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 pointthe
safety of its products. Instead of acknowledging this and taking a step
back to address its core problemsanimal overcrowding, filthy slaughterhouses,
overuse of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormonesAmerican agribusiness
is pushing yet another dangerous technology: genetic engineering. At the
same time, industrial agriculture is coordinating a slander campaign against
its number one threatorganic 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 its 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, repeatingas
Regina Hildwine of the National Food Processors Association told the press
during the debate over organic standards in 1998that, 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 USDAs
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, its no exaggeration to say that they always get
their waywhether theres a Democrat or a Republican in the
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
residuesespecially 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 pesticidesincluding
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
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 its
better for farmers), staunchly defended factory-style hog farms (theyre
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, Averys claims are outrageous
and undocumented. I dont 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 farmworkerswhich
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 environmentless 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 email@example.com.
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