ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Below is an extract from an article which first appeared in the The Ecologist, Vol 31 No 1.

Organicised crime:
The backlash against organic food has begun. But who is behind it?
Andy Rowell

....the agribusiness and biotech corporations are supported by a loose network of think-tanks, both in the US and in the UK. To an unsuspecting eye, these think-tanks appear to offer a veneer of independence from the big businesses which plough billions of dollars into their bank accounts to push forward a deregulatory, pro-high-tech, corporate agenda.

Anyone for Dennis?

So who are the main characters involved? If all roads lead to Rome, then Dennis Avery is the most famous gladiator in the Coliseum; he is the source of many of today's myths about organic food. Author of the inspirationally-titled Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming, Avery sees himself as a missionary, promoting the hi-tech farming industries: pesticides, irradiation, factory farming, and the newcomer: biotechnology. Unsurprisingly, he is also a keen free-trader.10....

Avery, a former agricultural analyst for the US State Department during the Reagan era, is now Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, which is part of the Hudson Institute, a right-wing US think-tank. Avery's message is simple: organic food takes up too much land, and is actually dangerous for you. The growth in organic agriculture is due to an 'image created by the environmental movement'. Presumably unlike GM, it is a 'gigantic marketing lie'. Avery believes it would take an extra 10 million square miles of land if the world was to go organic, making it the 'largest existing threat to wildlife habitat'.

Avery's defence of agribusiness sometimes borders on the absurd. 'The people pushing organics the hardest' he says, 'seem to believe that the world is overpopulated. Are they trying to force us into an organic-farming straitjacket, so that they can then say that the world has too many people, we must have forced abortions - are they trying to back us into a corner where inhuman solutions will be accepted?'

Having dismissed organic food, Avery turns his attentions to the wonders of biotechnology. 'Genetically modified foods,' he says, 'are significantly safer than organic and natural foods. Over the last decade, consumers have eaten millions of pounds of genetically altered foods, and millions of tons of feed corn and soybean meal have been used to produce our meat and milk. So far, not even a skin rash has been linked to these new-tech foods'.11

Harry Hadaway, for the Soil Association points out how 'scientifically unsound' such statements are. 'The UN recently put a report out saying that GM in agriculture was unnecessary to feed the world,' he points out. But the nub of the issue is clear: 'The protagonists of GM and those involved in the Hudson Institute are keen to promote the use of any technology which will improve the financial position of the companies backing them.'

Avery dismisses critics who point out the funding of the Hudson Institute by agrochemical companies. Commenting on the Hudson's funding sources he laughs: 'If the major criticism they can offer is that the Hudson Institute gets money from farm input companies, that's pretty weak criticism. I am not bought. I am a missionary.' This said, the Hudson's Board includes James Dowling from PR firm Burson-Marsteller, and Craig Fuller, an ex-Philip Morris Executive who led the PR firm Hill & Knowlton's front organisation during the Gulf War called 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait'.12 Both Burson-Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton have a history of working against environmental activists.13 Hudson's funders include many companies behind the agribusiness and biotech revolution: Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), Cargill, Dow Elanco, DuPont, and Monsanto.14

Widening the circle

As the attacks on organic food increased, so others at the Hudson Institute joined Avery in his anti-organic fight. Other officials at its Centre for Global Food Studies include Avery's son and Dave Juday, who also coincidentally works for World Perspectives Inc, whose clients include, amongst others, 'major grain and oilseed trading companies, processors, food companies, financial institutions, trade associations, and multilateral development banks'.15

In America, Avery's message has also been picked up widely by other organisations, most prominently the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The ACSH is run by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, regarded as one of the top 50 'heroes'
of the anti-environmental, pro-industry 'Wise Use' movement in the US. She too is on a 'crusade' against the 'toxic terrorists' of the organic movement. 'I am furious when I see the manner in which these terrorists take on and destroy the people who are feeding this country,' she says.16 Before they stopped revealing their funding sources, ACSH used to receive some 50 per cent of their funding from corporations and foundations, including the Coors Foundation, Monsanto, Shell, Ciba-Geigy, Exxon, Du Pont and Union Carbide.

'The interests of her benefactors inevitably raises some questions', writes Howard Kurtz in The Colombia Journalism Review, 'Could there be any connection between Whelan's defence of saccharin, and funding from Coca-Cola, the PepsiCo Foundation, the NutraSweet Company and the National Soft Drink Association? Her praise for fast food and grants from Burger King? Her defence of hormones in cows and backing from the National Dairy Council and American Meat Institute?'17

The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition1s (TASSC) membership was also heavily corporate-backed, listing some 400 members including Amoco,
Chevron, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Lorillard tobacco, Philip Morris, Proctor & Gamble and WR Grace and Company. Set up in 1993, supposedly as a coalition to promote 'sound science,' TASSC was actually formed by Philip Morris to debunk the link between second-hand tobacco smoke and
cancer, although considerable effort was made to hide this from the public.18

In 1997, Steven Milloy became TASSC's Executive Director. Since 1998, TASSC has not been active, and Milloy has turned his attention to running web pages, which attack environmentalists and organic agriculture:, and He is also an 'adjunct scholar' with the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute. Based in Washington, Cato receives funding from oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical, agricultural and biotechnology companies. Rupert Murdoch sits on the board. Amongst the Institute's curious opinions is that smoking-related deaths are 'purely
statistical artefacts'1.

Crossing the ocean

The anti-organic backlash is part of a wider, international anti-environmental movement. There is a cross-pollination of people, ideas and articles between America and like-minded think-tanks and academic institutions overseas in Europe and the UK. In August last year, Milloy launched a new 'No More Scares' campaign in Washington, promoting a new web-site, and a book called The Fear Profiteers. A month later the No More Scares campaign launched a report attacking organic agriculture, written by Dennis Avery's son, Alex Avery along with Graydon Forrer from a company called Life Sciences Strategies and John Carlisle from the National Centre for Public Policy Research. According to the report, Marketing and the Organic Food Industry, the company Life Sciences Strategies 'specialises in public policy and communication programmes for bio-science, pharmaceutical,
medical and related health industries'. The authors thanked and acknowledged the reviewers at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.19

These contrarian groups and individuals do not just club together to propagate the anti-environmental/anti-organic message on the internet. Often they go further, deliberately reiterating each other's work in order to generate a critical mass of contrarian thought, which is picked up by a media anxious to find opposing viewpoints on previously uncontentious issues. The strategy has worked before; contrarians used it most obviously to dismiss climate change, when views from a small group of scientists funded by the fossil-fuel lobby were repeated so frequently that they were given far more prominence than their unsupportable, self-interested theories actually deserved.20 In attacking the organic movement, the contrarians are using the same tactics, backing their arguments up by quoting the same small group of corporate-funded scientists.

One of the central characters spreading the anti-organic backlash in Europe has been Roger Bate from the Institute of Economic Affairs, one of Britain's leading think-tanks, who helped set up the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF) in 1994. ESEF was formed, in its own words, as an 'independent non-profit-making alliance of scientists whose aim is to ensure that the environmental debate is properly aired. To maintain its independence and impartiality ESEF does not accept outside funding from whatever source.'21 The truth is somewhat different.

The driving force behind ESEF was actually the tobacco corporation Philip Morris, along with leading anti-environmental PR firm Burson Marsteller, and another PR company, APCO Associates, which had been looking to form an associate to TASSC in Europe. Originally tentatively named Scientists for Sound Public Policy, the organisation was later renamed ESEF. Burson Marsteller believed that makers of 'consumer products (food, beverages, tobacco), packaging industry, agri-chemical industry, chemical industry, pharmaceutical industry, biotech industry, electric power industry, and telecommunications' could be persuaded to back ESEF.22

But all is not going to plan, and towards the end of last year, ESEF's web site suddenly disappeared off the internet. So Bate is now primarily leading the charge through the IEA, using the same strategy he did to attack climate change -- repeatedly quoting the few known 'sceptics'. This time, the IEA is using Dennis Avery's arguments, which have been shown time and again to be based on flawed data and analysis.23

Barmy books

In August 1999, a book called Fearing Food; Risk, Health and the Environment was published, edited by Bate and a colleague from the IEA, Julian Morris. 'The book shows that intensive agriculture is good for health and the environment, and is essential if the world's population is to be fed without converting vast areas of biodiverse ecosystems into cropland, which would be necessary if organic agriculture, with its ower yields, were used,' said the press release.24

One of the chapters, The Fallacy of the Organic Utopia, was by Dennis Avery.25 Another was co-written by John Hillman from the Scottish Crop
Research Institute. Hillman is on the board of the Bioindustry Association of the UK, whose mission is to encourage and promote biotechnology.26 Although his chapter was mainly concerned with promoting GM, Hillman has also espoused anti-organic views, which were re-iterated in the Institute's last Annual Report.

'Organic farming raises risks of faecal contamination not only of food stuffs but also of waterways; food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins (eg aflatoxins) and allergens,' wrote Hillman. 'Contamination by copper and sulphur-containing fungicides and production of blemished, diseased and irregular produce of low consumer and food processing acceptability, low productivity and creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases, including sources of weed propagules'.27 When asked for the references to back up his comments by BBC Radio 4's Food Programme, Hillman was said to be 'too busy' to provide the data.28 Incidentally, Hillman also believes it is 'breathtakingly naïve' to try and stabilise climate change.29

Once again the press - this time in the UK - picked up on remarks made by Avery, and also from Bate and Morris. Anti-organic articles ran in The Evening Standard, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail, amongst others. Similar attacks even appeared in reputable science journals. For example, Anthony Trewavas from the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh, attacked organic agriculture in the scientific journal, Nature. 'As a plant biologist myself, I have little time for big, insensitive agribusiness,' Trewavas wrote in Nature, before launching into a broadside against the organic and environmental movements.30- -'Going organic worldwide, as Greenpeace wants, would destroy even more wilderness, much of it of marginal agricultural quality,' writes Trewavas, quoting Dennis Avery. 'The organic philosophy is negative and restrictive in its rules and regulations. It started as a movement simply to eliminate pesticides from food, and it is indeed beneficial to use pesticides sparingly, as organic farmers do. But the philosophy was founded on a fallacy.'

Web contrarians

Trewavas, whose anti-organic articles also appear on Monsanto's web-site, is not alone at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology in questioning all those who stand in the way of the biotech revolution. One of Trewavas' colleagues is Noreen Murray, who chaired the Royal Society's Working Group into Arpad Pusztai, the controversial scientist from the Rowett Institute, whose experiments into GM potatoes led to questioning of the safety of GM food. In an unprecedented move, the Royal Society publicly rubbished Pusztai's work calling it 'flawed',31 even though they knew they only had an 'incomplete' set of data.32

Trewavas also appeared on a BBC Counterblast programme attacking organic agriculture which aired in January 2000. Other contributors included
Professor Phillip Stott, from the Department of Geography at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He also runs the 'Pro-Biotech', web-site at, and takes issue with organic agriculture, tropical deforestation and climate change. Another interviewee was contrarian journalist Richard D North, an unashamed apologist for industry.

You can also read Trewavas and Alex Avery's anti-organic views on another pro-biotech web discussion site, run by Dr. Prakash, the Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in the USA, at

Saving science

Understanding Trewavas' and Krebs' attack on organic agriculture is key to the understanding of why apparently independent scientists have taken
issue with this form of agriculture. Many of its opponents see the organic movement as standing 'against science', and specifically high tech science, a significant proportion of which is now funded by agrochemical or biotech companies. 'There is a mindset that is wedded to this high tech approach and 'scientism', that science is the answer to everything', says Dr. Ben Mepham, from the Food Ethics Council.

...We have swapped public science for private/commercial science,' concludes Alan Simpson, MP. 'The pursuit of knowledge for public or
environmental safety has already been ditched in favour of a culture which says we will pursue knowledge for the purpose of commercial gain,
and anything that steps in the path will either be excluded or suppressed.'

Andy Rowell is a freelance journalist and author of Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement (Routledge, 1996).