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Published on Monday, August 21, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Cultivating the Truth About Organics
by Brian Halweil
I WATCHED IN DISBELIEF as John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC's ``20/20,'' delivered a half-hearted apology August 11 for falsifying evidence in a report that claimed organic produce is potentially more dangerous than food raised using toxic agrochemicals, antibiotics, added hormones, genetically engineered seeds and massive animal-feeding factories.

In his apology, Stossel did admit that some tests he relied on to support his conclusion had never been conducted. But he shrugged that off as a minor oversight, maintaining that because organic farmers favor manure and other natural fertilizers over synthetic chemicals, organic produce carries a greater risk of E. coli infection and ``could kill you.'' What wasn't mentioned is that most of the manure spread on land in the United States is, in fact, used by conventional farmers. The difference is that organic farmers are the only ones required to farm in a way that might minimize the risk of E. coli or other food-borne illness. Organic certification standards require that all raw manure is applied to the fields or orchards at least 60 days, and sometimes as many as 120 days, before the produce is harvested -- a period that allows for ecological processes that eliminate harmful microbes. (The pathogens become food for other soil organisms or degrade from exposure to the elements).

Conventional growers, in contrast, can spray on raw, uncomposted manure (even on fruits and veggies that are but days from being harvested), in addition to human sewage sludge and slurry from industrial animal farms -- all practices that are explicitly forbidden under organic regulations.

There has been no systematic analysis of whether organic or nonorganic foods carry a greater risk of E. coli O157 -- the particular strain that is so deadly to humans and that we hear so much about in the news -- but the prevailing epidemiology of this bug points to the safety of organic over conventional farming. Nearly all cases of E. coli 0157 result from consumption of contaminated meat, a function of the conditions of industrial factory farms and meat processing plants. For livestock that are used to eating mostly grass and straw, the feedlot diet of grain concentrate encourag es the proliferation of E. coli 0157 in the animal's gut, while the highly confined and unsanitary conditions facilitate transmission of the bugs between animals. At the same time, overuse of antibiotics in the feedlot diet virtually ensures the potency of emerging microbes. Meanwhile, meat packing at breakneck speed, often in close proximity to animal carcasses and feces, paves the way for additional contamination.

In those cases that do occur in produce, the E. coli generally enters the food chain at the packaging and handling stage, not the farm environment.

Here are a few other things that weren't mentioned: ABC's false claims relied almost exclusively on testimony of Dennis Avery of the agribusiness-funded Hudson Institute, whose thoughts on pesticides and food- borne illness have already been widely discredited. Last year, Avery manipulated data from the Centers for Disease Control in order to back his claim that organic produce carries a greater risk of E. coli than nonorganic produce. CDC officials have stated that their data do not support Avery's claims -- a fact that might deter most journalists (even TV journalists) from relying on Avery as a source.

The report also played down the risk of pesticide residues, claiming (with data that did not exist) that organic produce has no fewer pesticide residues than nonorganic produce. In truth, organic produce -- from bananas to peppers to strawberries -- has been consistently shown to carry fewer toxic pesticide residues than nonorganic produce. Some of the more recent evidence includes the January 1998 issue of Consumer Reports, which tested 1,000 pounds of organic and nonorganic produce, and found that organic produce consistently carried the lowest, and least-toxic, pesticide residues. (The fact that even foods grown without pesticides may contain trace pesticide residues is the unfortunate consequence of past pesticide use which has left background pesticide levels in the soil, water supply and even our bodies.) Perhaps the most basic oversight of the report was the failure to mention that organic farming -- the fastest growing sector of the food economy -- offers tremendous hope for reconciling the toll that industrial, chemical-dependent farming has taken on rivers and streams, topsoil, wildlife and the environment in general. By relying on a sophisticated understanding of crop diversity, nutrient cycling, predator-prey interactions and other ecological processes occurring in the field, instead of chemical quick-fixes, organic farming provides a model for improving the way we currently grow most of our food.

The fabrication of information on an ABC news report -- not to mention the neglect of extensive evidence disputing its conclusions -- raises serious questions of journalistic integrity. According to Brill's Content magazine, over the last two years, Stossel has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from various industry and conservative groups, including agribusiness interests. At the very least, this gives the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, and with the organic food market in this country growing by more than 20 percent a year, there is no shortage of groups who feel threatened -- agrochemical companies, biotech companies, and nonorganic food manufacturers and retailers.

``All we have in this business is our credibility -- your trust that we get it right,` Stossel reminds the audience in his apology. Unfortunately, for his and ABC's reputation, this realization has come too late.

The writer is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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