ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  18 November 2000


Good news - the excellent GM FREE website seems to be accessible once more at

Below is one of Claire Robinson's illuminating articles from the great GM FREE magazine (first 4 issues still available via website).

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Organics under fire!

The anti-organic backlash has begun. We look at the strategies the agrichemical and food industries are using to try to discredit organics.

In 1998 in the U.S., home to the GM industry, over five billion dollars worth of organic food were purchased. Organics sales are increasing over 25% annually. A 1997 poll by biotech giant Novartis found that 54% of Americans would prefer  organic to become the dominant form of
agricultural production.

British people feel even more strongly. In a recent independent opinion poll run by Taylor Nelson, 81% of those questioned wanted food producers to spend more money on developing organic food rather than GM food-  or people feel even more strongly.

In a recent independent opinion poll run by Taylor Nelson, 81% of those questioned wanted food producers to spend more money on developing organic food rather than GM food.

Consumers wishing to avoid GMOs are playing safe and buying organic. Supermarkets say they cannot keep up with the demand for organics, which has shot steeply upwards since the introduction of GM foods. A spokesman for Sainsbury's said, "This market is going to go one way - and that is up. We can't get enough organic foods... We are desperate to find ways of getting more farmers and growers to convert. "

Organic farming seems to be such good news for everyone - from earthworms to farm workers to consumers - that it's hard to believe that anyone could fail to rejoice at these developments. But there is a vociferous group of people who are very unhappy indeed at the organic trend and who are determined to reverse it.

The agrichemicals lobby, whose tentacles reach into the food industry and government, have launched a vicious attack on organics. They have changed tack from their old message, "Organic food is no safer than conventional food".

Now, they are determined to make us believe that organic food is dangerous, fattening, cholesterol-filled, disgusting (all that manure!) and selfishly contemptuous of third world

We'll look at each of their claims in turn, where they come from, and what evidence supports them.
Claim no 1. 'Organic is not safer or healthier. Organic food does not mean safer. Organic food does not mean healthier' - Regina Hildwine of the National Food Processors Association during the debate over organic standards in the U.S. in 1998.

Several studies exist showing that organic food has higher levels of vitamins and minerals, than non-organic food. The following summaries of these studies can be viewed at

A study, commissioned by the Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Australia, with analysis conducted by the Australian Goverment Analytical Laboratory, examined four vegetable varieties from organic and supermarket sources. Tomatoes, beans, capsicums and silver beet were
grown on a certified organic farm using soil regenerative techniques and were then analysed for mineral elements. A similar range of vegetables grown commercially and purchased from a supermarket was also analysed.

Results indicate significant differences in mineral levels in favour of the organic produce. Calcium levels in some organic produce were eight times higher, potassium 10 times higher, magnesium seven times higher and zinc, a vital trace element for nutrition, five times higher. News release on the report online:

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen report that organically grown produce has higher levels of nutrients than conventional produce. The organic crops had a higher concentration of vitamins and far more secondary metabolites, which are naturally occurring compounds that help
immunize plants from external attack. Some of these metabolites are thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease in humans. The research was funded by the Britain's Soil Association and reported at the SA's conference on January 8, 2000. (Organic View v.2 n.1 January
23, 2000, Organic Consumers Association

Long-term field experiments in Sweden over 32 years compared crop quality in biodynamic farming and conventional farming. The organic treatments resulted in a higher soil fertility capacity and in crops with higher quality protein (more relatively pure protein and essential amino acids, free amino acids lower), a higher starch content, and a greater ability to tolerate stressful conditions and long-term storage in comparison with the inorganic treatments. Furthermore, the crops produced in the organic treatments developed a structure that can be studied through a picture formation method (Crystallization with CuCl2), described as a higher organisational level which is evident in terms of both soil and crop formation. Yield increases were greater in the organic treatments. ('Long-Term Field Experiment in Sweden: Effects of Organic and Inorganic Fertilizers on Soil Fertility and Crop Quality', Artur Granstedt & Lars Kjellenberg, in Proceedings of
an International Conference in Boston, Tufts University, Agricultural Production and Nutrition, Massachusetts, March 19-21, 1997. Online report:

Over a 2 yr period, organically and conventionally grown apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn were purchased in the western suburbs of Chicago and analyzed for mineral content. Four to 15 samples were taken for each food group. On a per-weight basis, average levels of
essential minerals were much higher in the organically grown than in the conventionally grown food. The organically grown food averaged 63% higher in calcium, 78% higher in chromium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 178% higher in molybdenum, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium and 60% higher in zinc. The organically raised food averaged 29% lower in mercury than the conventionally raised food. (Journal of Applied Nutrition 1993; Another
study shows that organic food contains more dry matter (and less water) than non-organic food. Lampkin quotes a 12 year study, reported in 1975, of relative yield and composition of vegetables growth with composted manures compared with mineral fertilisers, which found, in respect of
the former, 24% lower yield but 28% higher dry matter accompanied by varying higher levels of macro- and micro-nutrients. (Lampkin N, (1990) Organic Farming, 557 - 575, Farming Press, Ipswich.) This may be because non-organic food relies more on nitrogen-heavy fertilisers, which make the plants take up more water. More dry matter is likely to mean more nutrients and more food value per kilo eaten—not to mention a tastier culinary experience.

Organic food may also be preferable for what it doesn't contain. Organic food production does not use a number of risky practices commonplace in industrial food production. Ronnie Cummins of Food Bytes, the Washington-based Campaign for Food Safety newsletter, says, "Under
current organic certification rules enforced by over 40 state and private organic certifiers across the U.S., it is illegal to use toxic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids,
rendered animal protein (waste and diseased animal parts), genetically engineered ingredients, sewage sludge, or nuclear irradiation - all of which routinely contaminate conventional food.

Pesticide residues in industrial food are a hot issue. A panel convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1993 reported that federal allowances for pesticide residues were too lenient, and that infants and children could be harmed by current pesticide residue levels that the
government considers "legal". Often, residue levels exceed even the 'legal' limits. A highly-publicized January 1998 study by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that millions of American children are at risk every year from ingesting dangerous
levels of at least 13 different neurotoxic organophosphate (OP) pesticide residues 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 OP insecticides. Thirteen percent of apples, 7.5% of pears, and 5% 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 pesticides - including probable human carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disrupters, and oral toxicity no. 1 chemicals, the most toxic
designation. Though industry groups sprang to the attack, accusing the EWG of "drumming up fears and new scares", the uncomfortable fact remains that EWG's figures came from more than 110,000 U.S. government-tested food samples and government data.

At a time when food-related illnesses are increasing yearly in the U.S., American consumers would appreciate any move by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to investigate the agricultural and processing practices that lead to contaminants in food. But USDA, with the perverse logic that only heavy corporate pressure induces, did no such investigation and decided instead to uncritically incorporate industrial practices into organic farming. In its first set of proposed national organic standards last year, USDA pushed for the inclusion of genetic engineering, irradiation, use of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, indoor confinement of livestock, and use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

The effects of such a move would be to dilute organic standards and to blur the line between organic and conventional food, while agribusiness would get its hands on a share of the lucrative organic market. What better way to kill off an embarrassing competitor?

As can be expected, supporters of the USDA's first organic proposal included powerful agribusiness trade associations. 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 U.S. political parties): the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association, the American Farm Bureau, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

If the USDA organic proposal had succeeded, World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would make it hard for any nation to set stricter organic standards than theirs. But the move was foiled by an unprecedented blitz of 280,000 letters, faxes and emails from outraged consumers and organic
suppliers all over the world to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, telling him to back off.

USDA retreated and gave in - for the time being - though the beast is likely to be wounded rather than dead. The biotech industry will be back, lobbying for acceptance of GM foods in organic standards. Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, has
said, "Within five years - and certainly within ten - some 90-95% of plant-derived food material in the United States will come from genetically engineered techniques. It'll take a little bit longer for
these technologies to penetrate into the organic market, but it [sic] will. As the benefits become clearer, you'll see that opposition will be replaced by understanding, and adoption will follow."

Claim no 2. Organic food is dangerous because it is full of nasty bugs; "People who eat organic foods are eight times more likely to be attacked by the deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria... Organic consumers are at increased risk from natural toxins produced by fungi, some of which
cause cancer. Organic foods carry far more of the dangerous bacteria (salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria) that kill thousands of people every year." - Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute, in "The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food", in the Fall, 1998, issue of American Outlook, published by the Hudson Institute.

The article reached a wide audience because it was syndicated in Knight-Ridder newspapers on Aug 3, 1998.  Avery likes to claim his statistics come from the U.S. government's Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). But  spokespersons from both agencies have said that this was not true. As Larry Slutsker of the CDC said, "I cannot confirm [Avery's] numbers. We don't have routine data collection on whether things are organic or not." In a similar vein, Robert Lake, director of policy planning at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said, "I'm not aware that there's a particular problem with organics and aflatoxins [the natural toxins of which Avery speaks]."

CDC's Dr Mitchell Cohen issued a statement recommending that "growers practice safe and  hygienic methods for producing food products, and that consumers, likewise, practice food safety within their homes (e.g., thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables). These recommendations
apply to both conventionally grown and organic foods."

Sharon Hoskins of the CDC said the Center did not have any research on "organic and natural foods" currently in the works, nor was it planning to conduct any in the future because it was "not warranted." She also said, "We have tried to contact the magazine and have never been
able to speak with anyone at American Outlook, including the editor. There has been no response."

Food writer Joanna Blythman, writing in Guardian Weekend on Oct 16, 1999, shows the peculiar
footwork Avery used to arrive at his figures. He took CDC figures from a single year, 1996, which was the only year when any cases of food poisoning were linked with organic food in the U.S. Forty-seven people came down with E. coli poisoning associated with organic lettuce. The contamination on this lettuce, according to the New York Times, came from run-off from a nearby pen of conventionally reared cattle. Avery put these cases together with 85 cases of E. coli poisoning from non-organic apple juice, classed the apple juice as "natural", and came up with the figure that "organic-natural" food accounted for 8% of reported cases. He then worked out that, since organic food makes up only 1% of the food supply, organic food must be eight times more likely to poison people. This method of cooking figures would never pass for true science.

Sunday Times sticks the knife in

As Avery's propaganda made the rounds, it was taken up uncritically by pro-GM scientists and newspapers  in the U.K. Letters and articles about the "E. coli threat" from organic foods appeared in the Telegraph, the Times and the Sunday Times.

We followed up just one of these articles to see what evidence lay behind the claims. In a Sunday Times story called "Poison risk is greater from organic foods, says scientist", Prof Alan Gray, acting chair of the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, says,
"By using manures instead of fertilisers you're recycling E. coli from the guts of cattle and other
animals... I'm not against organic food. There's this sense that it's safe but in fact the risk is greater than from eating some generic [conventional] foods." Prof Gray is also quoted as saying "You are 30 times more likely to poison yourself with organic produce because it allows Bt [a bacterium used as an insecticide of last resort by organic farmers] to spread directly."

We called Prof Gray to ask him where his evidence came from. Prof Gray claimed that the Sunday Times  reporter had "badly misrepresented" his views, which she had solicited by pretending that she was carrying out a telephone survey of people's food purchasing habits. In a letter Prof Gray wrote to the Sunday Times, he says that in the interview, "I expressed my support for low-input agriculture" (such as organic). He voiced his mistrust of monoculture in both conventional and organic systems, on the basis that a single crop grown over a large area attracts pathogens and pests. He said that his first choice as a food source was organic vegetables grown in "small rows
in our gardens and allotments".

We asked Prof Gray to justify his claims about Bt and E. coli being present in organic food, in the light of the  following facts:
*** Bt spray as used by organic farmers biodegrades within hours of being applied and leaves no residue;

 *** Conventional, as well as organic, farmers use manure. However, organic standards require that manure  be well composted to kill pathogens before it is applied to crops. Conventional farming permits the application of raw, uncomposted manure and sewage sludge - often contaminated with toxic waste - presenting a much higher risk of E. coli contamination. Moreover, cases of E. coli and salmonella infection  were rare in 1940, when all farming was pretty much organic.

Francis Blake of the Soil Association says that "organic livestock are far less likely
to harbour these pathogens, which are primarily the result of intensive systems of livestock production."

Prof Gray immediately dissociated himself from the E. coli and Bt arguments presented in the Sunday Times.

He said, "I have never done research on organic farming. I have no special knowledge of it." Prof Gray said he had "no idea" where the Bt claim had come from and maintained that he never said it. He could not locate the evidence for the claim about E. coli apart from saying that it was on the internet and that it said that people who ate organic were eight times as likely to be attacked by E. coli. This detail identifies the source as Dennis Avery.

By any standards, Prof Gray's views hardly qualify as the authoritative attack on organic farming that the  Sunday Times made out. If he is the best champion that the anti-organics lobby can come up with, then we would be justified in concluding that they don't have much of a case.

The butter bogeyman and the sugar monster

The Sunday Times followed up with a second story in the next issue to the effect that some processed  organic food contains more saturated fat, sugar and salt than some processed non-organic food. The article  made a blanket assumption that salt, sugar and saturated fats like butter were bad for everyone, in any amount.

In peddling such assumptions, the Sunday Times badly misjudged organic consumers, who prefer natural  whole foods and mistrust food industry-generated fads like margarine, artificial sugar-substitutes and salt-free or calorie-fixated diets. Many such consumers are aware of an ongoing debate that saturated fats may have  an important role in protecting against
cancer. They are also aware that the chief rival to butter is margarine,  a highly processed industrial product which has become a target of scientific suspicion regarding its high  levels of trans-fatty acids. These are substances not found in nature which have been linked with heart disease and other illnesses.

Foxing the public?

What can be the motivation of a newspaper which drums up anti-organic stories around such unlikely topics as buttery biscuits - and from such unlikely sources as allotment enthusiast and monoculture sceptic Prof Gray?

If we didn't know that Sunday Times owner Rupert Murdoch was committed to giving unbiased information  to the public, we might take the "dangerous organics" stories as a sign that he has a hidden agenda.
Especially when one takes into account that his Florida-based TV station Fox sacked two investigative   reporters for allegedly refusing to broadcast reassuring falsehoods about Monsanto's GM bovine growth  hormone.
Fox reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson wrote a story revealing what they believed to be the severe health  risks to cows and humans posed by the hormone. They also revealed that Florida's entire milk supply came  from cows treated with the hormone, contrary to the claims of local grocers that they would not buy such milk.

At first, all seemed well and the story was set to go out as written. But at the last minute, a Monsanto lawyer  approached Roger Ailes, head of Fox News in New York, stating that the programme was inaccurate. Within hours, the documentary was pulled "for further review".

Akre and Wilson said they were "concerned about the threatening nature of the Monsanto letter,
particularly  the part which read, 'There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner'."

The journalists said they were asked to rewrite their script to make the story acceptable to Monsanto. When  they refused, they were sacked.

What exactly was at stake for Fox?  Wilson suspects advertising revenue. The documentary, he believes, would have embarrassed Florida dairy farmers and supermarkets for breaking their public promises not to sell milk from hormone-injected cows.

In addition, Monsanto is a client of Actmedia, a major advertising company owned by Murdoch. And Fox   stations everywhere sell commercial time to Monsanto for products such as Roundup, its glyphosate  herbicide, and foods and drinks containing NutraSweet, its aspartame artificial sweetener.

 According to a report in the Observer (July 5, 1998), the journalists told David Boylan, a Murdoch manager, that a valid, well-sourced news story was being stifled. Boylan, in a moment of insane honesty,  snapped back, "We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We'll decide what the news is. NEWS IS WHAT WE SAY IT IS."

 If a newspaper or TV station decides that the news is not the public health risks of a GM hormone, but that it   is the manure-related misgivings of a professor who freely admits that he knows little about organic farming,  then that is its prerogative. Ours is to decide whether to believe it.

Claim no 3. Organic farming is bad for the third world and the environment

"Organic foods have clearly become the deadliest food choice." - Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute

Avery argues that selfish organic consumers and farmers would rather watch millions of poor people in the Third World starve, or else sit by while desperate peasants destroy the remaining rainforests, rather than admit that genetic engineering and pesticide and chemical use in agriculture are necessary and safe.

Other gems from Avery's pen include the following:

"Organic farming deserves to remain small. Organic farms get only about half the agricultural yield of  mainstream farms... America's good farmland will need to generate higher yields... to meet the demand of  rising populations... If we accept this 'environmental approach' [organic] and fail to protect our crops with  either pesticides or biotechnology, how many million square miles of extra cropland will the world need to  take from wildlife?" 2

"Factory farms... are a humane, effective alternative to clearing another 10 million square miles of
forest  for hog and chicken pasture."3

Avery's comments ignore the fact that most environmental devastation in developing countries comes not  from organic farming, which has been practised sustainably for generations, but from intensive agriculture geared to growing cash crops for export at the expense of family-based subsistence farming.

Avery's claims on organic yields are also misleading. Avery says, "the ugly secret of organic farming is that its yields are only about half as high as those of mainstream farmers." However, the Rodale Institute ofKutztown, Pennsylvania, recently completed a 15-year study comparing organic farming methods to  conventional methods. Its findings were published in the Nov 11, 1998, issue of Nature. The study concluded that yields from organic farming equal conventional yields after four years. And that's with no  detriment to soil, water or human health.
Dr Jules Pretty of the University of Essex has produced vast amounts of evidence showing that farmers in  the developing world have doubled and tripled yields using organic methods. Visit for a summary.

Experts have also shown that using pesticides does not guarantee increased yields. According to David Pimentel, professor of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, "even with the 10-fold  increase in insecticide use in the United States from 1945 to 1989, total crop losses from insect damage have  nearly doubled from 7% to 13%".4

 Who is Dennis Avery?

Dennis "Mad Dog" Avery of the corporate-funded Hudson Institute is an economist by trade. He was a   government official during the Reagan era and is author of the book Saving the Planet with Pesticides and  Plastic.

  Avery is a spokesperson for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. This organisation does for agriculture what the so-called "Wise Use" movement groups do for mining and logging: it propagates business as usual through misinformation and lies under the banner of science. The Hudson's chief evangelist,  Avery argues that "there is no evidence of a growing ozone hole, over the Arctic or anywhere else," that  there is no global warming, and logging
is good because "if a tree isn't cut, it will die and rot" (from Avery' book, How Poverty Won't Save the World).

Avery has touted the virtues of global warming (it's better for farmers), and pushed for food irradiation (it  preserves the freshness of food while killing bacteria).

The Hudson Institute's board includes James H. Dowling from the multinational PR firm Burson-Marsteller.   Burson-Marsteller are notorious for their 1997 report to the biotech industry, "Communications Programmes   for EuropaBio". The report advised the industry, when dealing with the public, to "stay off the killing fields"   of risks to public health and the environment and to leave those issues to "those charged with public trust in  this area - politicians and regulators
- to assure the public that biotech products are safe."

Other members of the Hudson board include Craig Fuller (who led the PR firm Hill & Knowlton's pro-Gulf  War front group Citizens for a Free Kuwait), and Kenneth Duberstein (who runs a lobby firm with a host of corporate clients). Hudson's generous funders include Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world's biggest suppliers of grain, both GM and non-GM.

Why they say what they say

 The agrichemical model of agriculture - exemplified in its extreme form in the U.S. - is breaking down at its  most vulnerable point: food safety. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture likes to brag that American-style factory farms produce "the safest food in the world," government statistics reveal the opposite. The Centers for Disease Control admit that up to 81 million Americans suffer from food poisoning every year - an astounding testament to filthy and contaminated meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, fruit and  vegetables, and fast food.

The CDC's Dr Morris Potter said in 1994 in the Harvard Health Letter that 81 million annual victims may  be a low estimate. He said the real figure could be more like 266 million in the U.S. alone.

In Europe, we have suffered the mad cow beef scare, the French and Belgian dioxin scandal, and regular reports about high levels of pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables. Consumers are increasingly alarmed about food safety and the damage inflicted by industrial agriculture on public health and the environment.

Yet the food safety issue is the stick that the agrichemical lobby have turned on organics. Why? Perhaps  because the best form of defence is attack. Perhaps agribusiness is distracting consumers from its own problems by blaming them on organics.

If GMOs are the answer, what was the question?

GM crops are sold to us on the basis that they will reduce agrichemical use. But the same companies which  gave us the agrichemicals and all the problems that went with them, are now giving us GMOs as the "solution" to a problem of their own making. GMOs are junkie plants dependent on agrichemicals. For all   the sweet talk about chemical reduction through GMOs, the companies know that the reverse is true, which  is why they are vastly expanding their agrichemical manufacturing capacity.

The next wave of GMOs are supposed to give us more nutritious and "tastier" food crops. This "solution" is  meant to address a problem which is seldom spoken of in public, for reasons that will become clear. The problem is that intensive agriculture has depleted the soil of so many nutrients that modern conventionally  grown food tastes bland and contains only a tiny fraction of the vitamins and minerals that we need to maintain health. Of the hundreds of nutrients that conventional farming has stripped from the soil, it focuses  on putting back just three - nitrogen,
phosphorus and potassium. These elements produce lush-looking growth, but provide little in the way of nourishment or taste.

  This is the problem which the much-hyped second wave of GMOs, genetically altered to contain more  vitamin A or more protein or to taste sweeter, are supposed to solve. However, since poor flavour and nutritional content is a problem of agribusiness's own making, it is fair that agribusiness should solve it at its  own expense, without creating a new, deeper layer of risk. As things stand, we are expected to pay for the problem to be created, and then we are asked to pay again for the "solution". Unless we act now to stop the genetic experiment, we shall pay yet again for the environmental and public health catastrophes that GM will  create.

What we are not told is that there is a way of breaking out of this infernal loop. It involves not creating the  problem in the first place - or in the case of existing problems, it involves asking if that problem can be  solved in a way that is acceptable to the public and less likely to create more problems of its own. It's  increasingly evident that the way is organic farming. What are we waiting for?

 Thanks to Ronnie Cummins of Campaign for Food Safety for information in this article. Visit their  website:

 1. Quoted by Kathy Koch in the Sept 4, 1998 issue of the Congressional Quarterly    Researcher.
2. Syndicated article in Knight-Ridder newspapers Sept. 16, 1998 
3. The Country Today, 8/26/98
4. For more information, contact Barb Haumann at the Organic Trade Association at 001 413
774 7511 or visit <>
'Biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge economy, and I want Britain to become its European hub.  This is an industry whose market in Europe alone is expected to be worth over US$ 100 billion by 2005.''
- Tony Blair

'So what you saying minister?
Don't you think it kind of sinister?
Is profit margin all that you can see?
When those in power lose the plot
It's people power that stops the crop
- based on Seize the Day

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