Sunday, July 03, 2016

Organic What?

Read the fine print: this is not only organic but also non-GMO underwear. No pesticides.
Whole Foods offers lots of organic produce, and lots of conventional produce, but I think most of their underwear sales are organic. For a while, I was convinced that organic, non-GMO methods had something to offer both to consumers and to the planet, but I'm becoming more and more skeptical. I'm not ready to refuse to buy organic, but I have serious doubts about many of the claims in its favor.

"Stop worrying about GMOs; it's that organic granola bar that could make you sick," was an op-ed in the L.A.Times a few days ago. It made a number of points about the relative value of organic or non-organic foods and production, leading with the example of the recall of Clif bars because the organic sunflower seeds in them were contaminated with listeria, which kills quite a few people per year.

Some of the main points of the op-ed:
  • "Recalls of organic foods amounted to 7% of all food units recalled in 2015, even though organic farms account for only about 1% of agricultural acreage."
  • "The superior safety and environmental benefits of food made from genetically engineered plants have been proven over decades. Many genetically engineered crops resist insects and contamination with dangerous fungal toxins such as mycotoxins."
  • "Genetically engineered crops have all been exhaustively tested and are subject to government regulation."
  • "A 2012 report by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy ... 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 bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella."
  • "Many of the primitive pesticides permitted to organic farmers pose significant dangers" compared to modern pesticides not considered organic. Modern pesticides are "safer, more targeted and much more effective at significantly lower concentrations."
  • The op-ed asks the following critical question: "Why on Earth would anyone think that using raw manure as a fertilizer -- in essence spreading feces on food plants -- produces healthier food?"
The article's conclusion:
"The multibillion-dollar organic food industry devotes massive resources to perpetuating the myth that 19th century farming methods make food healthier and better for the environment because it has to persuade consumers to spend on average an extra 50%, or more, for its products. Better to be guided by the facts instead of fears promulgated by self-interested food activists."
I've read other recent articles that support the same idea: that organic agriculture and its products have been oversold, and that the premium price is not worth spending. While the question of the environmental damage by GMOs is more complicated, I've concluded that most of the valid opposition boils down to criticisms of the indisputably unethical practices of Monsanto, which need to be considered separately from the issue as a whole.

For example, about the GMO cotton that's avoided in those Whole Foods underpants, I found a fact sheet from Australia with many statistics about cotton production, including these:
  • "The use of biotechnology in cotton has made a significant contribution in the dramatic reduction in insecticides applied to Australian cotton crops Australian cotton growers have reduced their insecticide use by 89% over the last decade, with some crops not sprayed for insects at all." 
  • "Other environmental, social and economic benefits of biotechnology in cotton are increased populations of beneficial insects and wildlife in cotton fields, reduced pesticide run-off, improved farm worker and neighbour safety, more time for farmers to spend with families, a decrease in labour and fuel usage, improved soil quality, reduced production costs, increased yield, reduced risks and further opportunities to grow cotton in areas of high pest infestation." 
  • "In Australia, each genetic trait is individually assessed on a case by case basis by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)." (See the page "Biotechnology and Cotton" for much more.)

Many of the rebuttals to pro-GMO articles that I've seen spend their time attacking the writers rather than the contents, but this is unproductive. I'd like to hear it if there's a good case opposing these claims, not just an attack on the writers.

The op-ed author is "Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA." 


Paulita said...

I'm afraid you've opened a can of worms with this one. I think organic foods are better without the pesticides. I know when I eat strawberries I can definitely taste the pesticides. The GMO thing, well if the companies weren't so odious it would be easier to handle. For instance, one farmer got sued by Monsanto because GMO corn was growing in his field. It had blown there from another farmer's field, he hadn't planted it, but still Monsanto sued him. I also wonder why countries that are careful about food don't allow GMOs. I'm more apt to believe them than my country, the U.S., which is all about making money for big companies.
I wouldn't insist on organic, non GMO underwear though.
Hope you'll join in with Dreaming of France. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Mae Travels said...

Much as I dislike Monsanto, I checked the story about the farmer that was sued for wild GMO crops, and it didn't happen the way you say. See this:

Also, unfortunately, organic crops are grown with different pesticides, not required to be free of them. From the LA TImes op-ed:
"And the widely held belief — which the organic industry promotes — that organic growers don’t use pesticides is simply untrue. Although modern pesticides are prohibited, according to data from USDA, there is extensive cheating. Moreover, many of the primitive pesticides permitted to organic farmers pose significant dangers."

"As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article: “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as nonorganic ones.” For example, neem oil, a bug killer, is considered “natural” because the substance is found in the seeds of a tree, but “natural” doesn’t mean safe. The stuff is known to cause seizures and comas in humans if consumed in large doses, and it kills bumblebees at very low concentrations."

Carol said...

Consumer reports doesn't address biological contaminants, but see their take on pesticide concentrations in organic vs conventional produce (conclusion = organic is generally better):

As for GMOs...according to researcher Charles M. Benbrook:
"Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied."

This is bad for native plants, native insects, and the entire ecosystem that depends on them. Maybe not all GMOs are bad, but the massive monoculture we already have doesn't seem like a good way forward.

Mae Travels said...

The Consumer Reports summary definitely contradicts the L.A.Times Op Ed's conclusions. Obviously, I didn't get the whole picture, but I plan to keep reading.