Organic Food – The Counter-Attack!
By Guy Dauncey
In Britain, a third of all parents are feeding their babies organic food. In Germany, the new Agriculture Minister Renate Künast wants to expand organic farming to cover 20% of all Germany’s farmland by 2010. In Italy, sales of organic food are growing at an annual rate of 85% or more. In Europe, 72% of people favour organic methods of production. (June 2002 Eurobarometer poll). And in Argentina, the number of organic growers has jumped from 220 in 1995 to 1500 today.
Something is happening, and consumers are catching on. The evidence is piling up that that organic food is better for you (see page **), and global sales are growing by 20% a year. Is it not predictable, sooner or later, someone would try to sabotage things?
Blow # 1: The first assault came from Dennis Avery, author of a book with the wonderful title "Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic", who is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues. In 1998, Avery published an article in the Institute’s newsletter stating that "People who eat organic food are eight times as likely to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E.coli bacteria (0157:H7)." (Oh my god! That sounds bad.) This was picked up and repeated by a number of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and ABC News.
Avery says that his information came from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is a very trustworthy source. The reason why organic food carries the killer bacteria, he says, is that organic farming uses animal manure as a major source of fertilizer. (Oh dear. Better stop eating organic food, eh?)
In fact, the CDC has never done any study on organic food, and never said any such thing. When questioned about their denial, Avery accused them of doing a cover-up due to pressure from environmentalists. (Yea, right). In reality, nearly all cases of E.coli 0157 poisoning are associated with eating contaminated meat, where the bug spreads in the slaughter houses and meat processing plants.
So what is the Hudson Institute (www.cgfi.org), that sponsors such a generous approach to the truth? It is a big US think tank, with funders that include the biotech and industrial farming giants Ciba Geigy (now Novartis), Cargill, Dow Elanco, DuPont and Monsanto, and the Ag-Chem Equipment Company. As the demand for organic food begins to take off, they’re obviously getting scared, so they have turned to the attack, using junk science.
Blow #2: In February 2000, ABC News’ correspondent John Stossel hosted a report on 20/20 which claimed that organic food might be more dangerous than conventional food. (Quick – get that organic lettuce away from the children!). He repeated Dennis Avery’s story, and then said that ABC News’ own studies showed that conventional food carried no pesticide residues – making it clear that organic food might be more dangerous than conventional food. (Better change the grocery order, dear!). When the Environmental Working Group, which supports organic production, dug into the story, they found that the research team commissioned by ABC had never been asked to test for pesticide residues – only for pathogens, of which they found none. The whole thing was made up. Stossel was eventually forced to make an on-air apology. (See the UK-based Norfolk Genetic Information Network, http://ngin.tripod.com).
Blow #3: "If all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests." That’s a quote from Dr Norman Borlaug, "Father of the Green Revolution". (That’s terrible - pass another hamburger, quick!). It’s a useful myth, since it tells us that we’d better not stray from conventional, high tech, GM food. In reality, the evidence is strong that organic food can equal the yields of conventional food, and often surpass it. (See page **.)
At a deeper level, this is a struggle between two belief systems. One belief says that science and high technology will produce the answers to many of the world’s woes, and we should trust them to get on with it. This is the dominant creed.
The other doubts that our world is like a big machine, which can be improved by tinkering with it. It says that science is fine, but that it must include the study of nature and ecology, show respect for native, traditional knowledge, and if in doubt, exercise the precautionary principle. I know where I stand.
Guy Dauncey is author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change" (New Society Publishers, 2001), which won a Nautilus Award at the May 2002 New York Book Expo. He lives in Victoria.
First published in Common Ground Magazine, August 2002