Organic Food Campaign Goes Sharply Negative
Supporters of organic farming are stepping up false criticisms of conventional foods.
November 16, 2002
by Alex A. Avery
Dennis T. Avery
“Organic food is certainly safer and better than the chemical-doused, genetically contaminated, or irradiated food typically found on grocery store shelves”—Organic Consumers Association press release, October 1, 2002.
“When you eat food that is organically grown, you are taking a pledge to your health, while helping our environment, one bite at a time”—Organic Trade Association, October 1, 2002.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture launches its new official organic food standards, the organic industry is ratcheting up its negative campaigning against conventional foods.
In Britain, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority recently forbade the organic food industry to make any claims that its products are safer or more nutritious. It says the industry has offered no evidence to justify such claims. (The industry told a 1999 House of Lords hearing it hadn’t had time or funding to do the tests!)
But the American government didn’t even ask for such evidence. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, first proposed the U.S. organic standards—but he said the standards and organic certification expressed only a “philosophy of production.” He said “Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional food. All foods in this country must meet the same high standards.”
That was then. Now, in the inimitable Clinton style, Mr. Glickman has joined the board of directors of Green Circle Organics. Green Circle promotes expensive organic beef that it says will ensure a “healthier lifestyle” for its customers.
Indeed, the organic industry is aggressively promoting its products by denigrating the food that has made Americans taller, stronger, and longer-lived than any people in history.
Claim: organic foods have lower pesticide residues. Reality: Nobody knows. Consumers Union reported that 25 percent of organic fruits and vegetables carry detectable residues of synthetic pesticides, and one-third of the 25 percent had residue levels higher than the average of the conventional produce. But all were within allowable federal limits.
The Food and Drug Administration’s widespread annual testing finds that U.S. foods carry less than one percent of the synthetic pesticide residues allowable, which are 1/100th or 1/1000th of the “no-effect” level in animal tests. (The dose makes the poison is the first rule of toxicology, since everything—Including sunlight and water—is toxic in massive doses.)
Neither the government nor industry, however, tests for organic pesticides, which organic farmers tend to use frequently and heavily. Rotenone, for example, is a natural nerve toxin that causes symptoms like those of Parkinson’s disease when injected into rats. Copper sulfate is banned in Europe and toxic to virtually everything from people to earthworms. Pyrethrum is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “likely human carcinogen.” But the “independent certifiers” who will affix the USDA Certified Organic Seal do no testing for pesticide residues of any sort.
Does claiming lower pesticide residues mislead consumers by suggesting that conventional foods have high—even unsafe—levels of pesticide residue?
Claim: organic farming is better for the environment. Cornell University concluded that organic farming is moderately worse for the environment, mostly because the copper and sulfur organic farmers use as fungicides are permanent soil contaminants. The Scottish Crop Research Institute says: “The balance of environmental advantages and disadvantages in the organic system is not clear.”
A high-level Danish government committee concluded in 1999 that organic farming would slash human food production by 47 percent. Most of Denmark’s farmland would be forced into cattle forage—so cattle manure could produce enough organic nitrogen to maintain the fertility of the crop fields. Conventional farmers take their nitrogen from the air, which is 78 percent N, through an industrial process.
Farmers are already using half the land on the planet that isn’t covered by desert or glacier. Would it help the environment if we cleared all of the world’s remaining forests for cattle forage?
Claim: organic farming will save more small farms. Reality: As organic food becomes big business, the farms that supply it also become big businesses. In California, five huge farms supply half of that State’s $400 million per year worth of organic produce. Horizon Dairy, a multinational corporation, supplies 70 percent of America’s organic milk, mostly from two huge feedlot dairies with thousands of cows apiece.
Does America want more negative campaigning for more expensive food and more ill-founded food scares? You’re being forced to decide.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on October 18, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.