heightWondering about human height led me to more unfashionable thoughts.

We seem to be getting taller. My virtually six-foot college sweetheart was exceptionally tall for young women in the 1970s, but that seems close to average among today’s co-eds. The anecdote seems accurate—American men around age twenty who enlisted in the Great War were four inches shorter than their descendants today. Many scientists accredit better nutrition, and that makes sense initially. The increased height of post-war Japanese, eating more protein than before, is well known. Since WW2, average Japanese women have grown more than four inches—the same speed as US growth since WW1, and gained ten kilos, all thought to be due to vast increases in milk-drinking.

Dutchmen, the world’s tallest at more than six feet tall, were, in the early 19th Century, Europe’s shortest. Many experts attribute this to freedom, as liberalised trade and economic growth meant better health and nutrition for Holland’s citizens overall.

But does this make sense today? A Baby-Boomer, I grew up in Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, where, believe me, there was no shortage of nutritious food; and my dentist father and nurse mother knew how to feed their young, as did our neighbours. It was not Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl, or the South’s Pellagra Belt of a generation before. If anything, our adults battled obesity. Yet modern youngsters are almost inevitably taller still, making it hard to blame nutrition. Today’s US college student never went hungry or, like the pre-war Japanese, lived chiefly on rice. Nor can the cause be better overall health and defeating the infections that plagued children who grew up to join the Lafayette Escadrille. From the 1950s onwards, we all had enough antibiotics. Yet younger equals taller.

378499Is there another possible reason? A wise friend, a Dutch physician, believes it due to the hormones added to food. He attributes his country’s ever-increasing height, primarily, to bovine hormones that make cows produce more milk. It also explains, he says, why female menarche occurs ever earlier in Holland and, indeed, across the developed world. That would work as an explanation. It was after my childhood that the West’s dairy industries began feeding hormones to cows–just as human growth hormones, replicating the peptide hormones secreted by the pituitary gland that spur cell production and growth, are now prescribed to overcome dwarfism. Increases in human height may, then, be a side effect of increased productivity and profits in the dairy industry. Whether there is a natural limit to height, after which there are negative health repercussions, remains to be seen. But today’s six-foot Japanese youngsters can often not fit into school desks.

Meanwhile, responsible science ponders whether antibiotic-laden animal feed is reducing the effectiveness of our antibiotic medicines to defeat ever-evolving germs. A branch of The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (under the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture) writes:

“Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans.  For example, resistant bacteria may be transmitted to humans through the foods we eat.”

They add that: “Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.”

height 2Next it is fruit, especially strawberries and spinach. “Diet is the biggest source of (pesticide) exposure, says Jorge Chavarro, MD, assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of a new study published in the journal Human Reproduction.” TIME magazine reports that “Men who ate fruits and vegetables with a lot of pesticides had lower sperm counts and more oddly shaped sperm than those who had lower levels of dietary pesticide exposure.” This is interesting medical science, indeed, that starts to answer a mystery that has plagued doctors for the past fifty years—the plunging sperm counts.

The Guardian newspaper explains: “It is estimated that average sperm counts are less than half what they were in the 1940s and every generation of young men has less healthy sperm than their fathers. A study among sperm donors in France calculated that healthy sperm levels were dropping by 2% every single year.” The result is reduced fertility. Even before the recent Harvard study, the Mayo clinic attributed falling sperm counts to: “Industrial chemicals—extended exposure to benzenes, toluene, xylene, herbicides, pesticides, organic solvents, painting materials and lead” as well as many other factors including various health problems, and “too much bicycling.” None of these (especially bicycling) has increased dramatically in the past 70 years, apart from pesticides.

So, what does this tell us? First, it suggests that all those reports on organic food lacking any health benefits may be premature–either accidentally by human error, or design like the decades of tobacco-industry studies purporting that smoking holds no risks.

Secondly, and even more prudently, it asks us to reconsider an unflappable faith in the wisdom and beneficence of the marketplace. The right-wing mantra, that capitalists are incentivised to always keep their customers’ best interests at heart, may still be largely true. Omitting the dangers of cutting corners, and the short-term perspectives of today’s CFOs, still no company can afford to develop a new pesticide and wait two or three generations in order to see the long-term side effects.

The risks have paid off in many respects. Decade upon decade, world hunger diminishes because food production becomes more efficient. Last year’s global cereal harvest was twenty per cent higher than a decade ago. Last year’s only two famines resulted from war, rather than drought or population pressure—the food is there.

height 3But did the good genie emerge from his bottle alongside of his evil twin? It happened before. While no one still attributes the fall of Ancient Rome to lead poisoning, it may have affected the Roman elite—not only through their posh lead water pipes, but also from their craving for sweets. They did not grow tropical sugar, and honey got boring, so the rich boiled down wine in lead pots and used it as a food sweetener; the skeletons of the rich and educated still tell the tale. Lead builds up incrementally, say the Mayo doctors, causing slowed growth and learning difficulties in the young, and high blood pressure, reduced mental function, memory loss, mood disorders and even death in adults. So the warm, cuddly personalities of Caligula, Nero and Heliogabalus may have been influenced by leaded wine-sweetener on their morning cornflakes; and explains why the children of Rome’s elite wandered aimlessly through the shopping malls with their trousers falling down.

Libertarians argue that the cost of regulation is too great, often citing the millions of cancer victims who would be buried and forgotten while risk-averse bureaucrats spent twenty years testing and dithering. The bien pensant fret, meanwhile, and want much more testing, even if that killed off industrial profits and ended research. The poor conservative, I suspect, misses all the headlines by saying that we obviously need some testing and regulation, but not too much. This is why no real conservatives get on television—only the demagogues who blame it all, whatever it is, on President Obama.

So, what to do except reduce one’s unshakeable faith in technology? My grandfather said (correctly in his case) that no one gets out of here alive. If so, maybe we had better prepare for the next step, on the bus that C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce.

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