The Risk-Monger

Many of my friends who choose to eat organic or “live naturally”, never hesitate to share this information with me. They find ways to work into banal conversations phrases like: “We grow our own beans since only then can we be sure they are pesticide free”, or “Organic apples taste so much better” or “Did you hear about the report that organic milk has more vitamins?”, or my favourite (with just the right condescending tone): “Naturally grown foods are helping in our fight against global warming”.

I never bother to get into the debates with them about the scientific fallacies behind their health claims – they are not at all interested in facts or evidence; they are interested in feeling good about themselves. And what makes them feel good is the moral rectitude of their living naturally (synthetic or human-induced = evil). They reinforce their culinary sacrifices with critiques against big business, the food industry and journalistic generalisations of the societal consequences of such globalised food poison. That they have no experience in the food industry or evidence to back up their certitude is, simply put, cute, and I let them go as basically harmless individuals searching for personal satisfaction.

So long as it is a personal lifestyle choice, there is nothing any of us should do to intervene or pass judgement (they should be treated with the same respect as we must give to smokers). But when that cute, morally insecure yet factually errant individual is the European Commission, DG Sanco, urging all of us to do the same, then I think we have a right to examine these morally righteous pontifications.

Sanco has become increasingly aggressive in its attacks against pesticides and its desire for an organic Europe. This was touted in its video for the Open Health Forum 2010 and is evident in its decision to name a non-scientist (OK, statistician), NGO activist to conduct the toxicological review on pesticides and endocrine disruptors. Perhaps Sanco can be allowed to dream of a chemically pure world (which they can consider as a “healthy lifestyle”) but are there any moral residues from this non-science based strategy?

The EU is no longer producing enough food to feed its own people. Gone are the days of mountains of butter and lakes of milk – Italians are now importing soybeans to feed their pigs in Parma, non-tropical vegetables are flown in from Kenya and we are feeding our cats pet food from China. This is not due to globalisation (without choice, the soybeans are GM) but from the failure of EU agriculture to adopt modern technologies to improve output and competitiveness. The irresponsibility of depending on others to feed you is one thing; the sanctimonious decrees from Sanco on how others must feed you are not only hypocritical, they are immoral.

Sanco is telling developing countries, mainly in Africa, that if you want to feed us, you have to adopt our failed agricultural policies and historically twisted food criteria. The timing could not be worse as we are facing increasing food prices, dwindling food stocks and rising demand. The situation is becoming worse than in 2008 where we saw food riots and political instability (while there were many other factors, the crisis in Tunisia was worsened by food inflation stresses). A recent foresight study for the UK Government Office for Science concludes that food production will no longer be able to keep up with demand and we can expect food crises to intensify. Couple this with the potentially disastrous land grab going on from Africa to Australia, and Sanco’s food security strategy looks tragic.

A morally responsible leadership would see the looming food security crises and react to help others (put in a moral narrative ecologists like to use: to save the world!). That would imply the EU ramping up its food production through increased use of agricultural technologies (including GMOs and crop protection). Instead, Sanco is proposing that we move back to the Middle Ages – more organic and, to compensate, less meat consumption. I don’t see the moral righteousness in sowing seeds of famine in other countries. A human cull should not be the only alternative solution to the growing food crisis.

So Sanco wants us to go organic – can we? Although it varies from region to region and on the crops grown, it is estimated that organic farming yields are 40% lower than production through modern technologies (this figure is contested by doomsayers who claim that intensive farming has saturated our soil and exhausted our planet although data seems to be lacking). In any case, that does not affect EU agriculture production much since, according to Eurostat, only 4% of our agriculture is organic – there is no money in labour-intensive farming without safety mechanisms. So where does all of our organic bounty come from?

Poor agrarian parts of Africa farm organically by default, and we are relying more and more on organically grown vegetables being flown in (!!!) from under-developed regions in Kenya or Uganda. Here subsistence farmers have the benefit of their children to pull out weeds and pinch off pest-ridden leaves (rather than going to school). I would not dare to dent my friends’ moral pride about their organic lifestyle by informing them of the increase of child labour violations brought about by their righteousness, but Sanco should know better. Actually, EU officials in Kampala recently warned Ugandans against spraying the walls of their homes with DDT to prevent the spread of malaria because the risk that some pesticide residue might land on beans in a nearby garden could lead to an EU export ban on all Ugandan agriculture. Uganda decided to stop the practice, even though almost 300 people, mostly children, die every day from malaria in Uganda. Sinister!

Irresponsible food security management, encouraging famines, malaria and food price inflation while promoting child labour – not very righteous – but the health benefits of promoting organic foods must give Sanco some moral solace. Protecting European health is Sanco’s remit and reducing pesticides means reducing cancers, right? Wrong – this is a fallacy that has been selectively ignored by the economically well-off eco-class since Bruce Ames highlighted the madness. Decades ago, Ames noted that there are more natural carcinogens in a single cup of coffee than in the pesticide residues on a full year’s consumption of fruit and vegetables. The best way to prevent cancers is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption (five servings a day) but the increased prices from our organic preponderance is leading to a lower consumption. Ames’ data on the variation of cancer rates across different economic classes is stunning, and I am stunned that for decades, this information has been ignored for the purpose of moral self-satisfaction and an eco-religious attack on chemicals and agricultural technology.

So the moral residue of “organic living” leaves a bad taste in my mouth (as it does for many suffering from food price rises across the developing world). Sanco is a moral train wreck, and in such cases we can only appeal to common sense. So I would like to appeal to Sanco DG, Paula Testori-Coggi, who was once a scientist. Paula, please do not play up to the eco-righteous who have poisoned your well of evidence against modern agricultural technologies. You are following on from some very big shoes that have left some nasty footprints which you can still correct. Appoint a toxicologist rather than a non-scientist, environmental activist to review the science on pesticides. Stop the vilification of agricultural technologies. I hope you can realise that food safety involves food security, and that you are responsible for the global consequences of your policies.

As for my friends feeling better about themselves through “natural living”? Well, I would never want to blow smoke in their faces.

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  1. It’s just like FAir Trade, you pay the right price for the product you buy, but is it true? Actually you are inflating the price of a product which has a lower price on the market and stimulating the people who produce it to continue an mono agricultural practice which will not benefit them. In reality it’s a scam and a lie to tell these people that they get paid the right price, you are only subsidizing them to continue with a practice which will not aid them in the long term, unless you want to subsidize them eternally.
    I would also point out two very stunning examples of organic: almonds and yeast. Almond trees if not protected and treeted may add strong cianides to the almonds to kill the beast swhich hinder its living; yeast can be very poisenous if not controlled (that’s why there are laboratories worldwide which check the bread), but maybe we can go back to the old times when beer could be lethal and Champagne also (thank God for Veuve Cliqot and her invention).
    The difference? A matter of numbers. Which ones? the number of deaths and the low life expectancy.

  2. Good point Gianni. Green activists have vilified an industry that saves so many lives … why?

  3. “In any case, that does not affect EU agriculture production much since, according to Eurostat, only 4% of our agriculture is organic…” Great stat. Could you provide a link?

  4. Certainly – – note that I use the utilised agricultural area (not total area as fields abandoned or left to fallow don’t amount to much). Likewise, I don’t count percentage of organic farmers per farmers as this is a very labour intensive practice.
    As an update, my blog has been taken over by events in Egypt – just Google “Food price inflation Egypt” and see the situation they had been dealing with over the last two to three months.

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