Palaces For The People
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
by Jim Slama
Conscious Choice, March 2000
I recently watched a segment of ABC's 20/20 that reported on organic food. It was one of the worst pieces of broadcast journalism I have ever witnessed. Reporter John Stossel focused much of his story on perceived dangers of organic agriculture and the notion that consumers are being ripped off by farmers and stores that sell the product.
Stossel has a long history of bashing natural products -- particularly vitamin supplements. On more than one occasion I have wondered how ABC could allow such a biased, pro-big business pseudo-journalist to cover important issues. Unfortunately, in the realm of prime-time "journalism" sensationalism too often reigns over good investigative reporting.
As his primary source for the story Stossel relied on Hudson Institute researcher Dennis Avery. I must admit that I wasn't impressed with Avery's major claim to fame prior to Stossel -- his book Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming. For years Avery has bashed organic farming at every opportunity and made the ridiculous assertion that organic food is dangerous because of high levels of e-coli bacteria. Stossel then backed up Avery's claim by testing organic produce and finding slightly higher levels of e-coli in organic sprouts and lettuces.
Yet the investigation was completely flawed. The lab that did the testing admitted afterward that they tested for all types of e-coli, rather than just the types that cause health problems. (E-coli has pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains. Only the less common pathogenic strains cause health problems.) So essentially, their bad reporting slandered organic food and may have caused millions of viewers to worry that organic food will cause people sickness or death.
Based on Avery and Stossel's findings, one gets the impression that thousands of people are dropping dead of e-coli poisoning after consuming organic food. Sorry, but that isn't the case. There have been very few reports of people getting sick from organic food. That can't be said for conventional foods, however. Each year thousands of people die from eating contaminated non-organic food -- particularly chicken and beef.
It is surprising that anyone uses Avery as a source. Just last year the New York Times chronicled Avery's anti-organic bias in the article "Anti-Organic and Flawed." Author Marian Burros stated, "Dennis Avery wants organic food to go away. And he doesn't care what it takes. Four years ago, he said that organic food could not feed the world without destroying the environment. Now he says it's lethal."
In the article, Burros pointed out the convoluted nature of Avery's attack and noted that the Hudson Institute is funded primarily by big agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Even more prophetic in Burros' article was its closing sentence: "The attack on organic food by a well-financed research organization suggests that although organic food accounts for only 1 percent of food sales in the United States, the conventional food industry is worried."
Is it any wonder that conventional food producers are worried? They bet the farm on using toxic chemicals to produce the majority of our food. Prior to World War II, synthetic pesticides were not in wide-scale use, but in the past fifty years, they have become widespread. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimental, 2.5 million tons of pesticides are used on crops each year causing an estimated 220,000 deaths and worldwide environmental damage that exceeds $100 billion annually.