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The war against organics

Sound Consumer | September 2001

In honor of September as Organic Harvest Month, we respond to The war against organics.

See also in this section:
Feeling good about organics

If you follow the national news, you may have noticed an increase in the number of attacks against organic foods lately. ABC's "20/20" program twice has featured a segment with the outlandish idea that buying organic food could kill you. Op-ed pieces citing the alleged dangers of organic foods also have begun appearing in newspapers across the country.

Chalk it up to a huge case of jealousy — and greed. Over the past decade, sales of organic food have been increasing by an extraordinary 20 percent per year — the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry. Organic sales totaled $7.7 billion last year. In a national poll conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. for Walnut Acres, a Virginia organic manufacturer, 50 percent of those surveyed said they expect to make organic foods a bigger part of their diet within the next five years.

Americans are choosing organics in record numbers because of their concerns about the heavy use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and even toxic sewage sludge in conventional American agriculture. Organic food shoppers also believe organic agriculture is better for the environment.

Organic food is becoming big business and organic sales are taking customers away from the manufacturers of conventional, non-organic foods. Given the potential impact on their bottom line, it's not surprising that conventional food manufacturers are squawking. No doubt, we'll hear more of these attacks in coming years as these companies try to hold on to their customers. It's as though manufacturers of traditional, pesticide-laden foods have declared war on organics.

"Buying organic could kill you"
ABC News' "20/20" program created a storm of controversy last year when it twice ran a report titled "The Food You Eat", which speculated that "buying organic could kill you." In the report, pro-industry reporter John Stossel was harshly critical of organic foods. He argued that organic produce may be more dangerous than conventional produce, claiming ABC tests showed increased levels of E.coli bacteria in organic sprouts and lettuce.

Stossel also told viewers that studies conducted for ABC found no traces of pesticide residue in either conventional or organic produce. The scientists who conducted the study, however — Michael Doyle and Lester Crawford — told the New York Times that they in fact did not test any produce for pesticides for ABC. Stossel later was forced to issue an on-air apology for falsifying evidence in his report.

In the "20/20" report, Stossel also neglected to mention that Doyle and Crawford did in fact perform such tests on chicken and found pesticide residues in conventional poultry, but not organic poultry.

Ironically, in another pro-industry "20/20" report, "Junk Science: What You Know that May Not Be So", Stossel made the following remarks: "Science is highly politicized. Beware of science that feeds political agendas." Some might say that in the "20/20" organic story, Stossel manipulated science for his anti-environmental agenda. This is a growing trend, as public relations specialists from think tanks funded by industry pose as impartial scientists.

Scientific opinion: bought and paid for by industry
Stossel's main source for the anti-organic program was Dennis Avery, identified by Stossel as a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a leading critic of organic produce. Stossel did not reveal that Avery is employed by the Hudson Institute, an organization that draws funds from chemical and genetic engineering companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, Dow, Cargill, and Proctor & Gamble, nor that Avery's latest book is titled "Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic." Avery also is an adviser to the American Counsel on Science and Health (ACSH), an industry-funded organization that for decades has promoted everything from Ritalin and junk food for kids to genetically engineered foods.

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Avery claims pesticides do not cause cancer or other illnesses, but that organic food can be deadly: "People who eat organic and natural foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a new strain of E.coli bacteria."

That's because, he says, organic food is grown in animal manure. He cites purported statistics from Center for Disease Control (CDC) epidemiologist Paul Mead to support his case. Mead has told Avery that the CDC data does not support his anti-organic contentions. Moreover, Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the CDC's food-borne disease branch, says Avery's claims are "absolutely not true." CDC does not even collect such data. In fact, conventional food is more likely to be grown in soil dressed with non-composted animal manure. Organic standards require that animal manure used for fertilizer be composted.

Many of us who shop for natural foods are familiar with attacks against organic or plant-based food from industry, such as when the meat industry denounced Berkeley, California in 1999 for serving organic food in its schools. Then, Meat Industry Insight, a trade magazine, wrote: "Berkeley, California [is a] long-time hippie haven and world capital for political correctness. Their politics have long been 'crunchy granola' and now their school lunches will be too."

What's new in the past several years is the rise of pseudo-scientific organizations that are actually front-groups for industry. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, of the Center for Media and Democracy, make a study of this trend in their book, "Trust Us, We're Experts!" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001).

"Public relations firms and corporations have seized upon a slick new way of getting you to buy what they have to sell: to let you hear it from a neutral 'third party,' like a professor or a pediatrician or a soccer mom or a watchdog group," Rampton and Stauber write. "The problem is, these third parties are usually anything but neutral. They have been handpicked, cultivated, and meticulously packaged to make you believe what they have to say — preferably in an 'objective' format like a news show or a letter to the editor. And in some cases, they have been paid handsomely for their 'opinions.'"

Industry leaders seem to be aware that many consumers are turning off to their techniques of discrediting organic farmers and environmental organizations. Now, in a preemptive strike, they're even attacking organic groups for (as they put it) "a disturbing history of 'black marketing,' the apparent goal being to create false and misleading fears about conventional foods in order to increase organic sales."

The quote comes from Avery's son, Alex, who also works for the Hudson Institute. He recently co-authored (with Graydon Forrer, former director of consumer affairs at the USDA) a study which claims that the growing world opposition to genetically engineered (GE) foods is being fostered by the organic industry. Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry alone has earmarked $50 million a year for five years ($250 million total) for an advertising war chest aimed at turning public opinion toward accepting GE foods.

Rampton and Stauber recommend constant vigilance and education to poke through the misinformation campaigns waged by these think tanks.

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"In understanding the hold that experts have on our lives, we should consider the role that we ourselves play as consumers of information," they write. "Most propaganda is designed to influence people who are not very active or informed about the topic at hand. There is a reason for this strategy. Propagandists know that active, informed people are likely already to hold strong opinions that cannot be easily swayed. The people who are most easily manipulated are those who have not studied a subject much and are therefore susceptible to any argument that sounds plausible."

Cameron Woodworth is communications director for The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (www.thecampaign.org) and author of "Green Cuisine: A Guide to Vegetarian Dining around Seattle and Puget Sound."

Feeling good about organic
The next time you hear an attack on organic foods, consider the source. And keep in mind these principles, which should make you feel proud to buy organic:

  • Organic agriculture helps the environment in several ways.
    Organic growers follow time-honored traditions such as crop rotation, composting, and mulching, which help protect topsoil. By virtually eliminating reliance on pesticides, organic farmers help protect our waterways from chemical pollution. Similarly, organic animal husbandry excludes use of dangerous antibiotics and growth hormones in meat and dairy production. Such substances have been identified as major contributors to water pollution and are linked to an array of medical concerns.
  • Organic food is better for our health.
    Not only do organic foods greatly limit the amount of pesticides we put in our bodies, there's some evidence they might be more nutritious. In a 1993 study reported in the "Journal of Applied Nutrition, "researchers compared the nutritional quality of organic foods compared to conventional supermarket foods. They found that organic foods, on average, contained 63 percent more calcium, 78 percent more chromium, 73 percent more iodine, 59 percent more iron, 138 percent more magnesium, 125 percent more potassium and 60 percent more zinc than their non-organic counterparts. What's more, organic foods reportedly contained a whopping 390 percent more of the critical cancer-fighting element, selenium.
  • Organic foods nourish our bodies and please our palates. Organic foods, especially when locally grown, often taste much better than conventional produce. That's why so many top chefs use organic ingredients whenever possible.

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