Viewpoint: Switching to organic food because it’s healthier, safer and better for the environment? Think again – Genetic Literacy Project

To leave no doubt about its findings, the report concluded that National Organic Program officials have performed so poorly that fraud and corruption are common throughout the supply chain in a burgeoning food sector that claims to be healthier, safer and more eco-friendly than non-organic food. Thus, many consumers are paying a large premium to buy imported organic foods that aren’t organic at all.

The mainstream media have finally discovered the scandal of the organic food industry. The Washington Post published three investigative reports (here and here, and the one cited below) on the lucrative but fraudulent organic business, exposing organic milk producers who did not meet federal regulations, and tracking the importation of millions of pounds of falsely labeled organic grains from Eastern Europe. Post reporter Peter Whoriskey described three shipments of imported, supposedly organic corn and soybeans that were “large enough to constitute a meaningful portion of the U.S. supply of those commodities. All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary.”

But here’s the irony of ironies: With respect to food safety, consumers who are being bamboozled into buying conventional food masquerading as organic might actually be better off. Organic foods are notorious for contamination. According to Bruce Chassy, professor of food science at the University of Illinois, “Organic foods are recalled 4 to 8 times more frequently than their conventional counterparts.” (Personal communication, July 1, 2017)

That is hardly surprising. Aside from the presence of pathogenic bacteria, organic grains are particularly susceptible to toxins from fungi. Here’s why… Every year, scores of packaged food products are recalled from the U.S. market because of the presence of all-natural contaminants such as insect parts, toxic molds, bacteria and viruses. Because farming takes place outdoors and in dirt, such contamination is a fact of life. Over the centuries, the main culprits in mass food poisoning have often been mycotoxins, such as ergotamine from ergot or fumonisin from Fusarium species. These come from the fungal contamination of unprocessed crops, which is exacerbated when insects attack food crops, opening wounds in the plant that provide an opportunity for pathogen invasion. Once the molds get a foothold, poor storage conditions also promote their post-harvest growth on grain.

Fumonisin and some other mycotoxins are highly toxic, causing fatal diseases in livestock that eat infected corn and esophageal cancer and neural tube defects in humans. Regulatory agencies such as the U.S. FDA and UK Food Safety Agency have established recommended maximum fumonisin levels in food and feed products made from corn. Unprocessed or lightly processed corn (e.g., corn meal) can have fumonisin levels that exceed recommended levels. In 2003, the UK Food Safety Agency tested six organic corn meal products and 20 conventional (non-organic) corn meal products for fumonisin contamination. All six organic corn meals had elevated levels—from nine to 40 times greater than the recommended levels for human health—and they were voluntarily withdrawn from grocery stores. By contrast, the 20 conventional (i.e., non-organic) products averaged about a quarter of the recommended maximum levels.

A well-funded and organized campaign by the organic and natural products industries enables activists to foment spurious health, safety, and environmental fears about the agricultural products and production techniques used to grow non-organic foods, especially those made with modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. What’s ironic is that though the organic lobby positions its industry as a green alternative to conventional agriculture, it’s actually more harmful to the environment.

A prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. More than 20 chemicals are commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops and are acceptable under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s arbitrary and ever-shifting organic rules. Many of those organic pesticides are more toxic than the synthetic ones used in conventional farming.

But the fatal flaw of organic agriculture is the low yields that cause it to be wasteful of water and farmland. Plant pathologist Steven Savage of the CropLife Foundation analyzed the data from the USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reported various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms. His findings were extraordinary. In 59 of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a yield gap, which means that, controlling for other variables, organic farms were producing less than conventional farms. Many of those shortfalls were large: for strawberries, organic farms produced 61 percent less than conventional farms; for tangerines, 58 percent less; for cotton, 45 percent less; and for rice, 39 percent less.

As Savage observed: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will turn out to be the absolute exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants that were modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another—often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via “wide crosses,” which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. (These more-primitive techniques of genetic modification are acceptable in organic agriculture.)

In recent decades, we have seen genetic engineering advances such as plants that are disease-, pest-, drought-, and flood-resistant. The result has been higher yields for farmers and lower costs for consumers. As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between the methods of modern, high-tech agriculture and organic agriculture will become a chasm, and organic will be increasingly unable to compete.

The bottom line is that if you care about price, quality, safety, or benefit to the environment, you’re better off avoiding organic products of all sorts.

This content was originally published here.

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