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   Coming Up : Inside Out - East: Friday February 9, 2007
The big ergot debate
Wheat
"People should realise that Ergot is a highly toxic natural substance, far more toxic than pesticides we apply to our foods..."
Ergot - growing concerns about its presence in our food chain
Read the web fact file

Ergot

Ergot 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.

And there is evidence it has got through the mills and ended up on the shop shelves.

It caused a medieval plague and is claimed to have poisoned Oliver Cromwell.

Now ergot is turning up again, ironically because farmers are being more environmentally friendly.

Health problems

Ergot fact file

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.

Used historically to stop bleeding during childbirth and also to induce abortions.

Ergot has had a number of medical applications including in the treatment of migraine, Parkinson's Disease and heart valve problems.

Some commentators 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.

For 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.

Precautions essential

Harry Raby farms just outside Huntingdon.

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.

Wheat
Vigilance 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.

Just as well he spotted the killer poison in some wheat his daughter had bought.

Had 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 food chain."

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.

Wheat
Scientists are studying how to make wheat resistant to ergot.

Areas of 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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