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March 1999
Organics Under Fire: The U.S. Debate Continues

By Ronnie Cummins



As continuing media reports indicate, large-scale factory-style farming is breaking down at its most vulnerable point—the safety of its products. Instead of acknowledging this and taking a step back to address its core problems—animal overcrowding, filthy slaughterhouses, overuse of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones—American agribusiness is pushing yet another dangerous technology: genetic engineering. At the same time, industrial agriculture is coordinating a slander campaign against its number one threat—organic agriculture.

U.S. consumers are increasingly alarmed about food safety and the damage inflicted by industrial agriculture on public health, the environment, and family farms. So it’s no surprise that consumers are looking for ways to alleviate their fears of contaminated and genetically engineered foods by turning to organic and eco-labeled natural foods. In 1998 over $5 billion worth of organic food was purchased in the U.S., with sales increasing over 25 percent annually. Expanding lines of organic food are showing up in major supermarkets across the country. Perhaps most alarming to the food giants and supermarket chains are the long-range trends revealed in a 1997 poll by the biotech giant Novartis Corporation which found that 54 percent of Americans would prefer “organic” to become the dominant form of agricultural production.

The EPA Pesticide Brochure: Killing Us Softly

Growing consumer concerns about food safety have put the agri-toxins and biotech crowd on the defensive. To counter these concerns, they have organized themselves into a united front, repeating—as Regina Hildwine of the National Food Processors Association told the press during the debate over organic standards in 1998—that, “Organic does not mean safer. Organic does not mean healthier.”

This mantra proved to be such a hit with the USDA that the agency attempted to include industrial farming practices in its first set of proposed national organic standards last year. Fortunately consumers and the organic community roundly rejected these proposals, with a record 280,000 official comments submitted to the USDA telling them to back off. Powerful agribusiness trade associations were the only ones that locally supported the USDA’s first organic proposal. These trade associations represent hundreds of billions of dollars in capital assets, annual sales, and advertising revenue (not to mention millions of dollars in annual political contributions to both major political parties): the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), the National Food Processors Associations (NFPA), the American Farm Bureau, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). When they and other allies (such as the so-called American Crop Improvement Association) lobby together, it’s no exaggeration to say that they always get their way—whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House.

The Heat is On

Pesticide residues in food and drinking water have become a “hot button” issue for millions of parents and consumers. National surveys indicate that 80 percent of consumers worry about pesticide residues—especially on the food they feed to their children. A highly publicized January 1998 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that millions of American children under five years old are at risk every year from pesticide residue in their apples, apple sauce, apple juice, peaches, popcorn, corn chips and other foods.

According to the EWG report: “One out of every four times a child age five or under eats a peach, he or she is exposed to an unsafe level of... insecticides. Thirteen percent of apples, 7.5 percent of pears, and five percent of grapes in the U.S. food supply expose the average young child eating these fruits to unsafe levels... Many of these exposures... exceed the federal safety standard by a factor of 10 or more.” In another study of eight different non-organic baby foods produced by Gerber, Heinz, and Beech-Nut, the EWG found residues of 16 different pesticides—including probable human carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disrupters, and oral toxicity “#1” chemicals (the most toxic designation).

Feeling the heat of consumer concern, the Clinton/Gore administration announced in February 1998 that the EPA would release a brochure for supermarket shoppers that would outline precautions regarding “Pesticides on Food.” Besides advice on peeling, washing, scrubbing, and cooking fruits and vegetables, the EPA brochure would advise consumers concerned about pesticides to consider purchasing organically grown fruits, vegetables, and other foods. This advice to “buy organic” was immediately attacked by agribusiness lobbyists. Dennis Stolte of the American Farm Bureau told the New York Times, “Our biggest concern is that there is an implication that organic foods are somehow safer than conventional foods, which is absolutely false.”

In late-December of 1998 the EPA quietly announced that they had amended their brochure on pesticides and foods, de-emphasizing health risks, avoiding the use of the word “organic,” and mentioning only foods “grown using fewer or no pesticides” as an alternative to foods produced using toxic chemicals. In a December 30 article written by John Cushman of the New York Times, it was revealed that in August 1998 “seven food, farm and pesticide industry groups called on the Clinton Administration to eliminate any references to organic foods and to make other changes.” Cushman then went on to quote a representative of the U.S. Consumers Union, Jeanine Kenney: “Fundamentally, [the] EPA took what could have been a really good brochure and turned it into a propaganda piece for the food industry, which has always denied that there is a problem with pesticides on food.”

But even this watered-down version of the EPA brochure, Cushman points out, was not enough for Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (a powerful industry trade association representing large food processors and supermarket chains): “Even with the change in the language, [the brochure] still promotes organic foods in a brochure that was supposed to be about pesticides,” Grabowski said.

The Hard Kill: “Organic Food is Dangerous”

Increasingly in 1998 and continuing in 1999 these anti-organic special interests have gone on the offensive. Placing numerous articles and opinion pieces in the mass media and influencing others, they have hardened their propaganda message: not only do they claim that organic food is not safer than conventional, but, through mouthpieces such as Dennis Avery of the corporate-funded Hudson Institute, they are saying that organic food is actually dangerous.

Avery is a former government official from the Reagan era and author of the book Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. An economist by trade, Avery has touted the virtues of global warming (he says it’s better for farmers), staunchly defended factory-style hog farms (they’re good for the environment because they save space), and pushed for food irradiation (it preserves the freshness of food while killing bacteria). What makes Avery confounding (and dangerous) is his skill at manipulating statistics and his bold willingness not only to fudge facts, but literally to make them up. He claims that people who eat organic foods are “eight times” more at risk of contracting E-coli. And that “organic foods carry far more of a dangerous bacteria (salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria) that kill thousands of people every year.” (Knight-Ridder newspapers August 3rd, 1998).

Avery likes to claim his statistics come from the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA. But last fall, spokespersons from both agencies told a reporter from the respected Congressional Quarterly Researcher (a research publication in Washington) that this was not true. As organic farmer and National Organic Standards Board member Fred Kirschemann of North Dakota pointed out to CQR, Avery’s claims are “outrageous and undocumented. I don’t know of a single case to date where food coming from a certified organic farm has been contaminated by a food-borne illness. All of the cases have been traced to either imported foods or food from large industrial operations.”

Of course, organic foods are safer than conventional foods, both for human health and the environment, not to mention farmers and farmworkers—which is the major reason millions of consumers are switching to organic. In a major sampling of supermarket produce, Consumer Reports found that conventional produce was more than three times as likely to contain residues of toxic pesticides than organic produce (pesticide residues on organic produce most often result from chemical sprays drifting from nearby conventional farms). In its January 1998 issue, Consumer Reports points out “tests of organic, green-labeled, and conventional unlabeled produce found that organic foods had consistently minimal or non-existent pesticide residue... Buying organic food promotes farming practices that really are more sustainable and better for the environment—less likely to degrade soil, impair ecosystems, foul drinking water, or poison farmworkers.”

Ronnie Cummins
is coordinator of Campaign for Food Safety/Organic Consumers Action and editor of “Food Bytes,” from which this article is excerpted. To receive bulletins on campaign activities, contact: 860 Hwy 61, Little Marais, MN. 55614. Tel. 218-226-4164, Fax 218-226-4157, email Website:


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