Thursday, 17 July 2014

Cheerleading for Big Organic

Battling the merchants of doubt does not mean backing one set of multinationals over another.


It's a shame.

Fair and Accuracy in Reporting has a proud and honourable history of exposing right-wing bias and corporate influence in the press. For almost three decades, the progressive media watchdog's magazine Extra! has been a useful guide to censorship, false balance, double standards, cheerleading for war, conflict of interest, and systemic bias in the American media landscape. I remember as a shouty teenager coming across the magazine roughly at the same time I discovered Noam Chomsky and other useful media critics. In recent days, for example, they've been invaluable in parsing American coverage of the ongoing war on Gaza.

So it's rather disappointing to see the magazine's July cover story, “The Attack on Organics”, take the side of a multi-billion-dollar industry that preys on ill-informed consumers, instead of defending the interests of working families struggling to make ends meet.

Authors Kari Hamerschlag and Stacy Malkan have spotted what they believe to be a growing trend of anti-organic food articles appearing in the press, alighting upon in particular a trio of features in the New York Post, the Washington Post and Slate, and hint that there is some secretive, orchestrated campaign by agribusiness moustache-twiddlers to discredit the sector.

The pair begin their 'exposé' with an attack on Naomi Schaefer Riley's short piece, “The tyranny of the organic mommy mafia”, which in a humorous fashion shines a light on the conspicuous consumption and class snobbery of Judgy McJudgerson parents raising their Cruella Deville eyebrows at what is and isn't in other children's lunchboxes:
Another mom, a class parent at a preschool in Westchester, told me she was being harassed by one of the other mothers to issue a new rule: Only organic snacks would be allowed in the classroom. 
A mom in Washington tells me that she was unable to participate in a number of nanny-share agreements she looked into because the other parents were so crazy about not having their children come into contact with anything non-organic. One mother she met was convinced her child’s ADD became worse when he was exposed to non-organic food. A stray Goldfish or Cheerio might set him off.
Let's be clear. Organic food is damn expensive. An all-organic grocery cart is going to increase your weekly food bill by 49%1. Even putting the Great Recession aside, the income of 90 percent of Americans have been stagnant since the 1980s. At the bottom end, the benefit formula of the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) assumes that recipient families will spend 30 percent of their net income on food. Is it realistic to demand this sort of increase in spending on food? Even if organic food were demonstrably safer and more nutritious than conventional food, the difficulty of affording it, and the haughtiness and condescension of those who can toward those who cannot, would not be issues that any self-styled progressive should dismiss.

The core of Malkan and Hamerschlag's criticism of Riley's very brief article is that she quotes Julie Gunlock, the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Cultureof Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back, but not on the basis of anything Gunlock says in the article per se, but on the basis of who she is. Gunlock is involved with the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative women's group that is funded by “right-wing foundations and other conservative interests including the Koch brothers”.

Of course one should be sceptical of anything funded by the Zaphod Beeblebrox of conservative sugar-daddies, but that scepticism can only be the starting point, not the conclusion of any analysis. We still have to do the hard analytical and evidentiary work of disproving a Koch-funded claim. It is not enough to shout: “Koch brothers!” and then be satisfied that your job here is done. It's a rhetorical shortcut permitting truth and non-truth to decided not on the basis of evidence or sound argument, but of the identity of who is making the argument. Underdogs speak truth; overlords lie. What a retreat from the left's historic championing of reason over fiat!

And Gunlock happens to make the very reasonable point (in paraphrase by Riley) that the understandable desire on the part of moms to feed their kids the best food they can, combined with the guilt that they aren't always being the best parent they can be, is a gift to the multinationals behind the organic industry that is expected to be worth almost $200 billion by the end of the decade - a gift that helps them get away with charging extortionate prices for staple food items. So she's a conservative making this argument. So what? Is the argument wrong?

Hamerschlag and Malkin wonder where on Earth journalists get the idea to write articles “attacking” organic agriculture. It couldn't possibly be because the reporters have looked into the issue and found the claims of the organic industry to be wanting. No, instead, they must be inspired by corporate propaganda. They note that the Riley article in the New York Post cited a report put out by Academics Review that criticised the “deceptive marketing practices” and “false and misleading” health and environmental claims of organic producers. But rather than challenging the points made in the Academics Review, they go after who is behind Academics Review:
Academics Review claims to be an independent “association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors” from around the world “committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science. 
However, recent articles on its website and Facebook page paint a picture of industry-biased, agenda-driven organization focused on discrediting public interest organizations, organic companies, media outlets and scientists who question the safety of GMOs and pesticides, or who tout the benefits of an organic diet.
A co-founder of the organisation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign microbiologist Bruce Chassy, comes in for criticism because he “has received research grants from major food companies, and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene,” which are “companies with a large financial stake in pesticides and GMO technologies designed to boost pesticide sales”. Chassy is also on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a non-profit some of whose “funders include agribusiness giants Syngenta and Bayer CropScience, as well as oil, food and cosmetics corporations that have a vested interest in getting consumers to stop worrying about the health effects of toxic chemical exposures."

A few things here. First off, as a Lefty, any time that I come across a non-profit that receives funding from corporations, my spidey-sense starts tingling. It immediately makes me dig deeper into the organisation, find out what else they've been up to and published. Since the advent of public relations in the 1920s, the general interest has been undermined by the 'merchants of doubt': phalanxes of ad men, lawyers, ex-journalists and even unscrupulous scientists who have been hired by companies to convince us that smoking is harmless, that cars don't need seatbelts, and that climate change is a myth. There have been thousands of examples of campaigns of what is known as “product defence” - strategies of corporate obfuscation, misleading advertising, 'astroturfing' (fake grassroots groups) and outright lies - mounted to protect products known to cause harm against government regulation or bans.

But suspicion alone is not enough. I still have to go out and prove that the corporate claim is wrong. It is not enough just to declare: “Corporate! Don't believe them!” If Monsanto said that the sky was blue, their long history of aggressive patent protection, legal intimidation and monopolistic market behaviour would still not make the sky green. It is not enough to suspect somebody of something, however reasonable that suspicion may be; you must then go on and prove that they are guilty.

And having read the Academics Review report, I cannot find anything that to my mind screams that this paper is the work of a product defence campaign. Rather, it appears to me that Academics Review is simply comprised of scientists and science-oriented individuals that are fed up with pseudoscience and mumbo-jumbo irrationally restricting the advance of human flourishing.

The ACSH however does appear to regularly tilt conservative, and indeed, my spidey-sense is positively screaming now, but again, Chassy's membership on its advisory board alone does not damn the entirety of the work of an otherwise unconnected organisation, Academics Review, still less this particular report.

Lastly on this point about taking money from The Man: That's what most people do. Unless we work in the public sector or for a charity or NGO, we take money from The Man every month in order to pay our rent, buy our food and raise our kids. And are we really saying that the only people who can be trusted on any topic are people who don't work in the private sector? 

Writing in Slate meanwhile, Melinda Wenner Mayer gets in trouble with the FAIR pair for beginning to get suspicious about the organic milk she's buying for her toddler when “it can be hard to consistently pay $7 for a pint of something he’ll go through in two days.” Yet again, to my Lefty mind, is doesn't seem that you have to be funded by a Kochian Orthrus to side with the sort of harried single dad working two jobs who takes his girls through the drive-through one evening for a couple of Big Macs that cost less than a head of cauliflower.

Mayer even says in her article, "Organic Schmorganic", that she remains convinced that organic has a role to play in our food system for environmental reasons, and that she still feels “we should care about the chemicals found in our food and household products”. (Myself, I feel this veers over into chemophobia a bit too much. All products are composed of chemicals. Indeed all matter is. Only energy, human ideas and a perfect vacuum could have a label declaring themselves to be chemical-free while not lying). It's just that Mayer went and did some research into whether organic food is healther, and found that meh, not so much.

She highlights a couple of mythbusting posts in Scientific American that describe how organic farmers use organic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in volumes far exceeding the use of synthetic equivalents, volumes that are not recorded by the government. The difference between the two is that organic pesticides come from 'natural' sources and are only lightly processed, on the grounds that natural is safe and synthetic is not. (On this basis, I wonder why these foodies don't mix themselves an asbestos, mercury and rattlesnake-venom shake for breakfast every day. The ingredients are all natural.)

Mayer was troubled to find that organic pesticides can be bad for you as well, and, importantly, highlighted that dosage, i.e., the amount to which you are exposed over a particular period of time, not the mere presence of a substance, is what matters most. Glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup, the Great Satan of synthetic pesticides according to the foodie brigade because it is produced by Monsanto, has an EPA recommended exposure limit of 0.1 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day while Rotenone, an organic pesticide, has a EPA limit of 0.004 milligrams. As Mayer points out, glyphosate is 25 times less toxic by weight in comparison to Rotenone.

As a result of this fairly straightforward and useful explanation of the distinction between hazard and risk (potential for harm vs probability of harm, essentially), Mayer is denounced as a shill for agribusiness and the biotech industry, and her Sci Am author Christie Wilcox source before her. FAIR attacks Mayer's article as “based on spin”, and says that her article has been handily rebutted by the Organic Center, Civil Eats, and the Environmental Working Group.

Hamerschlag and Malkin suggest something of a conspiracy, that there has been a “proliferation of industry-associated scientists, websites and opinion pieces attacking organic agriculture and spinning their narratives about the safety of chemical-intensive GMO foods”. Meanwhile, they openly state that they have no problem with the “relatively small amount of money spent by the organic industry to support mission-aligned nonprofits”, as if these are not the same as the “lobbying and .. PR front groups or 'industry trade groups' [that] help spin a story”.

Just for fun, let's have a look at who some of these “mission-aligned” groups are. Let's employ the FAIR authors' own preferred analytical mode, pointing to the character of the people involved rather than confronting their argument.

The Organic Center website claims to “bring you the science behind organic”, but while it has science-y photos of people in labcoats and sitting at microscopes, it's actually an organic industry promotion group that is a subsidiary of the Organic Trade Association, the sector's trade lobby. Its board of trustees include the CEO of the Organic Trade Association; the vice-president of Garden of Life, “the leading supplement and nutrition brand sold in the Healthy Foods Channel”; the president of Horizon Organic, the largest supplier of organic dairy products in North America and a daughter company of Whitewave Foods, an organic multinational with a $3.3 billion market capitalization (as of 2013); a vice-president of Annie's Inc, which has a market cap of $744 million; a vice-president of Whole Foods (market cap: $14.4 bn); a vice-president of Jamba Juice, and a handful of other corporate bods. Amongst the Organic Center's recent bites of organic scienceyness is an article boosting the re-publication (without peer review) of disgraced French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini's study purporting to show that GMO maize causes tumours in rats, a study that was ultimately retracted after being denounced by six French academies of science for its unorthodox methodology.

Civil Eats meanwhile is a foodie news website, not a scientific journal, and the article in question was written by Kristin Wartman, a nutritionist (a title that is not subject to professional regulation; i.e., anyone can call themselves a nutritionist), not an expert in toxicology. And the Environmental Working Group is a green NGO that campaigns against nanotechnology, GMOs and synthetic pesticides. It is known for its annual 'Dirty Dozen' list of 'most pesticide-heavy' fruits and vegetables, an exercise in ranking whose methodology has been criticized in the Journal of Toxicology for “lacking scientific credibility”. The Office for Science and Society at Montreal's McGill University, a body dedicated to promoting critical thinking and improving the scientific literacy of the general public, was less charitable in its description of the EWG, saying bluntly: “This organization is dedicated to raising money through fear-mongering.”

Elsewhere, the FAIR authors cite articles appearing in such respected academic journals as the Huffington Post, and by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which despite its name is actually a pressure group that according to its own description employs lobbyists in Washington in an effort to “Secure a substantial increase in government support for organic agriculture”. Oh, and in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a publication that anti-pseudoscience website Quackwatch includes on its list of “nonrecommended periodicals”.

And naturally, Kari Hamerschlag herself is a senior program manager at Friends of the Earth USA's Food and Technology Program, which has a long history of pro-organic lobbying, and previously worked for the same Environmental Working Group mentioned above, while Stacy Malkan has for years been an anti-GMO campaigner.

But of course, all I've done there in the last few paragraphs is essentially the same as what FAIR has done – guilt by association and ad hominem attack.

So to get to the truth on organics, how about we get away from making arguments based on the identity and associations of the individual making the argument? How about we start making arguments about organic food on the basis of evidence?

And this means accepting from the beginning the possibility of being wrong, and willing to change one's opinion in the face of new evidence. Whichever way the evidence shakes out. If it turns out that organic food is not better for the environment and healthier, then we have to be willing to accept that, and not just declare the researchers with such findings to be shills for 'Big Agra' - or for that matter the journalists that report on this issue. Equally, if it turns out that organic food is indeed better, we shouldn't shy away from saying that either simply because it's the favoured option of new-age crunchies.

The reality is that corporations do indeed engage in dodgy practices, and absolutely undertake campaigns of obfuscation and public relations to protect their products. And that goes for Big Organic as well. 

But the way we resolve this is not by picking one set of big businesses over another.

(Full disclosure: I did not receive any money from Monsatan or the Kochbeast for writing this article.)

1 Brown, C. and Sperow, M. (2005). Examining the Cost of an All-Organic Diet. Journal of Food Distribution Research 36(1), 20-26.

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