I have just returned from my first visit to Canada. As I'm sure many Americans do, I kept an internal tally: This is like the United States, this is not. I was pleasantly surprised by all the ways Montreal differed from cities to the south: the open-air markets, the jazz festival, the street festivals, the feeling of community, and the valuing of public spaces. So I was unnerved after glancing at The Globe and Mail to see something upsettingly familiar. "It's pesticide-free, but is it better?" the headline asked. I had a weird sense of déjà vu.
In the book I just wrote with my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, we talk about a February, 2000, episode of 20/20 that declared organic food no better nutritionally than conventional foods; besides, one might bite into nasty parasites. The news show added that there seemed to be no difference in pesticide residue levels between organic and conventional. The segment ended with Barbara Walters asking aloud: "I've been paying more for organics, but is it worth it?"
Two years later, the Canadian newspaper stories seem remarkably similar: There's no nutritional difference between conventional and organic, so why bother paying more?
Well, shortly after the 20/20 episode aired, a flurry of complaints forced the station to re-evaluate the evidence. Their new conclusion? Whoops. It turns out that an "objective expert" they cited, Dennis Avery, works for the Hudson Institute, a think tank financed by chemical giants such as Dow, Monsanto and Novartis, and that he's penned such books as Saving the Planet Through Pesticides and Plastics.
It also turns out that, though the scientists' comparative "studies" apparently proved there was no pesticide residue on either organic or conventional foods, they never tested for pesticides. John Stossel, the 20/20 reporter responsible for the segment, made a public apology (in August of 2000, during summer reruns). Millions of people had watched the program, few heard the apology.
Recent Canadian news stories may similarly mislead the public. The Globe and Mail article cited a study on organic foods by the University of Guelph. It acknowledged (in a parenthetical note) that the Guelph researchers stressed that their research was "done with a very small sample and was not peer-reviewed." The story mentioned that the researchers were contracted to do this study, but didn't say by whom. (Guelph counts drug multinationals such as Novartis and Pharmacia among its major funders.)
The jury may still be out on this business of nutrient-content comparisons. But there is no debate about the value of organics. The United States is one of the world's leading users of agricultural chemicals. Now we're paying the price. Our soils have been so contaminated and nutrient-bled that we're seriously degrading the nutrient content of all the food we're growing. Our farmers and farmworkers are daily exposed to dangerous pesticides.
As for the question of pesticide residue, countless studies have shown more than trace levels of pesticides in a variety of chemically grown produce. And agricultural chemical runoff has helped create an 18,000-square-kilometre dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (ranked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as America's most polluted coastal water).
Enormous strides have been made in sustainable agriculture. We can produce the abundance we need without squandering our resources. I thought our enlightened northern neighbors wouldn't buy the chemical industry spin that we need their products to produce enough food to feed the world. But the reports I read while in Montreal left most readers scratching their heads, asking, "Tell me again why organics are so important?"
Let's take a little visit to the Gulf of Mexico, shall we?