The Times (London)
May 6, 2000, Saturday
An expert in his field
Organic farmer Mark Purdey has spent 15 years arguing that organophosphates - not cattle feed - were to blame for BSE. But as Brigid McConville discovers, his one-man campaign has not made him popular
Below the sloping meadows of Mark Purdey's organic Exmoor farm, half of Somerset spreads out in a lush green tapestry of woods and fields. Most people, you can't help thinking, would sit back and revel in the extraordinary peace.
Mark Purdey, however - a tall, lean figure with unruly hair - is not most people. He is a person of extremes: impassioned, intelligent, dogged, charming and obsessive. He adores his wife Margaret and their six children, music, nature, Jersey cows and poetry. He talks for hours. He gets angry - thumps the table - about things he believes are wrong. It's perfectly obvious that wherever he might live, Mark Purdey would be rocking the boat. And, for the past 15 years, while caring for his Jersey herd and bringing up his children, Purdey has been making some very big waves with his relentless one-man campaign against organophosphates (OPs), the chemicals which he believes triggered the whole BSE debate.
A self-taught scientist, he has won respect from senior scientists, public figures and politicians, including the former Cabinet minister Tom King. He has also been published in authoritative scientific journals and has been invited to speak to the Medical Research Council's toxicology unit, to the Edinburgh International Science Festival and to the Government's 1998 BSE Inquiry.
Along the way he has challenged the full might of the chemical industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the British scientific establishment, who have stuck to their line that contaminated cattle feed was to blame for BSE, not organophosphates. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if Purdey is right and the scientists are wrong, the many thousands of compensation claims from farmers and CJD victims could just about bankrupt the country, not to mention wreck a lot of careers.
In the course of his campaign, it seems that either he has become extraordinarily unlucky, or something dodgy has been going on, for in recent years the Purdeys have faced catastrophes such as their house burning down, their barn wall collapsing without reason, and their telephone lines being cut; as well as having to deal with intruders, shooting incidents and the deaths of Purdey's solicitor and vet.
Purdey, born in rural East Anglia in 1953, comes from a long line of eccentric but brilliant thinkers. His great-grand-father famously walked from Inverness to London to build up the Purdey shotgun business. His grandfather Lionel was shell-shocked during the First World War and later campaigned for Lord Kitchener to acknowledge shell shock as a real illness which should be treated accordingly.
As a child Purdey was an obsessive bird-watcher. He lists one of his earliest memories as watching planes spraying pesticides in a wheat field. "Soon afterwards I saw a blackbird quivering and dying. That image still haunts me."
He went to prep school at seven and then to Haileybury public school. "It was all very militaristic and archaic," he recalls. "Weirdly, my education led me to question authority - which backfired on the school when some friends and I used our military training to break out across the quad one night after our A levels, to visit some girlfriends. I was expelled."
Purdey had a place at Exeter University to study zoology, but dropped out to set up an organic farming community in Ireland, later becoming an organic farmer in Pembrokeshire. "It was a hardy place but I built up a Jersey herd, got married and had two children." This marriage eventually broke up, but Purdey met Margaret - a small, quiet woman whom he describes as "strong as steel" - had lots more children and carried on farming organically.
One beautiful morning in 1984 the young couple got a knock on the door of their caravan. "It was an official from the Ministry of Agri-culture," recalls Purdey. "She said we were in a zone where it was compulsory for us to treat our cows with a systemic organophosphate warble fly treatment. This is poured along the cow's spine, seeps through the skin and changes the entire internal environment of the cow into a poisonous medium in order to kill off any parasites. But anyone can see the stupidity of doing that with a chemical derived from a military nerve gas."
The Purdeys refused to comply. They were young idealists who did not expect to succeed, but when their case went to the High Court, they won. Purdey found himself on the front page of The Times and was inundated with letters from farmers who suspected that OP pesticides and fungicides had wrecked their health.
Purdey trawled through the medical literature, turning himself into an expert on OPs in the process. Like his grandfather before him, he badgered the authorities to accept that these nervous diseases were real and not to be denied. He worked long into the night and without pay to gather evidence, listening endlessly - often to Margaret's exasperation - to people's stories of OP poisoning.
The science is complex. In a nutshell he describes it thus: "OPs exert their toxic effect by deforming the molecular shapes of proteins which are crucial to the balance of the nervous system." In 1987 Purdey was asked to write a paper for the House of Commons Select Agriculture Committee about OP intoxication in farmers. "I found scientific journals from the Twenties which showed exactly the same symptoms," he says, "although all these farmers were told they were neurotic and imagining it."
Not only do these chemicals cause sickness, depression, fatigue, spasms and weakness in farmers, argues Purdey, but they are also the root cause of BSE in cattle. "Animals with spongiform diseases (such as BSE)," he explains, "exhibit brain proteins which are deformed - in the same way as those proteins affected by OPs. My case was that OPs had penetrated the central nervous system, generating chain reactions of free radicals which deformed proteins and upset the balance of minerals in the brain."
What's more, British cattle had been given exceptionally high doses of this type of systemic OP (phosmet) - higher than any of the few other countries which used this pesticide. And if meat and bone meal feed produced in Britain had caused BSE, why didn't the disease occur in countries which had imported exactly the same UK feed? There had to be another reason, Purdey argued, and media and public support for his cause was growing.
After Purdey made the 1988 Open Space TV documentary Aggrochemicals - about OPs and human health - the late poet laureate Ted Hughes wrote with "a million congratulations". Purdey's argument, he wrote, was "clear, self-evident, inexorable. So simple. One bull's-eye after another. You've planted a big bomb. They can't hide from the camera, can they? They're as scared as we are."
Just how big a bomb was already bec-oming clear. In the Eighties the Purdeys moved from Wales to the southwest of England. "The week after we moved in, a man bought a house nearby," says Purdey. "He fired guns over our property on several occasions and let off detonations when the milk lorry arrived. At first I thought he was just a nutter, but when I reported the incidents to the police, they said, 'You realise some people are employed to behave in this way.'" Then, on an occasion which the Purdeys have dubbed "Bloody Sunday", their neighbour began firing at their milking parlour while Purdey sheltered inside. Margaret, nine months pregnant, called the police, who said Purdey would have to be shot before they could do anything.
Their neighbour's unpredictable be-haviour continued. On the day when Purdey was due to advise MPs about the effects of OPs on the nervous system, the neighbour barricaded the Purdey's driveway with an army truck, blocking the milk lorry's access and making it impossible for Purdey to leave.
"Everything was going wrong," he says, "so we decided to sell up and move to Wales. The week after we left, our former neighbour put his house on the market. Then, the night before we moved, our new farmhouse burned down. The police said it was an electrical fire, but as the house was a repossessed property, the electricity wasn't on. We went into hiding."
Purdey is aware of sounding paranoid, and admits he has no proof of any campaign against him. But he points out that in the US it is known that campaigners like Purdey are subjected to harassment and attempts to discredit them, so why not here? His response has been to make sure any incidents are recorded in the press - and he has a thick file of yellowing cuttings to show for it.
One of these describes an incident on December 28, 1991. While the Purdeys were away for Christmas, their barn wall "fell down", crushing a caravan containing Purdey's medical library. "We'd just got planning permission for the barn, so it was sound," says Purdey. The newspaper picture shows him holding aloft his saxophone - he plays it to his cows - which was salvaged from the wreckage.
Another newspaper cutting, from September 3, 1991, quotes his vet as arguing that it is time to test Purdey's theory. And then one from the local paper, a few weeks later: "Riddle of vet's car on lorry's side of road". The Minehead inquest heard that he died "after driving into the path of the lorry for no apparent reason... There was no evidence of any prior defect on the (car)". The verdict was accidental death.
The vet's death was reminiscent of an accident in which Purdey's solicitor - also a good friend - who had represented him at the High Court in the OP case, was killed. "His car lost control and hit a wall on a straight stretch of road."
Over the next few years, alarming incidents occurred with increasing regularity. In the spring of 1993, one of the Purdeys' calves was born with BSE to a cow with BSE, contrary to government orthodoxy. The night before a news story about this was due to appear in The Independent, their telephone lines were vandalised, making it impossible for Purdey to respond to any media interest.
Purdey admits that at times he has been very afraid. "But I would be a traitor to myself if I gave it up," he says. "You have to live by your heart."
It was in early 1994 that the Government began to take him seriously, claims Purdey, inviting him to a five-hour meeting with MAFF's top scientists. But still the strange events continued. In 1995 Margaret was at home with the children when she found a man rummaging in their out-buildings. He told her he was on his way to Guernsey - which was where Purdey happened to be speaking that evening.
Purdey's BSE theory was gaining ground, especially overseas. But although in 1996 he was summoned to see EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler, the meeting had disappointing results. "He said that because my work was not peer- reviewed - assessed by qualified scientists - he couldn't take it any further," says Purdey. "But it was peer-reviewed. This was just appeasement."
Meanwhile, as it was announced in the spring of 1996 that BSE had infected humans in the form of new variant CJD, three leading scientists - all specialists in spongiform brain diseases - met with tragic fates. In April, Dr Clive Bruton, curator of the Corsellis Collection Brain Bank at Rumwell Hospital in Essex, was found dead in his crashed car after a heart attack. He had been publicly arguing that deaths from CJD were going unrecognised because it was assumed that Alzheimer' disease - which has indistinguishable symptoms - was the cause.
According to the MP Teresa Gorman, who successfully campaigned to stop the Corsellis Collection from being dispersed, this was a uniquely valuable resource in that it contained the brains of people who died before BSE. Comparison with CJD victims might show that the same brain "plaques" were in evidence before BSE - or perhaps not. "This should have been examined in the context of BSE," she says.
"It is entirely possible that BSE is connected to OPs," she believes, "but the basic science has not yet been done. All the money has been cornered by the SEAC people (the Government's independent advisors on BSE and CJD), who were dealing with scrapie at the time of BSE, and it is hard to wrest that from them. I do think Mark Purdey's theory deserves more attention, but there's a huge vested interest at the SEAC end, and a lot of members from industry on this committee. They have a position to maintain and it has been difficult to get funding for alternative research."
Also in the spring of 1996, the Nobel prizewinner Dr Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, renowned for his ground-breaking research into rare diseases such as kuru, a variant of CJD which occurs in New Guinea tribespeople, was arrested in America for sex offences. According to the National Institute of Health where Gajdusek worked in Bethesda, Maryland, his journals, detailing traditional practices in the tribes he worked with, had been in the public domain for 30 years.
Yet according to The Observer (February 16, 1997), "On 4 April 1996 as Dr Gajdusek was flying back from a conference on BSE in Geneva, BFI agents were raiding both his office and his home in Maryland. They took away files, disks, photographs, film and notebooks. The same evening when he drew into his driveway with a doctor colleague, a dozen FBI agents leapt from cover and arrested the 72-year-old at gunpoint." Gajdusek protested his innocence but went to prison, his lifetime's research discredited.
Meanwhile, in California in May 1996, Tsunao Saitoh PhD, professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, was shot dead with his young daughter. Saitoh was an internationally respected researcher into the reasons for diseases such as Alzheimer's and had been doing ground-breaking research on the deformation of the amyloid brain protein (found in CJD and Alzheimer's).
In 1997, Purdey - with the financial help of well-wishers - commissioned trials at the Department of Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatrists where the causes of diseases such as CJD and Alzheimer's are investigated. The results of these trials, showing that phosmet increased susceptibility to BSE, were later presented to the SEAC. And then in April 1998, on the eve of Purdey's day-long hearing at the BSE Inquiry, the Government announced they would aid research into his BSE theory.
It seemed like success at last and Purdey was delighted - but he says, "they have failed to grant funding to any proposals to date, including my own, and so the research still hasn't happened. The upshot of this is that the public has stopped funding my research because they think the Government is now paying for it - and I have been left high and dry."
Purdey has written umpteen letters to ask why, and finds the escalating indignation of the official replies hilarious. "When I started putting cc HRH Prince of Wales on my letters," he says, "their tone changed entirely. Grovelling officials!" He claims that the Prince of Wales - through contact with Ted Hughes - is a quiet supporter, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh, who has allegedly been asking MAFF since 1991 why it has approved the use of OPs which have been linked to Gulf War syndrome and to BSE.
The MP Tom King is a more public supporter. "Purdey is a very remarkable man," says King, "an individual farmer who didn't believe the official statements on BSE and who had painstakingly pursued a theory which is a classic piece of scientific investigation and intelligent observation of his own cattle. My wife is a farmer and I have dipped sheep with OPs: they passed out and we thought they were dead. These compounds were launched without adequate warnings.
"I have tried to ensure that Purdey got a fair hearing, and he has had a number of meetings with officials (because of) the strong backup I gave him. I went and supported him at the Phillips Inquiry, where his conduct under cross-examination was impressive. He is absolutely committed. I'm a strong supporter and admirer.
"At certain critical moments the scientific establishment has tried to freeze him out. When he first started, (there) was a great reluctance to entertain any suggestion that there might be an alternative explanation for BSE. There were so many issues - including accountability, money and public funds."
Before he became Environment Minister, the MP Michael Meacher also called for Purdey's theories to be checked out, as has the Conservative MP and former chairman of the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee, Sir Richard Body.
"He may not have a doctorate, but he's no fool," states Sir Richard, himself the author of four books on farming, "and he has been fighting a very lonely battle. The Ministry of Agriculture has behaved disgracefully because he challenged their authority. Some say he is obsessional, but when you're fighting a scientific establishment, you have to be. A lesser man than he would have given up years ago."
Lately, Purdey's research has taken him on a spree of soil sampling to Colorado, where in certain areas deer have succumbed to "deer BSE", and to Iceland, where some sheep have scrapie. Purdey's soil sample results showed that in both countries the areas which had high scrapie and BSE also had relatively high levels of naturally-occurring manganese in the environment. Could this be the missing link: the mineral implicated in spongiform brain diseases? He searched the literature on manganese and found articles dating back decades about manganese miners dying of a brain disease known as manganese madness. It had virtually identical symptoms to spongiform disease. It also had the bizarre symptom of "unmotivated smiling".
Then he tracked down Gajdusek's research from another area high in manganese from its volcanoes, New Guinea. It described a brain disease known as kuru, "the laughing death", which occurred in women and children of cannibal tribes who ate the brains of the dead. One symptom is a bizarre grin and contorted limbs - as found in the new variant CJD.
But what is the link with Britain and BSE? "In the Eighties," says Purdey, "cows here were fed poultry manure which was put into their concentrated feed. That manure was high in manganese, fed to hens to boost modern egg production."
Manganese is, he believes, the missing link. "OPs accelerate the absorption of manganese in the brain, as well as converting the mineral into its lethal "3plus" form. The combination of OPs and manganese became the dual trigger for BSE - in which manganese 3plus binds to the prion protein so that it becomes misfolded. This generates free radicals which in turn set off a chain reaction - rather like 'cluster bombs' which destroy the brain."
And on the day we meet, Purdey is buoyant because a new test carried out by the biochemist Dr David Brown at Cambridge University has added credence to his theory. "This test shows that the prion protein is changed into its abnormal spongiform shape by the addition of manganese," says Purdey.
"There is evidence now that manganese leads to misfolding of the prion protein (in the brain)," confirms Dr Brown, "and perhaps there is some link between this and the prion diseases (scrapie, nv CJD and BSE). My evidence fits in with Mark Purdey's theory. There must be environmental factors."
In the meantime, life goes on as usual at the farm. There are children to feed, a new baby, the milking. Purdey may soon be acclaimed as - as Ted Hughes put it - a "heroic" saviour. It's more likely, believes Margaret, that if his theory is proved right someone else will claim the credit.
Whatever happens, Purdey will carry on rocking boats. "Far more important than BSE," he says, "is GM foods, which could be a global catastrophe. Our Government scientists are too often on the payroll of the chemical industry. It makes me very angry. How come one day they are set up as experts on pesticides toxicology and the next day they are experts on GM foods? It's so incestuous!" As I leave his Exmoor farmhouse, Purdey tells me what happened to his campaigning grandfather. Sadly, his own brother, apparently more concerned about the family name than about the truth, had him committed to an asylum. "Tragically," says Purdey, "he died there. But he was right."
Let history not repeat itself.