February 9, 2004
THE ORGANIC MYTH
A food movement makes a pest of itself
JOHN J. MILLER
Somewhere in the cornfields of Britain, a hungry insect settled on a tall green stalk and decided to have a feast. It chewed into a single kernel of corn, filled its little belly, and buzzed off — leaving behind a tiny hole that was big enough to invite a slow decay. The agent of the decomposition was a fungus known to biologists as Fusarium. Farmers have a much simpler name for it: corn ear rot.
As the mold spread inside the corn, it left behind a cancer-causing residue called fumonisin. This sequence repeated itself thousands and thousands of times until the infested corn was harvested and sold last year as Fresh and Wild Organic Maize Meal, Infinity Foods Organic Maize Meal, and several other products.
Consuming trace amounts of fumonisin is harmless, but large doses can be deadly. Last fall, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency detected alarming concentrations of the toxin in all six brands of organic corn meal subjected to testing — for a failure rate of 100 percent. The average level of contamination was almost 20 times higher than the safety threshold Europeans have set for fumonisin. The tainted products were immediately recalled from the food chain. In contrast, inspectors determined that 20 of the 24 non-organic corn meal products they examined were unquestionably safe to eat.
Despite this, millions of people continue to assume that organic foods are healthier than non-organic ones, presumably because they grow in pristine settings free from icky chemicals and creepy biotechnology. This has given birth to an energetic political movement. In 2002, activists in Oregon sponsored a ballot initiative that essentially would have required the state to slap biohazard labels on anything that wasn’t produced in ways deemed fit by anti-biotech agitators. Voters rejected it, but the cause continues to percolate. Hawaiian legislators are giving serious thought to banning biotech crop tests in their state. In March, California’s Mendocino County may outlaw biotech plantings altogether.
Beneath it all lurks the belief that organic food is somehow better for us. In one poll, two-thirds of Americans said that organic food is healthier. But they’re wrong: It’s no more nutritious than food fueled by industrial fertilizers, sprayed with synthetic pesticides, and genetically altered in science labs. And the problem isn’t limited to the fungal infections that recently cursed organic corn meal in Britain; bacteria are a major source of disease in organic food as well. To complicate matters further, organic farming is incredibly inefficient. If its appeal ever grew beyond the boutique, it would pose serious threats to the environment. Consumers who go shopping for products emblazoned with the USDA’s “organic” seal of approval aren’t really helping themselves or the planet — and they’re arguably hurting both.
Here’s the good news: At no point in human history has food been safer than it is today, despite occasional furors like the recent one over an isolated case of mad-cow disease here in the U.S. People still get sick from food — each year, about 76 million Americans pick up at least a mild illness from what they put in their mouths — but modern agricultural methods have sanitized our fare to the point where we may eat without fear. This is true for all food, organic or otherwise.
And that raises a semantic question: What is it about organic food that makes it “organic”? The food we think of as non-organic isn’t really inorganic, as if it were composed of rocks and minerals. In truth, everything we eat is organic — it’s just not “organic” the way the organic-food movement has come to define the word.
About a decade ago, the federal government decided to wade into this semantic swamp. There was no compelling reason for this, but Congress nonetheless called for the invention of a National Organic Rule. It became official in 2002. Organic food, said the bureaucrats, is produced without synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or germ-killing radiation. There are also varying levels of organic-ness: Special labels are available for products that are “made with organic ingredients” (which means the food is 70 percent organic), “organic” (which means 95 percent organic), and “100 percent organic.” It’s not at all clear what consumers are supposed to do with this information. As the Department of Agriculture explains on its website, the “USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”
It doesn’t because it can’t: There’s no scientific evidence whatsoever showing that organic food is healthier. So why bother with a National Organic Rule? When the thing was in development, the Clinton administration’s secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, offered an answer: “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety.” In other words, those USDA labels are intended to give people warm fuzzies for buying pricey food.
And herein lies one of the dirty secrets of organic farming: It’s big business. Although the organic movement has humble origins, today most of its food isn’t produced on family farms in quaint villages or even on hippie communes in Vermont. Instead, the industry has come to be dominated by large corporations that are normally the dreaded bogeymen in the minds of many organic consumers. A single company currently controls about 70 percent of the market in organic milk. California grows about $400 million per year in organic produce — and about half of it comes from just five farms. The membership list of the Organic Trade Association includes the biggest names in agribusiness, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Gerber, and Heinz. Even Nike is a member. When its capitalist slavedrivers aren’t exploiting child labor in Third World sweatshops (as they do in the fevered imaginations of campus protesters), they’re promoting Nike Organics, a clothing line made from organic cotton.
THE YUM FACTOR
There are, in fact, good reasons to eat organic food. Often it’s yummier — though this has nothing to do with the fact that it’s “organic.” If an organic tomato tastes better than a non-organic one, the reason is usually that it has been grown locally, where it has ripened on the vine and taken only a day or two to get from the picking to the selling. Large-scale farming operations that ship fruits and vegetables across the country or the world can’t compete with this kind of homegrown quality, even though they do make it possible for people in Minnesota to avoid scurvy by eating oranges in February. Conventional produce is also a good bargain because organic foods can be expensive — the profit margins are quite high, relative to the rest of the food industry.
Unfortunately, money isn’t always the sole cost. Although the overwhelming majority of organic foods are safe to eat, they aren’t totally risk-free. Think of it this way: Organic foods may be fresh, but they’re also fresh from the manure fields.
Organic farmers aren’t allowed to enrich their soils the way most non-organic farmers do, which is with nitrogen fertilizers produced through an industrial process. In their place, many farmers rely on composted manure. When they spread the stuff in their fields, they create luscious breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty microbes. Take the dreaded E. coli, which is capable of killing people who ingest it. A study by the Center for Global Food Issues found that although organic foods make up about 1 percent of America’s diet, they also account for about 8 percent of confirmed E. coli cases. Organic food products also suffer from more than eight times as many recalls as conventional ones.
Some of this problem would go away if organic farmers used synthetic sprays — but this, too, is off limits. Conventional wisdom says that we should avoid food that’s been drenched in herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Half a century ago, there was some truth in this: Sprays were primitive and left behind chemical deposits that often survived all the way to the dinner table. Today’s sprays, however, are largely biodegradable. They do their job in the field and quickly break down into harmless molecules. What’s more, advances in biotechnology have reduced the need to spray. About one-third of America’s corn crop is now genetically modified. This corn includes a special gene that produces a natural toxin that’s safe for every living creature to eat except caterpillars with alkaline guts, such as the European corn borer, a moth larva that can ravage whole harvests. This kind of biotech innovation has helped farmers reduce their reliance on pesticides by about 50 million pounds per year.
Organic farmers, of course, don’t benefit from any of this. But they do have some recourse against the bugs, weeds, and fungi that can devastate a crop: They spray their plants with “natural” pesticides. These are less effective than synthetic ones and they’re certainly no safer. In rat tests, rotenone — an insecticide extracted from the roots of tropical plants — has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has described pyrethrum, another natural bug killer, as a human carcinogen. Everything is lethal in massive quantities, of course, and it takes huge doses of pyrethrum to pose a health hazard. Still, the typical organic farmer has to douse his crops with it as many as seven times to have the same effect as one or two applications of a synthetic compound based on the same ingredients. Then there’s one of the natural fungicides preferred by organic coffee growers in Guatemala: fermented urine. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to order the “special brew” at your local organic java hut.
ST. ANTHONY’S FIRE, ETC.
Fungicides are worth taking seriously — and not just because they might have prevented Britain’s corn meal problem a few months ago. Before the advent of modern farming, when all agriculture was necessarily “organic,” food-borne fungi were a major problem. One of the worst kinds was ergot, which affects rye, wheat, and other grains. During the Middle Ages, ergot poisoning caused St. Anthony’s Fire, a painful contraction of blood vessels that often led to gangrene in limb extremities and sometimes death. Hallucinations also were common, as ergot contains lysergic acid, which is the crucial component of LSD. Historians of medieval Europe have documented several episodes of towns eating large batches of ergot-polluted food and falling into mass hysteria. There is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that ergot was behind the madness of the Salem witches: The warm and damp weather just prior to the infamous events of 1692 would have been ideal for an outbreak. Today, however, chemical sprays have virtually eradicated this affliction.
The very worst thing about organic farming requires the use of a word that doomsaying environmentalists have practically trademarked: It’s not sustainable. Few activities are as wasteful as organic farming. Its yields are about half of what conventional farmers expect at harvest time. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his agricultural innovations, has said, “You couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people” on an all-organic diet.
If organic-food consumers think they’re making a political statement when they eat, they’re correct: They’re declaring themselves to be not only friends of population control, but also enemies of environmental conservation. About half the world’s land area that isn’t covered with ice or sand is devoted to food production. Modern farming techniques have enabled this limited supply to produce increasing quantities of food. Yields have fattened so much in the last few decades that people refer to this phenomenon as the “Green Revolution,” a term that has nothing to do with enviro-greenies and everything to do with improvements in breeding, fertilization, and irrigation. Yet even greater challenges lie ahead, because demographers predict that world population will rise to 9 billion by 2050. “The key is to produce more food,” says Alex Avery of CGFI. “Growing more per acre leaves more land for nature.” The alternative is to chop down rainforests so that we may dine on organic soybeans.
There’s one more important reason that organics can’t feed the world: There just isn’t enough cow poop to go around. For fun, pretend that U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan chowed on some ergot rye, decreed that all of humanity must eat nothing but organic food, and that all of humanity responded by saying, “What the heck, we’ll give it a try.” Forget about the population boom ahead. The immediate problem would be generating enough manure to fertilize all the brand-new, low-yield organic crop fields. There are a little more than a billion cattle in the world today, and each bovine needs between 3 and 30 acres to support it. Conservative estimates say it would take around 7 or 8 billion cattle to produce sufficient heaps of manure to sustain our all-organic diets. The United States alone would need about a billion head (or rear, to be precise). The country would be made up of nothing but cities and manure fields — and the experiment would give a whole new meaning to the term “fruited plains.”
This is the sort of future the organic-food movement envisions — and its most fanatical advocates aren’t planning to win any arguments on the merits or any consumers on the quality of organic food. In December, when a single U.S. animal was diagnosed with mad-cow disease, nobody was more pleased than Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, who has openly hoped for a public scare that would spark a “crisis of confidence” in American food. No such thing happened, but Cummins should be careful about what he wishes for: Germany’s first case of mad-cow disease surfaced at a slaughterhouse that specializes in organic beef.
But then wishful thinking is at the heart of the organic-food movement. Its whole market rationale depends on the misperception that organic foods are somehow healthier for both consumers and Mother Earth. Just remember: Nature’s Valley can’t be found on any map. It’s a state of mind.