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Digging up the past to consider future possibilities


Digging up the past to consider future possibilities

Pesticides do their job killing pests but are they affecting the food we eat? KAILAS ROBERTS discusses links between organic produce and brain health

My father, until very recently, lived in a far-flung archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland, specifically the Orkney Islands. These may not be as familiar as their slightly northern cousins, the Shetlands, but they are just as bleak and beautiful.

He was not born there and was (still is) the epitome of middle-class Englishness. There was therefore some adjustment for him as he tried to eke out a living in what was a notoriously parochial part of the world. His reasons for migration from his mother country were multiple but in large part were driven by disillusionment with the mainstream approach to life  – that which embraced consumerism and signalled a fracturing of our closeness to the earth.

His idea was to move somewhere with affordable land where he could subsist and avoid reliance on others whose opinions he did not share.

For 30 years, he lived and worked on his farm, growing organic vegetables, and making cheese from the handful of sheep and cows that grazed the fields. It was impossible to be entirely independent, but he did a pretty good job of it.

I spent much of my childhood with him and was the beneficiary of his healthful approach to eating but, of course, I took it for granted.

Later in life, I have oscillated in my thoughts about organic foods and whether they are truly worth the extra expense. I have no time – nor inclination if I’m honest – to grow my own, and so have to consider the premium you pay for such things.

The more I read about the health effects of pesticides, however, the more I recognise my father’s wisdom.

There is no doubt that the chemicals we put on our fruit and vegetables are toxic – that’s the whole point of them: to extinguish life of organisms that might otherwise reduce the yield of crops.

When it comes to the brain, there are concerns about their ability to increase neuroinflammation, perhaps in part because of a negative effect on our microbiome – the bugs in our gut.

There is also evidence that the blood brain barrier, a critical structure that serves to protect the brain from harmful molecules travelling in the blood, is compromised when exposed to pesticides. Disruption of this barrier is associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In rodents at least, there are also studies that suggest that pesticide exposure can lead to increased amyloid and tau deposition in the brain – two proteins intimately linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

These are only some of the potential mechanisms of harm. Overall, there is ample evidence to support a link between pesticides and poor brain health in general.

The big unanswered question, however, is whether we, as consumers, ingest enough pesticides for this to be a clinical concern.

Toxicity is one concern, but we also know that plants treated with pesticides are often less nutritious than organic ones. This is partly because these chemicals kill off microbes that allow plants to absorb nutrients.

Certain plants are more problematic when it comes to pesticide ingestion. If you’re interested to know more about this, Google “the dirty dozen and clean fifteen”, nicely named lists of high and low risk ones. Now, I might be accused of fearmongering, and should stress again that we cannot say at this stage that it is critical for your brain to eat organic, but if you can afford to, I would certainly encourage it.

Whether they grow underground, on the surface, or even on trees, eating vegetables and their sweeter cousins without pesticides is low-hanging fruit when it comes to promoting brain health!

Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit or

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