How Organic Activists Spread Misinformation

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Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a three-part series about problems with the organic food industry.

In the first article in this series, I discussed how Miles McEvoy, the current Deputy Administrator (DA) of the National Organic Program, has failed to implement routine organic field testing. Instead, he prefers the lecture circuit, promoting what he claims are "forward thinking" organic programs at places like Washington State University.

Urban organic activists who have never worked a day on a farm will defend McEvoy’s procrastination, claiming that field testing will raise the cost of organic food. But the cost to an organic farmer of annual field testing to ensure prohibited pesticides are not being used would be one-tenth the current cost, not including all the time being wasted by farmers keeping up with useless paperwork.

Additionally, this ineffective bureaucratic system overseeing organic food is so expensive that it is still subsidized by taxpayers a decade after the NOP became law.

To add further insult to injury, McEvoy allows urban organic activists to spread misinformation about conventional (sometimes referred to as “industrial” or “Big Agri”) food production.

EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” List

A salient example of the misinformation campaign against regular food is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen,” a list of foods which organic activists say you should only buy in a premium-priced, certified-organic form, unless you are okay with eating poison. One wonders how EWG could promote such a list when there is no reliable testing to distinguish between what is and is not genuinely organic.

Of course, people from EWG helped write the USDA’s toothless organic standards which purposely omitted field testing. And they did this against President Clinton’s and the American Consumers Union’s better judgment.

In addition to campaigning against field testing at the same time as their ally McEvoy falsely promises testing, EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list suffers from several fundamental scientific flaws as outlined in a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the Journal of Toxicology.

The authors concluded that pesticide exposure on conventional food was negligible, substitution of organic food did not reduce consumer risks, and the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list “lacks scientific credibility.”

Ouch. EWG has yet to respond.

Despite this, the “Dirty Dozen” list continues making rounds in newsrooms across North America where it’s faithfully parroted by gullible reporters who willingly advance the completely unfounded marketing claim that organic food is cleaner, purer, and more nutritious than conventional food. Even the EWG would likely admit that conventional food has safely and nutritiously fed billions of people over the decades.

As an organic farmer, inspector and author, I happen to believe there are many provable, quantifiable benefits to eating organic food. But, under the current organic-certification system, which only requires paperwork and hefty fees paid to private certifying agencies (which often have strong ties to organizations like the EWG), I am forced to conclude that the organic industry is a mere shadow of what it could be. Thankfully, not all organic activists are so obtuse.

Writing in Scientific American recently, Jason Mark makes a spirited argument in favor of organic farming, some of which parallels things I have said for years. Sadly though, while demonstrating a modicum of common sense, Mark also makes unprovable assertions like the following:

…if an organic grower does decided [sic] to use [an approved organic] pesticide, the farmer must demonstrate (to their [sic] organic certifying agency) that they have exhausted every other means at their disposal. Most of the organic farmers I know (and I am friends with dozens) only spray reluctantly, and as a last resort.

If Mark actually understood the USDA’s organic standards, he would realize there is no possible way to know whether or not organic farmers only used approved organic sprays. Without field testing and surprise inspections, how can anyone know?

What farmer would just stand by and watch as a pest destroyed his livelihood? None. That is why organic farmers use approved pesticides. But what about the unapproved, synthetic sprays? Are we really to believe that just because the names of synthetic substances have been written down on the organic industry’s prohibited list that no organic farmer ever uses them?

And what about all those supposedly “organic” farms in China that are “inspected” by Chinese state officials? Talk about suspending disbelief.

Let’s face it: The rules of organic farming are just too tempting to bend or break when no one is looking, especially when a hefty premium is waiting for anything deemed “organic.” Only field testing will ensure that organic farmers follow the rules.

Mischa Popoff is an IOIA Advanced Organic Inspector and is the author of Is it Organic? which you can preview here. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mischa Popoff.

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