The news is finally out.
After months of rumors about pending new government announcements, studies released today by the EU and the US FDA expose the myths and pseudo-science of the organic farming movement. And consumers are angry.
Protests outside UK’s Iceland stores continued over the weekend and in the USA consumer advocates are preparing tort cases against those retailing giants who have touted the benefits of their ‘organic’ produce.
After years of paying over the top for the perceived benefits of organic products, it turns out that our health is threatened not by chemicals and GM crops but by the eco-fundamentalists and their crusade against large-scale commercial agriculture.
(Read the full story in the detailed Analysis/Synthesis section – for subscribers only)
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
The term “organic farming” commands such wide public support that to question its merits is to question the virtues of motherhood. We take it for granted that organic food tastes better and is more nutritious and healthier. Environmentalists are convinced that organic farming is better for the environment.
Dick Taverne, in his book ‘The March of Unreason’ writes: “The British Government subsidises farmers to convert to organic farming, and in 2002 an official Commission on Farming and Food recommended that even more money should be spent to ensure that organic farming plays a larger role in agriculture. Of course, by definition, all food is organic and the term ‘organic farming’ is meaningless, but to the ordinary public, the label “organic” has a reassuring ring. Eating ‘organic’ food is like drinking ‘real’ ale, not ersatz, imported, imitation stuff. It sounds safe because it is guaranteed to be GM-free and is assumed to be untainted by nasty, possibly carcinogenic pesticides. Supermarkets promote it, which they would not do unless there were a popular demand for it; it is also clearly to their advantage that the public are prepared to pay premium prices for it”.
However, the search for evidence has proved elusive. The British Food Standards Agency (FSA) has persistently refused to uphold claims for the superiority of organic food. In January 2004 the FSA stated: “On the basis of current evidence, the Agency’s assessment is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally.” They found no convincing evidence to support the claims that organic food tastes better, is healthier, and is better for the environment, and forced many suppliers to withdraw such leaflets and claims.
Says Taverne: “The philosophical reasons for supporting organic farming are part of the ‘back-to-nature’ syndrome. Like alternative medicine, they are based on the belief that ‘nature knows best’ and that what is natural must be good. It is nostalgia for a mythical golden age of small-scale and simple farming and pure and wholesome farm produce. Such a paradise never existed. In the days before intensive farming, when farmers did not use pesticides or artificial fertilisers, food supplies were constantly endangered through climatic and environmental fluctuations and crops were frequently lost to pests and diseases. Agriculture was associated with grinding poverty, intensive labour, and low yield.
“In the last 50 years, since synthetic chemicals came to be widely used, healthier and safer food, together with better health provision, has improved our physical well-being and increased longevity, and modern agriculture deserves much of the credit.
“Since the main reason given for buying organic food is to avoid pesticide residues, the question has to be asked: Is organic food safer? There is evidence that low concentrations of many toxic chemicals may actually have a beneficial effect. Examples are, of course, familiar. A small dose of aspirin mitigates a headache and can help prevent heart attacks, but a larger dose can kill. It is not generally realised that this dose-related effect is also known to apply to many supposedly toxic chemicals, including arsenic, dioxins, some pesticides and fungicides. In fact, a little bit of poison or pollution can do you good, and serves to reduce the incidence of cancer. DDT is another good example of a chemical that saved millions of lives by eliminating malarial mosquitoes yet was banned after environmentalists – including Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring – accused it of causing cancers. Yet not a single study shows that exposure to DDT damages the health of human beings. In Sri Lanka alone, the reported number of malaria cases rose from just 17 in 1963 to more than a million in 1968 after DDT was banned.
“Possibly the most telling indictment of organic farming is its inefficiency, its high cost and its wasteful use of land. The facts cannot be seriously disputed: yields of most crops from organic farms are about 20-50 per cent lower than from conventional farming. That is why organic food costs more.
“Efficiency matters. It affects the health of low-income families. Even in a prosperous society like Britain we should not ignore the importance of cheaper ways of producing food, provided they are not based on intolerable breeding conditions for animals. Prosperous middle-class consumers may not care about price, but the poorer you are, the more the price of food matters. Their diet will suffer and they will lose the protection against cancer that a healthy diet provides. More will die younger.
“Organic farming may satisfy the whim of the rich European or American consumer; its extension to the developing world would be a disaster”
As the Indian biotechnologist, C S Prakash, has observed: “The only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition.”
What will be the implication if they are right?