Unsafe at any price? Different Standards for organic luvvies

By Rober Bate
Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal Europe
November 23, 1999

Imagine you saw a TV program called The Open Road - a magazine show about cars and driving, sponsored by Ford and supported by a newspaper campaign. You’d most likely view it as an infomercial and treat it with an appropriate amount of skepticism. Now imagine you saw a show about the wholesome joys of growing and cooking your own organic fruits and vegetables, supported by similar sponsorship from a commercial organic producer. Wouldn’t you be as skeptical? Well apparently not if you’re British. I say this because Channel Four television, in league with the Guardian newspaper, have just stepped over the boundary of commercial fairness by allowing direct promotion, without raising a peep of protest.

Last weekend saw the beginning of Fork to Fork, a new weekly four-part Channel Four series, which demonstrates the wonders of organic farming to British households. The beautiful organic garden owned by presenter Monty Don is lovingly cared for ‘without the use of chemicals’, he explains. Of course, he means without the use of synthetic chemicals, but this earnest misdirection sets the tone of the program. Its fun, slightly condescending, and reinforces the unscientific myths of organic farming.

I was mildly enjoying his almost pornographic enjoyment of just-uprooted fast-cooked new potatoes, and his interesting advice about controlling pests with wooden fencing, fleece and chives, when the program went to its first break. Immediately a voice-over from the sponsor of the program ‘Seeds of Change: 100% organic foods’, sprang to the viewers’ attention. I thought back to the show’s romantic images of the country garden and the oak-beamed kitchen, selling the rural idyll to urbanites, and felt conned. Did no one else see the connection?

Seeds of Change is an American multinational company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Established in 1989, their web site proudly claims that they ‘are concerned about conventional farming methods which rely upon pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers’. Instead of intensive farming they are committed to an organic way of life, and are intent on selling their company name and ideas into other countries. As such they benefit, like any business, in promoting their product, and subtly undermining the opposition.

And they and their organic brothers have been decidedly successful. The UK market for organic food has grown from 40 million pounds ten years ago to one billion pounds in 1998. The massive expansion in provision on has attracted big business. Wholesome big business no doubt, but big business.

Seeds of Change have been advertising in the past few weeks, no doubt to coincide with the launch of Fork To Fork. They are being very creative; bus stops are adorned with their posters in the trendy Blairite London Borough of Islington. They know that the market for their produce is middle-class urbanites who want to feel they can get back in touch with nature by consuming organic produce. Furthermore, last month they sponsored an 8-page pull out section of the Guardian newspaper, called ‘Easy Steps to Organic Living’. In one article there is even advice on how to raise an organic baby.

The polling agency MORI recently asked British people various questions about organic food. The results show that over half those who buy think that organic food is ‘healthier’. But is organic food really so wholesome? And should a baby be eating organic produce?. A baby has an immature immune system and is more easily infected with germs than adults. Yet in the whole web site of Seeds of Change, or Fork to Fork, there is no mention of the dangers of home grown organic produce, which may contain more toxins and bacteria than normal foods. After all, these nasties are not destroyed by synthetic pesticides, since organic farmers won’t use them, whereas compost and manure, the foundation of organic farm nutrients, are breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi. According to Dennis Avery, of the Hudson Institute in Niagara, there is a greater chance of contracting the potentially fatal E Coli from eating organic food than normal food. And according to Anthony Trewavas, Professor of cell biology at Edinburgh University, a whole host of bacterial infections, including salmonella, are more likely from eating organic food. Furthermore, according to Professor Bruce Ames of UC Berkeley, one of world’s leading biochemists, there is no evidence of any health benefits from eating organic produce. You are no more likely to get cancer from eating an insecticide-sprayed apple than from eating an organic apple because the level of natural pesticides produced by the apple dwarfs those of man-made spraying. And if you eat fewer organic apples, because they are more expensive, you will in fact be worse off as fruit contain chemicals which guard against cancer.

Yet the Guardian and Channel 4 raise none of these arguments. They are happy to be co-opted by an American commercial enterprise to help them lure Brits into buying their organic products and expanding their market.

The Directors of Monsanto and other American agro-chemical companies must be crying in their sleep, if they can sleep at the moment. While their new technologies are attacked by every conceivable pressure group and most newspapers, they have to sit and (literally) watch more dangerous rival products being promoted on TV. With such obvious double standards operating at a prestigious television network and a liberal newspaper, is it any wonder that the public are moving in droves towards organic food. But poor parents care about their families just like middle-class ones, yet if organic food becomes the middle-class norm, the poor will probably feel they must join in, convinced that otherwise they will be harming their children.

The owners of Seeds of Change must be laughing all the way to their, no doubt, ecological bank. Perhaps in this politically correct environment it isn’t even remarkable that consumers are prepared to pay more for food that is more dangerous. But organic food really is less safe-whatever the price.

Roger Bate is a Fellow of the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, and co-editor of Fearing Food: Risk Health and Environment (Oxford:Butterworth Heinemann)

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