Pests and Pesticides: The organic foodies attack S
September 12, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
National Review September 11, 2000
Last February, John Stossel gave us a powerful expose of the organic-food myth on ABC's 20/20. Now the organic industry (and the environmental movement that sponsors it) are trying to punish Stossel, warn other journalists away, and erase the 20/20 tapes forever.
Newspapers all over the country recently published an organic-industry charge that Stossel had deceived the American public in his broadcast. The organic fans say Stossel should be fired. Katherine DiMatteo of the Organic Trade Association says her group is considering a class-action lawsuit because of Stossel's "damage to the organic industry." (Amusingly, the group's press releases were distributed by Fenton Communications, which-just a few years ago-gave us the Alar hoax that had mothers snatching healthful
apples out of their children's lunchboxes.)
What was Stossel's awful mistake? He said ABC had tested organic and mainstream vegetables, and found no pesticide residues on either kind-when in fact, ABC hadn't tested any vegetables for pesticides. But then, his program wasn't about pesticides, it was about bacterial contamination.
Stossel apologized to his viewers on the August 11 20/20 broadcast for the error in what was essentially a footnote of the segment. But he also reiterated his central point: ABC News tested mainstream and organic foods for bacteria. They wanted to see if organic consumers were at greater health risk because organic farmers typically use pathogen-laden animal manure to fertilize their food crops. (Mainstream farmers rarely use manure on food crops; mostly they use chemical nitrogen taken from the air.)
The answer to that question was a loud yes: ABC News found the levels of dangerous bacteria on the organic spring greens and sprouts more than ten times higher than in their mainstream counterparts. Stossel told his viewers the exact truth about finding much more E. coli bacterial contamination on the organic vegetables. The organic faction counters that ordinary E. coli is only a little dangerous, and that people shouldn't worry unless they find the more virulent O157 strain-which can kill healthy people and leave even its survivors with permanent damage to internal organs such as kidneys and
livers. But while it's true that ordinary E. coli kills only the weak, millions of other people get severe stomach pains from it, and a few hundred thousand per year must visit the hospital. Dr. Lester Crawford, former head of food-safety inspection for the Food and Drug Administration, said on the 20/20 broadcast that health authorities consider any E. coli in food a health hazard and an indication of filth and contamination.
As for "damage to the organic industry," the most damaging statements were made by its own spokeswoman. When Stossel asked DiMatteo if organic food was more nutritious than regular food, she said, "It's as nutritious as any other product." (She said it twice.)
That's a radical scaledown, coming from an industry that has claimed for decades that its products are vastly more nutritious, more "natural," and more vigorously healthful. They've trashed mainstream farmers unceasingly, claiming they produce pallid food, bereft of the rich nutrition our forefathers enjoyed. We have to assume DiMatteo finally told the truth on 20/20 because Crawford was on the program, and would have exposed the usual organic lies about extra nutrients. He knows that many comparative tests of organic and regular food have been done over the decades, and have found no consistent differences. Tufts University even held a conference in 1997 comparing the nutritive quality of organic and mainstream crops from 19 countries. It turned out that the varieties of carrots and spinach the growers planted made a bigger difference than the growing system.
The British organic industry was asked the same nutrition question last year, at an official government hearing. They claimed they hadn't had time or funding to do the complex tests. But they've been making their claims of superior nutrition for more than 50 years. Their poster boy is Prince Charles, who not only has a fortune estimated at $475 million, but is the patron of the Royal Agricultural College. Surely, the Prince could have gotten some testing done?
Stossel also asked DiMatteo if organic food was safer. Again, she felt forced to tell the truth. "Organic agriculture," she admitted, "is not particularly a food-safety claim." In fact, the organic label means only that the farmer used organic fertilizer instead of chemical fertilizer, and used "natural" pesticides such as copper sulfate (broadly toxic) and sulfur (a soil contaminant). DiMatteo was forced to admit the truth on national
television. Now she's demanding that ABC never show the program again. No wonder.
Even Stossel's mistake-saying "our tests surprisingly found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples or the organic"-was not an error about the underlying scientific truth, merely an error of attribution. He would have been correct if he had simply referred to published government data. The FDA finds no pesticide residues on about 70 percent of the unwashed vegetables it tests-and it mostly tests where it expects to find pesticides.
The FDA's market-basket survey annually finds we're being exposed to less than 1 percent of the "allowable" amount of pesticide residue (which has 1,000-fold safety factors built in).
Meanwhile, Dr. Bruce Ames, to whom President Clinton gave the National Science Medal just last year, says 99.9 percent of the pesticides we ingest are natural; thousands of these natural pesticides are produced in the plants to fend off pests. So much for organic food being pesticide-free.
Despite the fact that these are carcinogens, our non-smokers' cancer risks have been declining significantly throughout the pesticide era. (Stomach cancer, for example, is down by three-fourths.) The dose makes the poison, and we ingest only tiny doses of pesticides, be they natural or synthetic.
Why, then, the uproar over Stossel's mistake? It's being driven by the same politically correct agenda that has led Marian Burros, the food editor of the New York Times, to write more than 100 columns and articles over the last two years praising organic food. (That's not news, but a campaign.)
Organic food is now the icon on which the environmental movement is based. Without the lie that organic farming gives us more nutritious foods, the average consumer might have more respect for the abundance provided by high-yield farming. Without the lie that organic food is safer for people, parents might worry about their children's food being fertilized with pathogen-laden animal manure. Without the lie that pesticides endanger
wildlife, city folks might realize that without high-yield farming, we would already have plowed down every square mile of forest on the planet to feed ourselves.
The organic and environmental movements can't let the facts get out. They need to have Stossel punished so harshly that no other reporter will dare expose the organic myth.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.