Reader beware: understanding the corporate attack on organic farming

Sound Consumer | March 2005

by Will Fantle

(March 2005) — As organic food consumption has grown 15 to 20 percent annually for the past decade, a disturbing trend has appeared: mainstream media stories smearing the health and safety record of organic food and disparaging organic farming practices.

A January New York Times article by Jane Brody describes “nearly every food we eat” as genetically modified — including organics. Traditional plant and animal breeding techniques differ little from microscopic gene-splicing, she writes, and alarmist warnings about potential threats from these so-called Frankenfoods are “groundless.”

Mark Kastel (left) and Will Fantle (right)
Founders Mark Kastel (left) and Will Fantle (right) of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community.

A similar piece in last December’s influential financial weekly Barrons raved about the environmental benefits of genetically modified crops, while dutifully noting the potential windfall for companies such as Monsanto that are heavily vested in genetic engineering. And last fall, a widely circulated Los Angeles Times story prominently featured critics of organic food, who disputed its health and safety and charged that some organic foods may even pose greater risks than non-organic foods for unwitting consumers.

Behind the scenes, helping to push the anti-organics agenda is a small, well-funded group of conservative think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. These organizations and their representatives have successfully shoveled their misleading studies and extreme viewpoints through the mainstream media’s inbox and into public broadcast.

In the L.A. Times “Behind the Organic Label” story, the Hudson Institute’s Alex Avery scored with his claim that organic crops are “five times likelier to show fecal (manure) contamination” than non-organic crops, hence causing more food-borne disease. The smear went unchallenged and was inserted by the reporter into the story’s body as common wisdom and without any attribution. But it’s total bunk. Avery twisted the results of a University of Minnesota organic farming study to make this allegation and has been peddling chemical industry propaganda to the media as fact for months.

The Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel investigated Avery’s charge. Kastel interviewed Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez (the lead researcher of the University of Minnesota study), who stated that the report actually concluded there was “no statistically different” risk in the pathogenic contamination of certified organic and non-organic produce. Dr. Diez-Gonzalez also detailed a very heated discussion he had with Avery, who found the results upsetting. According to Diez-Gonzalez, Avery stated the scientist’s interpretations were “not correct.”

The Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues also is working to prevent dairies from labeling their products “no added growth hormones” or produced with “no antibiotics” or “no pesticides.” Its “Milk is Milk” campaign encourages consumers to complain about labels containing such information. Most organic consumers know that organic dairy foods are produced by animals not pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. The “Milk is Milk” campaign, however, is designed to deprive other consumers of their right to know this important product information.

Multinational agribusiness corporations are investing millions in a sophisticated PR campaign to promote genetic engineering and to discredit organic food.

The Hudson Institute’s Web site contains other highly charged materials, such as “In Praise of Pesticides” and “Europe Surrenders on Biotech Food Safety.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn where the Hudson Institute gets it funding. Monsanto (the producer of rBGH), Dow, DuPont, Ciba-Geigy, ConAgra and the National Agricultural Chemical Association are among the group’s important sources of funding.

Steve Sprinkel, a longtime organic grower and a writer for Acres, USA (which defines itself as “the voice for eco-agriculture”) is impressed by the authoritative, attractive look of the materials pumped out by the organizations seeking to discredit organics. “They have top-flight designers working for them,” he says.

Sprinkel adds that organizations like Hudson and the Heritage Institute “have created in the minds of the mainstream media an image that is reputable and credible.” He calls the groups “a firewall” between their funders and the media that fails to do a good job of investigating.

The same L.A. Times story mentions Rutgers University scientist Dr. Joseph Rosen’s charge that there’s “not sufficient science” supporting risks attributed to pesticide residues found on fruits and vegetables. Rosen helped organize a one-sided symposium before the American Chemical Society asking: “Is organic food healthier than non-organic food?”

Rosen specifically singled out for criticism information distributed by the reputable public-interest watchdog Consumer’s Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports). Unreported by the L.A. Times was the response of Consumer’s Union, whose representative says other respected scientists approved their study and information in a customary peer review.

Bob Scowkroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, acknowledges the need for more studies. “We need,” he says, “a better understanding of organics.” But Scowcroft states that critics of organics “have gotten away with framing the question with frighteningly bad data.” And he observes that those heaping praise on genetically modified foods aren’t confronting serious issues such as the loss of topsoil and controlling polluted run-off from farms, both of which are key concerns addressed in a systemic fashion by organic agriculture.

Scowcroft expresses frustration at the financial support going to the anti-organic groups. “Their pockets are deeper than ours by an order of magnitude,” he says. Scowcroft also notes that their representatives exert undue political influence in Washington, D.C.

Logo for Cornucopia Institute

It’s a point picked up on by The Cornucopia Institute’s Kastel. “Multinational agribusiness corporations are investing millions in a sophisticated PR campaign to promote genetic engineering and to discredit organic food,” he says.

Kastel mentions that Europe’s approach to organic agriculture is quite different. “Their governments have made the pragmatic decision to invest in helping farmers transition to organic production because they know it is the most cost-effective way to control water and air pollution and soil degradation, as well as addressing occupational and consumer exposure to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.”

Organic consumers typically are careful and discriminating in their purchases. They usually understand the phrase, “buyer beware.” As more stories creep into the media condemning their food choices, perhaps they should consider “reader beware.”

Will Fantle is research director for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. The group’s Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate watchdog monitoring the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces. For more info, visit www.cornucopia.org.

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