September 10, 2015
Recently the Mommy-bloggers paid by the organic industry lobby have been hitting the scientific and corporate communities quite hard with fear campaigns and ‘if you love your children’ guilt trips. Money is pouring in from all angles and even Hollywood stars are reading from their prepared scripts: “Pesticides and GMOs = evil”, and “Organic is what good mothers do”. As many others in the risk management world, I had tolerated their baseless scaremongering as meaningless, eco-religious feel-good pulp from the privileged classes that was better left ignored … until I started to see the mainstream media pick up on them and the marketing managers of many large food and restaurant corporations begin to cowardly bow to every little FoodBabeArmy email campaign. Ignoring them was a mistake as their use of anecdotes in the court of social media seems to have successfully replaced the role of academic evidence.
When I read the rather weak, low-ball piece in Mamavation (“Changing Lives One Mom at a Time”) called “The top 10 reasons to feed your family organic”, I thought: this is nonsense (albeit, made to make people feel good about themselves). It challenged me to come up with 10 reasons not to feed your family organic and within a few minutes I was at 15 reasons and shortly after, up to 25. I grouped them together for a round 20 – this blog introduces the first 10. If it had been so easy for me, why hasn’t the scientific community taken the time to shut these idiots up? They are already screaming at me on social media, so let the debate begin!
- Too expensive and poor quality
There are actually two reasons here and both call for more speculation than research. Why is organic food more expensive? Some argue that corporations like Whole Foods have spotted a vulnerable, rich market niche of aging Baby Boomers afraid of dying and willing to happily dispose of their income to rampant price gougers who help fund the scaremongering. Given the average lower yields from organic farming, the higher risk of crop failure tends to be priced into the market. Others would say “organic” has become a green designer label but this seems to contradict the second element, that organic is of a lower quality.
Many pesticides are used to keep produce looking good and edible and preventing them from rotting on the branches. Food is emotional so for many, quality in appearance is important. Organic shoppers have other emotional stimuli which allow them to look beyond the inferior quality. I, myself, use no pesticides on the apples I grow at home and when I eat them, I core and slice them to get the wormy parts out. I accept that as part of my produce but I would not pay for such poor quality in a store.
- Promotes child labour in Africa
This is an endemic issue in many African subsistence farming communities. See an ILO report that breaks down child labour in Africa according to gender and type of farming. The logic is quite clear. Only 5.4% of European agricultural land use is organic, while the market for organic is growing much faster. African family farms are organic by default (due to the high cost of pesticides and fertilisers as well as pressure from EU import/export regulators to deny African agriculture the benefits of using modern technologies like GMOs). While the focus of child labour in Africa has largely been on cocoa production from West Africa, the inability of Europe to be able to feed itself (due to an absurd reliance on medieval agricultural technologies) has led to an increase of African “organic” agricultural exports. The organi-gurus seem content in denying this correlation when they choose organic, pretending they are not actually supporting those little hands that are manually pulling out the weeds and breaking off pest-ridden leaves rather than going to school.
- Organic uses more land with lower yields, reducing biodiversity
Loss of natural habitat, according to the UN, is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.
Depending on the crop and the region, organic farming tends to yield between 19-60% less than conventional farming (see a list of recent academic studies). I know that many organic lobbying organisations like IFOAM are trying to juice the numbers with their own studies (or the cute claim that more weeds are better for biodiversity), but the point is that organic yields are significantly lower in the best of situations and can be catastrophically lower during years with high pest outbreaks. If we were to convert all farms to organic, we would have to do two things – prepare for less food (the organic lobby is trying to bring in the food waste trick as the answer) or plough under more meadows and forests. With a growing global population, it would be advisable to rely on technology rather than eco-religion. Higher yields on less land, allowing for larger habitat restoration, seems to me a better solution.
- The organic industry uses unethical lobbying tactics
In the Risk-Monger blogs, I have been cataloguing a long litany of organic industry funding of questionable activist science, non-transparent funding of food gurus and scaremongering and the outright witch-hunts that I could only describe as Neo-McCarthyism. If ever there were lobbyists who should be ashamed of their practices and code violations, it would be those acting on behalf of the organic food industry.
- Natural pesticides are toxic to bees
One very common misperception is that organic food contains no pesticides. Of course they do, otherwise organic farmers would grow food only to feed the insects and remediate the soil. In most countries, pesticides are permitted in organic farming if they come from a natural source (and thus not of a synthetic origin). In some cases, these natural substances can be synthetically manufactured although it depends from one country’s standard to another’s. In order to combat pest infestations, fungus and mould, organic pesticides need to be toxic (another point the organic industry lobby has not been very forthcoming on). If it is less toxic, higher volumes will need to be used, as that is, simply put, the nature of farming.
The eco-version of the naturalist fallacy assumes that anything natural is benign and acceptable, but many organic-approved pesticides are far worse for the environment that the well-tested synthetic substances. Pyrethrins, sulphates, nicotine … are all meant to kill, and being of a natural source does not mean they are harmless to the environment. I did a blog earlier this year where I looked at how two organic pesticides (Rotenone and Azadirachtin) were extremely toxic to bees and how the organic lobby was fighting to keep them on the market (see Reason 4).
- Natural pesticides are toxic to humans
There are two ways to explain this. As in Reason 5, pesticides from a natural source are also toxic, in some cases much less tested because we rarely test natural chemicals. Rotenone, a nasty organic farming pesticide, has been clearly linked to Parkinson’s disease. I cannot begin to underline all of the health risks from ingesting pyrethrins.
More interesting perhaps is the level of toxicity of naturally occurring pesticides, toxins and carcinogens that evolution has brought about. Bruce Ames has highlighted the difference of the health risk from exposure to naturally occurring pesticides as opposed to the much more benign exposure we risk from synthetic pesticides. The “You’re a Monsanto shill!” readers have all stopped reading by now, but have a look at Ames’ article and ask yourself what all of the fuss is about.
About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.
I keep reminding myself that Ames was the darling of the environmental movement in the 1970s.
- Research shows no difference, at all, in taste, health or safety
This one gets to the organi-gurus the most, especially as taste is an emotional sentiment and thus based on purely anecdotal perception (in other words, a “scientific fact”). But in blind taste-tests, time and time again, people could not spot the difference. As far as health and safety issues are concerned, look, people will believe what they want to believe, but any studies not done by the organic industry lobby simply cannot ground that in evidence. As religion, it is fine to believe that, but don’t call it science.
- Higher tillage releases more CO2
There is a lot of debate among conventional farmers on whether no-till farming is better (I grew up on a disking farm!), but given that organic farmers do not use herbicides, they need to till the land more frequently to control weeds. This of course consumes more tractor fuel (although we want to believe organic farmers use solar-powered tractors), but also, increased tillage separates microorganisms in the soil, releasing them into the atmosphere (see a list of studies on carbon challenges for organic farming). I am going to get into the emissions from cow manure in another point, but few would argue with me that more CO2 is emitted per production unit from organic tillage than from conventional farming (no matter how scary organic industry lobbyists try to portray the “factory farm”).
- Anti-GMO / anti-pesticide research based on poor activist science
Last year I coined the term “activist science” to describe a research malpractice. A traditional scientist gathers the evidence and draws a conclusion. An activist scientist starts with the conclusion and searches for evidence. In the last year we have seen, and I have exposed, some very ethically challenged activist science accepted into the mainstream, including scandals around the neonicotinoid /bee health research, the IARC glyphosate debacle and of course, the celebrated Seralini study. All of these were funded or influenced by organisations tied to the organic industry (see Reason 4).
- One year of pesticide residues is less toxic than one cup of coffee
Once again, back to Bruce Ames (although he is in his 80s, someone should introduce him to the FoodBabe!). In an interview over 20 years ago, he stated:
A cup of coffee is filled with chemicals. They’ve identified a thousand chemicals in a cup of coffee. But we only found 22 that have been tested in animal cancer tests out of this thousand. And of those, 17 are carcinogens. There are 10 milligrams of known carcinogens in a cup of coffee and that’s more carcinogens than you’re likely to get from pesticide residues for a year!
But I like coffee! The point is that the risk from synthetic pesticides at the maximum residue exposure levels is practically meaningless. It is no surprise that caffeine is ten times more toxic than glyphosate – a lot of other natural chemicals are far more toxic but the organi-gurus are too busy scaring us to make us get this point. One little addendum to make today’s anti-pesticide campaign seem even more ridiculous: Ames made this statement 21 years ago, so considering that synthetic pesticides were much more toxic then than they are today, we might need to radically revise Ames comparison downwards (perhaps to the equivalent of a sip of coffee today).
But who am I kidding? I have provided a series of facts, evidence and studies while the organic activist campaigners have created a series of stories, fear campaigns, celebrity victims and Mommy gurus. I released the graphic earlier today on social media into something that turned into a shit-storm viral campaign against me (the usual “evil industry shill”, “no idea what he is talking about”, “Monsanto is the devil”, and “glyphosate causes autism” – attacks that warmed my heart but terrified my children … who still take people seriously), but I must say, something interesting happened. Among the attacks, most of the pro-organic commenters also acknowledged that I was right on two or three reasons. Couple that with the ten I will release tomorrow, we find ourselves in a logical conundrum.
If you can accept five reasons why you should not feed your family organic, and you still do, then you have some serious issues you need to settle (internally, and with the people paying you to spread the nonsense).
This is an issue for sociologists and psychologists to study.
Tomorrow, I will release the second set of “ten reasons not to feed your family organic”.David Zaruk
Agriculture & Food, BioTech, Climate & Environment, Environment, Food & Consumers, Health & Consumers, Innovation and Growth, Public Affairs, Science & Policymaking, Science & Research, Sustainable Dev.