The bio-wave – a business based on fear
By Michael Miersch
The success of organic farming is based on two assumptions. Firstly, what we eat used to be more wholesome. Secondly, natural is better than artificial. While these assumptions are not true, they are nonetheless widely held. In the rich, industrialized countries, many people only see the risks associated with science and technology advances. The supposedly self-sufficient rural life of the 19th Century is idealized and hankered after as an alternative way of life. Organic products cater to this wistful nostalgia for an unspoilt world. Yet, heavy physical work, poverty, ignorance and premature death were all part of this so-called idyllic existence.
It has to be said that organic farming has made an indisputable contribution. Along with scientists, organic farmers were the ones who first drew attention to the abuses within agriculture during the 20th Century. They were justified in their criticism of the thoughtless use of pesticides as well as excessive fertilization of the soil and inhumane practices in animal husbandry. Organic farms continue to set a good example by using appropriate animal stalls. However, when it comes to raising crops, modern agriculture stands up to scrutiny and does not need to shy away from comparison. While organic farming associations cling to old dogma, agricultural science has evolved considerably. Today’s farmers use pesticides more sparingly and more precisely. New active agents are ecologically more compatible. Fertilization is generally more measured.
Nevertheless, concrete comparisons attract little public interest. Most consumers are not interested in knowing how organic farming is actually practiced, what methods are employed and what chemical compounds are used. According to Berlin daily newspaper, taz, “Many consumers do not know what ‘organic’ means specifically – but they approve of it.”
The majority of people purchasing food with a “bio” label do not know, for example, that organic farmers also combat harmful insects, weeds and fungi with a whole range of poisons. The only substances they are not allowed to use are chemicals, produced in chemical factories. The list of permitted substances includes several dozen compounds, including plant extracts, refined oil products, bacterial strains and chemicals. Copper and sulfur preparations are regularly used, particularly in fruit orchards and vineyards. As no additional effective compounds in these categories have been registered for certain plant diseases, organic fruit growers spray considerably more often than their conventional colleagues. “That copper is applied in the organic sector,” says food chemist and best-selling author, Udo Pollmer, “upends all the lies associated with ecological propaganda. Copper is a heavy metal that we can never get out of the soil again. It does massive damage to soil organisms.”
Many bio-food consumers ignore this unpalatable fact. After all, they want to trust in something that appears good and pure. This blind trust is misplaced as there is no proof that organic products offer superior quality, despite the fact that supporters of organic farming as well as independent researchers have been trying to find such evidence for more than half a century. Many representatives within the organic sector openly acknowledge this. “Organic vegetables have the same nutrient content as conventionally grown vegetables; therefore it follows that they are not intrinsically healthier,” says Georg Schweisfurth, founder of the German organic food-retailing chain, “Basic.”
It would be difficult to gather hard evidence to the contrary as it would mean tracking organic food buyers and normal consumers over a number of decades to repeatedly assess the state of their health, excluding all other factors such as genetic predisposition, stress and environmental contamination. Since no such scientific data is available to date, we have to rely on circumstantial evidence.
A comprehensive overview of relevant research work was published in 1997 in the “British Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.” Its summary says that, “No clear and consistent differences could be found between the nutritional value of organic and conventionally grown foods.” Likewise, in 2006, researchers at Athens University published a scientific metastudy entitled “Food Safety and Organic Foods”, where they evaluated and cross-compared many previous studies. They concluded that, “There is currently no proof that confirms or refutes the proposition that organic foods are safer or more wholesome than those that are conventionally grown. In addition, they stressed the need to clarify that ‘organic’ does not automatically equate to ‘safe’.”
A 2003 study by the Senate of the German Federal Research Institute, commissioned by former German Consumer Minister, Renate Künast, also found no comparable differences. In the tables comparing cereal grains, potatoes, fruits and pork, the same comment “No difference” featured repeatedly. “The study’s abstract concluded, “From a scientific perspective, the evidence presented to date does not allow the conclusion that the exclusive or predominant consumption of ecologically produced foods would directly enhance human health.”
In yet another study, the German product testing foundation, Stiftung Warentest, could not detect any fundamental differences. Forty-one percent of the organic products examined between 2002 and 2007 received the rating “good” and four percent were rated “very good.” The result was similar for non-organic products, where 46 percent received a “good” rating and one percent was deemed to be “very good”. Even within the poorer ratings, there were no major differences discerned.
What has been demonstrated, however, is that there are considerably fewer residual traces of synthetic pesticides found on organic food. Yet the anxiety that many people feel about pesticide residues on their food contrasts sharply with the assessment of technical experts. The overwhelming majority of toxicologists rank the health danger from pesticide residue as extremely small. While the regulatory agencies occasionally discover values that exceed the upper legal limits for vegetables and fruit (which in turn stimulates alarming headlines in the media), such excess values usually fall well below the levels relevant for human health. It is important to remember that the legal ceilings are set extremely low. As a rule, they are 100 to 100,000 times lower than the level determined to adversely impact human health, based on experiments conducted on animals.
This frequent scare-mongering about pesticide residues also does not reflect modern advances in measuring technology. Dilutions to one part per trillion are now measurable. The famously quoted example of a sugar cube in Lake Starnberg could actually be detected today.
The fact that vegetables contain natural pesticides is not well known. The plants themselves produce poisons that are designed to discourage animals – say, caterpillars – from devouring them. This means that more than 99 percent of all pesticides that we ingest with our foods are of natural origin. British molecular biologist Anthony Trewevas points out that every person ingests several thousand natural, but toxic, pesticides daily as part of his normal regular diet. He estimates the total amount of these compounds to be a quarter of a teaspoonful a day. The danger of cancer from the natural toxins in fruit and vegetables, explains Bruce Ames, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology, is 10,000 times higher than the risk from pesticide residues. “In a single cup of coffee,” writes Ames, “there are more compounds that trigger cancer in experiments on animals than there are potentially carcinogenic pesticide residues in the foods consumed by an average American in a year.”
Contamination by natural disease stimulants such as mould fungi, microbes, bacteria and viruses receives far less public attention than synthetic pesticides. Yet this issue is significantly more relevant to human health. For example, in Germany, many hundreds of thousands of people fall ill every year from such diseases with around 200 dying of food poisoning and other food infections. One of the sources of this contamination is natural fertilizer made from animal manure (which many conventional farmers also use). According to the rules of organic farming, the dung has to be composted for a long time so that the heat kills germs, but in actual practice infected dung is often repeatedly spread on vegetables.
As Beda M. Stadler, an immunologist at the University of Bern points out, “A return to medieval production methods can also mean simply that medieval dangers reoccur,” Before the advent of modern hygiene, natural poisons in the diet were a major cause of pestilence. In particular, fungal poisons (mycotoxins) cost many human lives. Many of these mycotoxins are among the most virulent carcinogens. Thanks to quality controls and the use of fungicides, the danger of fungal poisoning in foods is much smaller today– at least in the rich, industrialized countries. Yet it still represents a much greater risk than that posed by pesticide residues.
In industrialized countries, we have never enjoyed such diverse and healthy foods as we do today. Despite this, the fear of being poisoned or eating the wrong diet is greater than ever. “Greenpeace warns of pesticides in grapes!”; “Poisons lurking in the spice cabinet!”; “Poison in fruit and vegetables!”; “Pesticide alert! Our wine is poisonous!” During 2008, headlines like these appeared in the newspaper regularly. In previous years, Greenpeace campaigns against pesticide residues on foods succeeded in stirring up strong emotions. No wonder the contributor-financed organization singled this issue out as being of huge importance. A 2006 Eurobarometer survey revealed that most consumers regard pesticide residues as the biggest danger in their diet.
The media will always look for controversial news hooks and angles to arouse strong public reaction. The pattern is usually the same. Some sort of teaser campaign will gradually build to a hysterical crescendo, where every trivial detail, however meaningless, is rolled out and constantly repeated. Finally, these details are presented as unchallenged facts into the daily flood of news. Our popular, media-influenced culture drums itself into a kind of trance, a bit like an ancient tribal ritual. At the high point of the mad-cow-disease panic (BSE), Düsseldorf’s “Rheinische Post” printed the letter of a scared reader who wanted to know whether he could become infected from his cowhide sofa.
Information about poisons cannot rationally be evaluated by readers and viewers unless it is placed within the context of commonplace risks. This is all about perspective. American toxicologist Bruce Ames did this when he compared the toxicity of TCDD (the most poisonous compound from the category of dioxins) with alcohol. The maximum dose permitted in the United States, according to Ames, compares it to the cancer-causing potential of one beer in 345 years. In addition, many natural foods contain compounds similar to dioxin and which have the same effect. A serving of broccoli corresponds to an amount of dioxin which is 1,500 times above the maximum legal trace amount. In order to gain a more informed perspective, it is also useful to know that over the last decade, the dioxin pollution in Germany has reduced by 60 percent and that contamination levels in human breast milk have fallen by more than 50 percent since the 1980s.
Contrary to popular perception, German regulators are not inclined to look the other way. In fact, they are far more likely to test and re-test, regardless of cost for no logical reason. Sucharit Bhakdi, director of the Institute for Microbiology and Hygiene at the University of Mainz, points out that hundreds of millions of Euros have been spent over the years on BSE tests that have accomplished nothing. He says, “Examining millions of brains from healthy cows is total nonsense.” The statistics speak for themselves. In 2007, BSE was diagnosed in around 400 animals in Germany, none of whom at that point showed symptoms of the disease. To date, no case of the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) has been detected in Germany (this deadly brain disease is in all likelihood transmitted by the consumption of BSE-contaminated beef products). Bhakdi concludes, “Although hundreds of thousands of healthy cows have been tested at considerable cost, funds are lacking to effectively diagnose the influenza virus in the population. In stark contrast with BSE, an influenza epidemic is likely to cost thousands of human lives.
Scare-mongering activists and the gullible media who hang on their every word pose as agents of enlightenment to the public. Yet their hysterical treatment of the slightest danger is the exact opposite of enlightenment. All sense of proportion has been completely lost. People who nonchalantly climb on their motorbikes suddenly become terrified of enjoying some French fries. The perception is that the food industry operates like a criminal mob aided and abetted by government regulators who conspire and cover up. Like all industries, there is likely to be some level of criminal activity in food retailing corporations as well as corruption within the regulatory agencies. Yet to assume that this is normal, widespread practice is to adopt an extremely naive and negative view of the world. This permanent and contrived state of heightened alert about nothing accomplishes nothing. The only result is to spoil people’s appetite and plunge them into complete confusion as well as providing a topic of conversation for the relevant organizations and the media.
If “bio” is not healthier, is it at least better for the environment? The answer is yes and no. Organic farms, situated in intensively cultivated farming districts, can show a greater species diversity of songbirds and other animals and plants. However, that has less to do with the growing methods used than the fact that many organic farmers plant hedges and trees and do not drain surface water. Yet, organic farming has its own disadvantages. Since the harvests are smaller, it requires at least a third more acreage to produce the same amount.
Let’s just assume that all the world’s farmers switched to organic farming. This would signal the end for forests, plains and wetlands – a disaster for nature. Domestic animals roaming freely would need huge open spaces and their droppings would degrade the soil very quickly into sewage. We are only playing out a theory. However, if the advocates of organic farming believe that they hold the solution to the world’s nutrition problems, they have to logically look at all the likely consequences. The facts are simple - more cultivated acreage means less for nature.
This view is rebutted by organic farming enthusiasts who say that humans can live with vegetarian nutrition. Their argument is that fodder for animals no longer needs to be grown. However, in a vegetarian world, domestic animals would continue to be needed in order to deliver the biological fertilizer for organic farming (since synthetic fertilizer is forbidden in organic farming). Agricultural scientist and Nobel peace prize-winner, Norman Borlaug calculated that more than five billion cattle would be needed to produce the nitrogen required for grain growing, using biological methods - the global cattle herd currently includes 1.3 billion animals.
Ecologist Josef H. Reichholf cites another problem. Excessive fertilization of the soils with nitrogen is the greatest ecological problem caused by agriculture. It causes a steep drop in the diversity of plant life, insect species and ground-nesting birds.
Yet natural fertilization with animal manure offers no additional advantages. On the contrary, it makes matters worse. In central Europe, for practical reasons, the spreading of natural fertilizer on fields takes place when the plants can least exploit the benefits. The spreading happens generally three times a year; at the end of winter as the tanks are full but critically before the new plants start growing; after the summer harvest, because the farmer is able to spread the liquid manure on the bare fields more easily; and in late autumn, in order to empty the storage space before the onset of winter. “Synthetic fertilizer is therefore ecologically advantageous for this reason,” says Reichholf. “It can be parceled out better than manure – whether it is ‘biological’ or not.”
However, instead of openly debating such issues, these illusions are preserved in ‘bio’ ideology. The bio associations cultivate such dogma and shut themselves off from new ideas. Retailing sells the customer an idyllic notion of natural, higher quality food which can demand higher prices.
Despite the erroneous developments in modern agriculture, people in industrialized countries can now choose from a broad range of healthy and high quality food of which earlier generations could only dream. Of course, humans are not perfect; fraud and negligence will regrettably crop up from time to time in the food industry. When these problems occur, we must operate in an open and transparent manner by exposing the issue publicly and holding those responsible fully accountable. Yet the number of real scandals is relatively few. More frequent is the number of instigated, media-propagated “fake scandals” and hysterical exaggerations from which an entire industry of fear has been created and sustained. There is no reason to live in perpetual fear of poison in foods.
Copyright © 1996-2011 Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch.