Organic Food Not Always Safer;
They are much more likely than other foods to turn into killers

By Roger Bate
Copyright 1999 Dayton Daily News
November 15, 1999

It is highly explosive. It is the proven cause of several deaths every year. You must depend on the regulators and suppliers of this product for its safety and efficacy. If they make a mistake, you and your family could die.

Would you allow this product in your home?

No way, you say.

Well, it's natural gas, which has heated homes around the world for decades. It has allowed us to quit burning coal, which created urban air so dark and dank that tall buildings were invisible a few streets away.

How about this one? Farmers are adopting carbon-based biological technologies to make novel foods to be sold at premium prices in niche markets. Some proponents are demanding government subsidies to expand their technology. However, evidence shows that these food products decay rapidly and may lead to a far greater risk of certain types of food poisoning.

Unlike conventional food products, they carry few (if any) warning labels. Eighty-one percent of people who were told this said the government should warn consumers about the dangers of this technology, while two-thirds felt it should be heavily regulated or possibly banned, according to a recent survey by my scientist colleagues.

Carbon-based biological technology is, of course, a fancy name for organic farming. We gave it a more precise name to illustrate a point: If you deny people all the facts, they will reach conclusions based on emotion. People who support organic and natural farming do so under the belief that it produces the safest, purest foods possible. But that may not be the case.

Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dennis Avery, the Virginia-based director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis, found that organic and natural foods are much more likely than other foods to turn into killers.

In 1996 they made up only 1 percent of the food supply, Avery found, but they were implicated in 8 percent of the deaths from the virulent O157:H7strain of E. coli bacteria. This dangerous microbe can be transferred through the use of animal manure as fertilizer.

So what about the people going around Europe in space suits and gas masks, ripping up biotechnology test plots and calling for a ban of `Frankenstein foods?'

They have no facts to make their case against genetically modified foods, just vivid imaginations and a talent for fear-mongering. The activists who oppose genetically modified foods imagine problems that do not exist and probably never will.

Biotechnology is rigorously tested, more so than any other method of producing food. It is much more precise than crossbreeding: Scientists can isolate the one gene they want to exploit and test it. What about biotech advantages?

Activists also don't speak of the many benefits of biotechnology, such as reduced dependence on chemical insecticides, the ability to produce greater yields and more nutritious foods.

Biotechnology is the best hope we have of being able to meet the global food demand, which is expected to nearly double in the next 30 to 40 years. The insertion of new genes in Chinese rice hybrids, for instance, has increased the yield 20 percent to 40 percent.

Current forms of high-tech agriculture, which fed the last doubling of the population, cannot do it again. Organic agriculture absolutely cannot. Unless we want to plow up more land currently set aside for wildlife, we need to do something different, and soon.

It's lucky for us that the benefits of natural gas were recognized decades ago, before the age of the eco-warrior.

Dr. Roger Bate is director of the European Science and Environment Forum in Cambridge, England, and is co-editor of the book Fearing Food: Risk, Health and Environment. He prepared this commentary for Bridge News. Address: c/o Sally Heinemann, editorial director, Bridge News, 200 Vesey St., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10281. E-mail address:

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