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11 December 2000

Scientists gang up on organics

Simon Jones on how big business tries to stem the popularity of pesticide-free food

By Simon Jones

There’s been a bumper crop of scare stories about organic farming this year. The Daily Mail got in first, revealing that the deadly E coli bacterium had been found in a packet of Tesco’s organic mushrooms. The Sunday Times took up the cry with “Killer bug alert over organic vegetables”.

Next, Sir John Krebs, the zoologist appointed by the government to head the Food Standards Agency, said on BBC television that people who bought organic food thinking it was safer or more nutritious were wasting their money.

The newspaper stories were thin on sources, but you need not look far to see where they originated. The claims are identical to those made by a section of the scientific establishment who are furious at the sudden success of organic farming and who waste no opportunity to attack it.

Although they present themselves as independent, many of the scientists concerned, or the institutions they work for, are funded by or otherwise connected with corporations involved in genetically modified (GM) organisms.

One of the most prestigious plant science centres in Europe is the John Innes Centre in Norwich. It, too, describes itself as independent, but it has long-term research alliances with the giant corporation DuPont and the bioscience group Zeneca. It is also grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the public funding body for biological sciences research in Britain – whose chairman was until recently executive director of Zeneca.

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Then there is the respected, and largely government-funded, Scottish Crop Research Institute. Its director, John Hillman, made an outspoken attack on organics in the institute’s latest annual report. Hillman was not available for comment but the institute’s spokesman, Bill McFarlane-Smith, said: “We are absolutely independent, and seen as independent.” He would not, however, name the institute’s corporate donors, nor did he mention that Hillman is on the board of the BioIndustry Association, which lobbies government and promotes the biotechnology industry.

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Within government itself, Krebs, whose role requires impartiality, nevertheless strongly favours GM food and is sceptical of organics – as he made clear earlier this year by chairing an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference on GM food in Edinburgh, where he voiced approval of a test which, on the basis of a single non-organic carrot, declared non-organic carrots to be pesticide-free.

Critics of organic farming claim it is dangerous, environmentally damaging and, above all, incapable of feeding an overpopulated world because crop yields are lower than in conventional agriculture. For them, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers and GM crops are not only safe but the only way to feed humanity.

The campaign has outraged the Soil Association and Sustain, two organisations that lobby for organic farming in Britain. They say there is no evidence of more danger of food poisoning – as the Food Standards Agency itself has pointed out. Studies show organic food can contain more nutrients; and in developing countries organic farms yield more, not less.

It is not hard to see why the pro-GM scientists and their corporate backers are worried. On the back of a deep consumer suspicion of GM foods, and post BSE, organic farming in Britain has grown eightfold in three years, and is about to hit £1bn a year. At this rate, a fifth of all the food we buy will be organic by 2005. The government has increased funding for organic farming, and a Commons committee is holding an inquiry into it. In short, the movement is arguing its case and being heard in government circles.

The grandaddy of the organosceptics is Dennis Avery, author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. Avery is director of food policy at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, a right-wing body whose long list of donors includes AgrEvo, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca. He has waged a lifelong campaign against organic farming. Avery is convinced of the E coli risk in organic fruit and vegetables, citing work by the federal Centers for Disease Control. But the centre has publicly dissociated itself from his claims, and Avery himself, when pressed recently, admitted: “We don’t know whether there is more E coli in organic food. There haven’t been comparative studies.”

Crop yields are so much lower in organic farming, he claimed, that for Europe to feed itself organically an extra 28 million hectares (69 million acres) would have to be ploughed up – equal to the entire forest cover of France, Germany, Denmark and Britain, causing incalculable damage to wildlife and landscapes. However, he could not give a source for this figure.

Jules Pretty, of the Centre for Environment and Society at Essex University, dismisses Avery’s claims. “There are 95,000 cases of food poisoning a year in Britain, and almost all are from conventional food. There is no reason why organic food should put more E coli or other pathogens into the food system.”

The idea that vast areas would need to be ploughed up is nonsense, Pretty says. “It is a warped logic that modern agriculture has saved the environment by preventing forests being chopped down. It is not a simple equation. The problem is not supply of food – the world already produces 354kg of grain per person per year, enough for everyone. Poverty and distribution are the problem.”

The firepower is hardly equal in this bitter debate – multibillion-dollar corporations and distinguished scientists versus campaigners and a minority of farmers. But that could prove to be irrelevant, for in the end it may all come down to shopping.