big ergot debate
should realise that Ergot is a highly toxic natural substance, far more toxic
than pesticides we apply to our foods..."
- growing concerns about its presence in our food chain
the web fact file
is a naturally occurring fungus that lives on wheat.
Now there's a battle
to stop it getting into our food chain.
Ergot isn't just a disaster for
farmers when it infects crops.
It can also kill humans.
is evidence it has got through the mills and ended up on the shop shelves.
caused a medieval plague and is claimed to have poisoned Oliver Cromwell.
ergot is turning up again, ironically because farmers are being more environmentally
Ergot is a
common fungus of the genus Claviceps.
One of the studies
of ergot by scientists Albert Hoffman led to the discovery of LSD. Ergot contains
no LSD in itself. Lysergic acid used in LSD is prepared from ergot.
historically to stop bleeding during childbirth and also to induce abortions.
has had a number of medical applications including in the treatment of migraine,
Parkinson's Disease and heart valve problems.
have speculated that the young women involved in the Salem witch trials had eaten
ergot in their rye.
Regular intakes of low dosages of ergot can result
in long term health problems.
In the Middle Ages there were
a number of cases of ergot poisoning in peasants who had eaten infected bread.
centuries ergot poisoning caused gangrene, convulsions, hallucinations and was
even associated with demonic possession.
It's said that Oliver Cromwell's
violent tendencies came from eating infected rye bread while he lived in the Fens.
The only recorded case of ergot causing death in England is a farm labourer's
wife and six children to ergot poisoning in 1762.
The family had probably
eaten bread contaminated by the fungus.
The official records chart the
victims' terrible symptoms including blackened and ulcerated hands, rotted limbs
and flesh separating from bones.
There's even a plaque recording the tragedy
in the church yard at St Nicholas' Church in Wottisham.
But despite ergot's
deadly reputation, it does have medical benefits.
It's widely used in
childbirth and also provides relief for migraines.
One per cent of ergot
contamination can lead to symptoms of ergot poisoning whilst seven per cent is
enough to cause death.
There's also another use of ergot which shows how
dangerous it can be.
It was used to make LSD.
Harry Raby farms just outside
So great is his concern about ergot that he employs a crop
scientist to advise on what precautions to take.
After harvesting the
grain heaps are inspected.
and careful checking is required|
Traces of ergot at this stage
would be bad news for the farmer.
But no matter how vigilant farmers are,
ergot has got through.
Charles Looker used to be a farmer.
as well he spotted the killer poison in some wheat his daughter had bought.
he not, his daughter could have been seriously ill.
The samples of ergot
were analysed in an agricultural laboratory.
Dr David Kenyon, Plant Pathologist
says, "I am alarmed that such a large amount of ergot could get into the
Pressure to go green - but
at a cost?
While today's farmers are urged to make the countryside
look more natural, some believe that the pressure to go green brings an increased
risk of ergot making an unwelcome return.
are studying how to make wheat resistant to ergot.|
wild grass at the edges of fields encourage wildlife, but could also provide habitat
where ergot is more likely to occur.
The National Institute for Agricultural
Botany in Cambridge is leading the race to develop the science that can cope with
whatever Mother Nature throws at us.
It's early days - but its hoped that
in the future strains of wheat that are resistant to ergot can be developed.
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