The New York Post loves a good villain, but you’d think it would be hard to cast a bad light on the group of people profiled in an April 19 story: moms who feed their kids organic food.
Naomi Schaefer Riley took on the challenge in “The Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia,” and built a case against “the arrogance and class snobbery” of people who buy and eat food that’s been grown without artificial chemicals.
“Organic food does not necessarily mean better. It’s a term that’s been co-opted and manipulated into a billion-dollar industry by some of the biggest food companies in America,” Riley wrote.
The anti–organic food narrative is a recurring theme in the media of late. What’s going on with these stories?
In January, Slate (1/28/14) served up “Organic Schmorganic” by Melinda Wenner Moyer—shared 45,000 times on Facebook. The story concluded that it’s not worth feeding your kids organic fruits and vegetables because there is no documented harm from conventional produce treated with chemicals, especially when the residues are below levels deemed safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The story assumes that EPA exposure levels for pesticides are health-protective and ignores ample evidence about the health concerns of long-term exposures and combined effects of pesticides (Environmental Health Perspectives, 11/12; International Journal of Andrology, 4/08), as well as data that pesticides are building up in children’s bodies (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2/06).
In the Washington Post (4/7/14), Tamar Haspel took a more balanced approach with “Is Organic Better for Your Health?” However, in reaching her conclusion that organic products are not that much better, Haspel overlooked large-scale literature reviews and meta-analysis about the benefits of organic food. She also ignored many studies on the health risks of pesticides, especially in children (Environmental Health Perspectives, 8/11, 4/12; National Research Council, 1993), and missed the bigger public health concerns about feeding healthy animals massive doses of antibiotics and growth hormones. (See the statement from the American Public Health Association, 11/10/09, regarding their opposition to hormones in beef and dairy production.)
Haspel also fails to recognize that that US standards allow for comparatively high drug-residue levels (thus the low detection rate of drugs) and that the European Union and many other countries reject US meat raised with hormones and growth additives precisely because of animal and human health concerns. (See the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review, 4/10/02, on the potential risks to human health from hormone residues in bovine meat and meat products.)
Where do reporters get these ideas? The New York Post article cited a recent report published by Academics Review (4/7/14) that harshly attacks the organics industry and its nonprofit allies for what they described as “deceptive marketing practices,” designed to instill “false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods.”
However, the report provides scant evidence to back up its fundamental premise that organics marketing strategies are deceitful and that eaters in fact have nothing to fear from conventional food, or that there are no appreciable health, nutritional or safety advantages to organic over chemically farmed and genetically engineered foods.
In fact, in the entire 24-page report, principal researcher Joanna Schroeder cited just two highly contested meta-studies, including one by Stanford researchers published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (9/4/12). This misleading study has been soundly discredited by agricultural policy expert Charles Benbrook in a comprehensive rebuttal (9/4/12) published by Washington State University, as well as by articles in the New York Times (10/2/12), Huffington Post (9/13/12) and Environmental Health Perspectives (12/12). These critiques highlight how the study greatly underestimates the important differences between organic and conventional foods, especially in terms of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide exposure.
The other study cited by Schroeder, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (7/2/09), failed to consider several important studies (e.g., Plant Sciences, 4/29/11; Organic Center, 3/08; Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 4/01) that suggest dramatically higher nutritional benefits for organic food. Benbrook explains why their conclusion is wrong in a letter to the editor (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12/09), and the Organic Trade Association’s response to the study (2011) points to organic food’s higher levels of minerals, antioxidants, omega 3 and other beneficial nutrients.
Importantly, neither of the studies Schroeder cites mentions the question of GMO safety, a major focus of the Academics Review article. Despite claims made on the Academics Review website that the science is settled on GMOs, nearly 300 scientists and doctors have signed a statement (ENSSER, 10/21/13) that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.
Schroeder also does not mention important studies from UC Berkeley (Environmental Health Perspectives, 8/11) and the University of Washington (Environmental Health Perspectives, 3/03) that suggest that people, and especially children, should be concerned about the health risks of pesticide exposure from food. She doesn’t mention the impact of pesticide mixtures or weak EPA regulatory frameworks, and the extreme toxicity of pesticides when combined with “inert” ingredients that are found in products such as Roundup (BioMed Research International, 2/26/14).
Finally, the author conveniently ignores the environmental benefits that also drive organic purchases. Numerous studies have shown the farmworker, soil health, water quality and climate benefits of organic agriculture (e.g., Organic Farming Research Foundation, 8/12; Crop Management, 4/13; FiBL, 10/2/13).
Unfortunately, most reporters writing on the topic fail to dig under the surface spin of their sources. A closer look at some of these sources suggests that the anti-organic narrative did not arise organically.
Riley’s “organic mommy mafia” narrative in the New York Post starts off with a few examples of moms who are “so crazy” and “worried” about non-organic food that they harass other moms, then quotes her main source, author and conservative activist Julie Gunlock.
Gunlock explains that the pressure on parents to use only organic food is an “outgrowth of helicopter parenting. People need to be in control of everything when it comes to their kids—even the way food is grown and treated.”
Gunlock expounded on this theme in a recent panel in New York (5/1/14), which aimed to educate stressed-out moms about how activist organizations, the media and government regulators work together to nurture a “culture of alarmism” in which “terrifying headlines about child safety, food and agriculture, chemicals and everyday household products bombard women daily.”
Whose agenda is Riley advancing by espousing Gunlock’s views in the Post article?
Gunlock is director of the Culture of Alarmism Project at the Independent Women’s Forum, a group that “gets its funding from right-wing foundations and other conservative interests including the Koch Brothers,” explained Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury (and a FAIR associate), in a recent CounterPunch piece (4/30/14).
The Koch brothers are the conservative billionaire co-owners of a conglomerate of chemical and oil companies, including Koch Ag & Energy Solutions. They and other biotechnology/chemical companies have a lot to lose from the explosive growth of pesticide-free organic foods.
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.
The co-founder of Academics Review is Bruce Chassy, a recently retired professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Chassy was among 11 scientists named by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a complaint (8/21/03) to the journal Nature for failing to disclose “close ties to companies that directly profit from the promotion of agriculture biotechnology.”
As the letter notes, Chassy “has received research grants from major food companies, and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene”—companies with a large financial stake in pesticides and GMO technologies designed to boost pesticide sales.
Chassey is also on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that bills itself as an independent research and advocacy organization devoted to debunking “junk science.” Carl Winter, one of Slate’s key sources, is also on the ACSH board.
However, as Mother Jones (10/28/13) revealed in a expose based on leaked documents, ACSH’s 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.
Links to ACSH and other pro-biotechnology organizations, such as International Food Biotechnology Committee, Center for Environmental Risk Assessment and GMO Pundit, are listed prominently on Academics Review’s “independent” website.
ACSH’s director of chemical and pharmaceutical science, Josh Bloom, also appeared alongside Julie Gunlock at the Culture of Alarmism panel in New York, echoing her theme about the tyranny of organic foodie moms.
Academics Review accuses organic companies of “paid advocacy” in which companies fund their NGO allies to promote messages that “amplify negative health risk allegations linked to conventional foods and the corresponding safety, healthfulness and ethics of organic production.”
But the relatively small amount of money spent by the organic industry to support mission-aligned nonprofits is nothing compared to the more than $1.3 billion that the agribusiness industry has spent over the last decade in lobbying and on PR front groups or “industry trade groups” to help spin a story about the safety of chemical-intensive and GMO foods.
These include the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Biotechnology Industry Association, the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food and the Alliance for Food and Farming. The latter group alone has spent millions, including a $180,000 grant from the USDA, to convince eaters that they have nothing to fear from pesticides in conventional foods—and they’re also a source quoted by the New York Post’s Riley to assure readers of pesticides’ safety.
All of this raises the question: Why spend massive resources on PR efforts to convince people not to care about pesticides, antibiotics, hormones or GMOs in food, rather than giving consumers what they want: safe, healthy food grown in ways that don’t harm people or the planet?
With the proliferation of industry-associated scientists, websites and opinion pieces attacking organic agriculture and spinning their narratives about the safety of chemical-intensive GMO foods, reporters and the public must probe deeper and question the real motives behind these so-called “independent” sources of information.
Kari Hamerschlag is senior program manager of Friends of the Earth/US Food and Technology Program. Stacy Malkan is the founder of communications consulting firm MovetheMarket.org and the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.