, who was addressing the Institute of Food Science and Technology in Dublin, said highly specialized methods of farming meant that farmers would take several years to respond to those changes in demand. Existing agricultural price structures and incentives did not encourage them to do so.
“At a time when food markets have become more volatile, agriculture has become more rigid”, he said. The time would come when British farmers would be unable to supply what supermarkets wanted, so the supermarkets would buy elsewhere.
Dr Wheelock called on the Government to immediately instigate a research and development program to provide solutions to the farmers’ dilemma, and in particular to determine how they can produce leaner meat and milk with a lower fat content.
The successful use of gene probes for diagnosing inherited disease in the first nine or 10 weeks of pregnancy raises more important social implications than technical ones, Dr Bernadette Modell, consultant in perinatal medicine at University College, London, told the British Association meeting at Strathclyde University yesterday. A genetic health education program, with the offer of testing, genetic counselling and information, was needed, she said.
Modell was speaking about an international trial of a new technique known as chorionic villus sampling, in which less than 50mg of a sample from the womb is enough for an examination of the complete genetic make-up of the fetus. She said that the technique should become applicable to most forms of genetic diagnosis.
‘Gene probes’ is the shorthand description for the bio-chemical trick in the laboratory of producing a map of the genes in the strands of DNA to identify any defects.
Dr Modell focused on the implications for two blood disorders, sickle cell anemia and thalassaemia.
She described them as among the most treatable and preventable of common inherited disorders. There was evidence that the first could largely be avoided by neo-natal diagnosis and the use of simple protective measures from the first months of life.
Thalassaemia could be treated by monthly blood transfusions, combined with daily infusion of the iron-helating (something that combines with iron) agent desferrioxamine. It was effective and cost about pounds 4,000 a year for a healthy life for each patient.
Most of the disorders were due to the absence of some biological entity in the body, for which drugs were usually ineffective and treatment requires some way of substituting the missing molecules.
‘Since treatment stops patients dying, while others continue to be born, the number of patients to whom treatment can be delivered increases steadily, while at the same time the amount to be done for each patient usually increases as treatment improves, and this can lead to important problems of implementation,’ she said.
Dr Modell gave as an example the incidence in Cyprus of thalassamemia among children who began regwar transfusions about 20 years ago. Their numbers increased so fast that eight years later it was predicted that in a further 20 years, 40 per cent of the island’s population would have to donate blood once a year for thailassaemia alone.
Health service costs would soar to pay for hospital treatment for the disease alone unless there was some form of prevention. Genetic counselling had alleviated such a dilemma.
Dr Modell said that the prevention of birth of children with thalassemia depended on the fact that it was possible to diagnose carriers before they had any affected children.
People needed to know whether they had an avoidable risk either very early in pregnancy, or preferably even before they had received at all. But ‘premaritaltesting was not generally practiced in north European countries, she said, although it was becoming widely available in the Mediterranean area.
Anthropologists are puzzled by the emphasis on extreme thinness in our society, and especially extreme thinness for women. Weight loss supplements such as PhenQ are experiencing a surge in popularity these days. It was not always so, of course.
In the late 19th century, Lillian Russell, considered a great American beauty, weighed 186 pounds. Even today, in non-Western cultures, fat men are frequently those of wealth and power, and fatness in women is associated with fertility.
In Nigeria, relates anthropologist Claire Cassidy of the University of Maryland, young girls of the Ibo and Ibibio tribes once entered fattening houses when they reached puberty in order to gain weight before marriage. There they were prohibited from working and emerged later, “mountains of flesh’ and fit for wedlock. Cassidy recalls that a few years ago, when she was doing fieldwork in Central America, she began to her dismay, to gain weight. But, she says, “the fatter I got, the more they admired me. Finally,’ one woman told me, “you’re starting to look healthy. And furthermore, you are starting to look marriageable.”
In our culture, fat people, far from being viewed as powerful or fertile, are scorned. So, to no one’s surprise, many people feel extraordinary pressure to keep their weight down. The great puzzle is why staying thin should be so difficult to do. At Rockefeller University, obesity researchers Hirsch, Irving Faust and Rudolph Leibel believe an animal’s– or a person’s–stable weight, sometimes called its set point, has something to do with the fat cells in its body. The signals to overeat, they conclude, may come from the fat cells themselves.
The number of fat cells in an animal’s body is not necessarily fixed, says Faust, although once people or animals acquire fat cells, they never lose them. But what does seem to be closely regulated is how large the fat cells become.
If scientists destroy parts of a rat’s brain that regulate its eating behavior, the rat will become grossly obese. As a consequence, its fat cells grow to four to five times their normal size. Or, says Faust, “we can push the fat-cell size in any animal to a bare minimum by depriving it of food. Knowing this, it is interesting to observe that if you leave an animal or a person alone, the fat cells will stay constant in size. It suggests to us that there is some sort of regulation in effect. We feel that there are signals between the fat tissue and the central nervous system.”
Since obese people tend to have fat cells that are two to two-and-a-half times larger than those of normal people, Faust and Hirsch hypothesize that the signals regulating fat-cell size may be perturbed in these people.
Faust’s first test of the fat-cell hypothesis was to look at rats that have twice as many fat cells as usual. These rats regulated their eating so that their fat cells were the same size as those of normal rats. But since they had twice as many fat cells, they were twice as fat.
Next, Faust removed fat from young rats so that they had only half the normal number of fat cells. These rats, too, ate just enough to keep their fat cells of normal size, but since they had only half as many fat cells as they normally would, they were only half as fat as their littermates.
The next step was to look at people. Hirsch and Leibel began with a group of women and one man who belong to Overeaters Anonymous. All are of normal weight, but each was formerly obese, weighing more than 200 pounds. But although they look normal, their body chemistries are deranged. Their fat cells are tiny and they look like people with anorexia nervosa.
The women do not menstruate, their pulse rates are low–about 50 to 60 beats a minute rather than the normal rate of 70 to 80 beats a minute–their blood pressures are low, they are always cold and they burn about 25 percent fewer calories than would be expected on the basis of their weights and heights.
Not only do they look biochemically like people who are starving, they act like it. “They are always thinking about food,’ says Hirsch, “and many are in the diet business.’ They may become Weight Watchers lecturers, for example.
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