Viewpoint: How organic farming exploits consumer demand for ‘authenticity’

| June 19, 2020
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Many Americans have begun to seek “authenticity” in their lives. There’s nothing wrong with that unless, in the process, they are misled by false advertising that causes them to pay inflated prices for products that are “free from” various things that are actually beneficial. Currently these include the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used to make certain plastics and as an antibacterial agent on metal coatings; and “genetically modified organisms,” or “GMOs.”

BPA used as a coating in canned food prevents botulism and other bacteria-caused illnesses, and its protection of canned goods allows consumers access to more fruits and vegetables, by safely preserving them in cans all year round, and at low cost. Genetic engineering using molecular techniques increases yields, boosts farmers’ income, and reduces the need for the spraying of chemical pesticides.

Because the term “authenticity” connotes different things to different individuals and depends on subjective factors like craftsmanship, worldview, and political and religious beliefs, it is hard to define exactly what people want; what they’re willing to pay for; and in the end, how they make their choices.

Stanford University Business School Professor Glenn R. Carroll has studied the phenomenon extensively and has some revealing observations about it, including that authenticity is intrinsically “self-contradictory and ironic,” because being genuinely authentic means not drawing attention to it. According to Prof. Carroll, the whole point of being authentic is not appearing to be calculating or grasping, but rather behaving in a way that seems consistent with values that are pure and ingenuous. For example, his research has found that restaurants that want to be perceived as authentic should find ways to get others to comment on their authenticity, but should not explicitly claim it themselves.

Carroll and his colleagues also found that “[a]uthenticity seems to buffer businesses against negatives”; thus, as research subjects evaluated restaurants, authenticity tended to trump even negatives like lack of cleanliness.

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He cites microbreweries as another example of an important negative trumped by authenticity: Especially when they first became popular, small, boutique breweries often made products that were objectively inferior (in blind taste tests) to those of the behemoths in the industry, who had both deep expertise and sophisticated technology. But, Carroll says, they “were just trading on the fact that they were small-scale craft producers doing something different. And they didn’t really know how to brew beer. . . But people associated the craft operation with higher quality and certainly with higher value and were willing to suspend a lot of judgment.”Arguably, the demand for raw (unpasteurized) milk, which regularly causes serious illnesses in numbers far out of proportion to its consumption, is a similar example.

Other industries and individuals consciously exploit this sort of myopia to portray themselves falsely as more-authentic-than-thou, and with great success. You need look no further than the office of your local “naturopathic doctor” or the shops that sell “natural” nostrums such as herbal supplements.

Physician Stephen Barrett discussed naturopathy comprehensively (and with appropriate supporting references) in 2013 on the Quackwatch website. He defined and characterized it this way:

Naturopathy, sometimes referred to as ‘natural medicine,’ is a largely pseudoscientific approach said to ‘assist nature,’ ‘support the body’s own innate capacity to achieve optimal health,’ and “facilitate the body’s inherent healing mechanisms.’ Naturopaths assert that diseases are the body’s effort to purify itself, and that cures result from increasing the patient’s ‘vital force.’ They claim to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes by ridding it of waste products and ‘toxins.’ At first glance, this approach may appear sensible. However, a close look will show that naturopathy’s philosophy is simplistic and that its practices are riddled with quackery.

Dr. Barrett went on to describe the various discredited and often dangerous practices of naturopathy, the basis of which is unscientific and implausible mumbo jumbo.

Another ubiquitous example of the quest for authenticity is the widespread rejection of “industrial,” conventional farming in favor of “organic” offerings at your local supermarket. The definition of “organic” is a movable feast, with the organic industry and government constantly tweaking its meaning; the products and practices that define it are completely arbitrary, with no scientific basis.

Image Credit: iStock

Is it safe or more nutritious, as the industry claims and many consumers believe? A study published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.

Moreover, because of its lower yields, organic agriculture is wasteful of water and arable land.

What, then, is “organic” all about? Well, when organic standards were established in 2000, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman emphasized the fundamental meaninglessness of the organic designation: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” That really says it all.

Related article:  Is the organic farming yield gap a sustainability gap too? New study argues for cooperation

It’s worth repeating: The organic label is no more than a marketing tool. And it’s a cynical one, because so many unsuspecting consumers are ripped off by the high prices of organic products, without palpable benefit.

Advocates tout organic-food production — in everything from milk and coffee to meat, produce, and cigarettes (yes, you read that correctly) — as a “sustainable” and “authentic” way to feed the planet’s expanding population. The evidence argues otherwise.

For one thing, lower crop yields are inevitable, given organic farming’s systematic rejection of many advanced methods and technologies. If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.

Another limitation of organic production is that it disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality — namely, the minimization of soil disturbances such as tilling, combined with the use of cover crops. Both approaches help to limit soil erosion and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, often they have to rely on tillage for weed control, which promotes the runoff of chemicals and soil erosion.

One prevalent myth is that organic agriculture does not employ pesticides and other “synthetic substances.” Organic farming does use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. Dozens of “synthetic substances” are allowed under U.S. organic rules and commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops. They include copper sulfate, a common fungicide that is carcinogenic to humans according to the European Chemicals Agency and dangerous to beneficial insects (the European Food Safety Authority declared copper compounds to be “of particular concern to public health and the environment,” teeing it up to be banned by the EU, but European politicians buckled under lobbying pressure from organic supporters).

The reason these are permitted is revealing. Organic practices are so primitive and inferior that constantly-challenged organic farmers periodically go whining to USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (whose members are from the organic industry), which rubber-stamps their requests for new chemicals to be approved. For example, as described in Food Safety News:

This time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to change restrictions on 17 substances allowed in organic production or handling: micronutrients, chlorhexidine, parasiticides, fenbendazole, moxidectin, xylazine, lidocaine, procaine, methionine, excipients, alginic acid, flavors, carnauba wax, chlorine, cellulose, colors and glycerin.

The changes up for public comment also add 16 substances to the National List, meaning organic producers can use them in production and handling: hypochlorous acid, magnesium oxide, squid byproducts, activated charcoal, calcium borogluconate, calcium propionate, injectable vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, kaolin-pectin, mineral oil, propylene glycol, acidified sodium chlorite, zinc sulfate, potassium lactate and sodium lactate. [emphasis added]

That puts into clear perspective the organic industry’s fear-mongering about esoteric-sounding chemicals in a recent full-page advertisement with “a long list of chemicals you should never have to read” (because they’re not permitted in organic agriculture). (Moreover, that list, which contains only the most recent request to “adjust” the chemicals permitted in organic agriculture, fails to take into account the pervasive cheating – by using prohibited chemicals and practices – in the organic industry; vide infra.)

Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive analysis of hundreds of published academic, industry and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. It also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods.

Their analysis found that “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

All that doesn’t sound terribly authentic to me, but whether it is or not, what’s even worse is the extensive cheating. USDA reported in 2012 that 43 percent of the 571 samples of “organic” produce tested contained prohibited pesticide residues, and that “the findings suggest that some of the samples in violation were mislabeled conventional products, while others were organic products that hadn’t been adequately protected from prohibited pesticides.”

Supposedly-organic imports are an especially weak link. A landmark report issued in September 2017 by USDA’s Inspector General after a year-long investigation exposes the systematic failure of government officials to ensure the integrity and safety of organic food imports. Over the past several years, there has been a huge spike in organic imports — particularly corn and soybeans — to keep pace with consumer demand; more than 100 countries now ship supposedly organic products here. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is tasked with making sure those countries meet our rigorous organic standards, but they employ a dubious system largely based on reciprocity and good faith, rather than tight controls and federal enforcement. Moreover, USDA is in the untenable and arguably unethical position of both promoting and regulating organic products.

The USDA Inspector General found widespread problems with the National Organic Program that could result in “reduced U.S. consumer confidence in the integrity of organic products imported into the United States.” The report cites the agency’s failure to reconcile organic standards between different countries, verify documents at U.S. ports of entry, and conduct mandatory audits of major exporters. The inspector general also discovered that not only are prohibited pesticides being used on organic shipments, but that the government’s ability to detect them is virtually non-existent:

Imported agricultural products, whether organic or conventional, are sometimes fumigated at U.S. ports of entry to prevent prohibited pests from entering the United States. [USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service] has not established and implemented controls at U.S ports of entry to identify, track, and ensure that treated organic products are not sold, labeled, or represented as organic.

At long last, the mainstream media are waking up to this scandal. The Washington Post published three investigative reports (here and here, and the one cited below in this paragraph) 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.”

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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 out of doors 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.

Stanford’s Professor Carroll has some business advice that should give pause to the organic industry about its long-term prospects: “If you open up and start telling your story, you better make sure it’s true and that you’re actually doing what you claim you’re doing, because you’ll be found out if you lie or exaggerate. Someone will eventually discover the hypocrisy and go around telling everybody about it, and you’ll be worse off than if you hadn’t gone down that route in the first place.”

Telling everybody about the hypocrisy of the organic and other industries is the authentic purpose of this article.

A version of this article originally appeared on the GLP on March 6, 2019.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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