The recent emergence of a new and virulent strain of food-borne pathogen, E. coli 104, and its impact across Europe, reflects a longstanding failure to integrate health and agricultural policy.
Over recent decades, national and international agricultural policy has encouraged intensification of food production and globalization of food chains. For human diseases in the food chain, this will mean more rapid and widespread outbreaks, delays in identifying their source and greater economic impacts of consequent responses.
E. coli is a “dead end” pathogen, which will not spread between humans, but the same agricultural processes of intensification and globalization underlie the recent emergence of diseases which could spread in populations, such as influenzas from poultry and pigs. These health threats were also associated with unexpected national economic shocks.
But modern agriculture is not fundamentally a threat to health. In principle, agricultural intensification and globalization can improve public health, through greater availability of nutritious food, reduced disease incidence in well controlled, intensified systems, and the opportunity for enlightened cooperation between countries sharing the challenge of trading food safely.
When, instead, we see responses to disease outbreaks affecting agricultural economies remote from the health threat, disease outbreaks in intensified systems becoming more frequent and food safety being used as a convenient barrier to restrict free trade, we are looking at the failure of health and agricultural sectors to build policy together.
Agricultural policy has paid too little attention to health implications. At the same time, health policy is historically preoccupied with curing rather than preventing disease, and has focused too little on encouraging healthy diets and safe food. As a result, the market processes that drive agriculture have led to overproduction and overconsumption of high energy, low nutrient foods, and to rising disease threats.
It is ironic that the E. coli outbreak not only reduces public confidence in food safety in general; it has also further reduced people’s confidence in fruit and vegetables – precisely those foods that would reverse current unhealthy dietary trends.
Last month, the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH), took a first step to breaking down the silos that have prevented integration of agriculture and health strategy by bringing together economists and policy makers from both disciplines to explore developing a common language for measuring the effects of agriculture on health and vice versa. Some common ground was found, but this will be a long process. However, only by understanding how policies affect both agricultural and health consequences, and the magnitude of these effects, can the best policies be chosen which will minimize both health and economic losses.