The Attack on Organics

Anti-organics study funded by Cargill and other corporations
November 1, 2012

Food issues have been much in the news recently, but I want to focus on what can only be called an attempt to trash organic food and organic farming – an attempt that, as we shall see, fits into a larger agenda.

The early September media headlines (Sept. 3-5) got the essential message across in a few seconds, whether or not one bothered to read or listen to the ensuing report: “Organic Food Is No Healthier Than Conventional Food” (U.S. News & World Report); “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce” (The New York Times); “Organic Food Not Much Healthier: Study” (CTV News); “Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Non-Organic: Study” (Toronto Sun); “Organic Food’s Health Benefits Questioned in U.S. Study” (CBC News), “Stanford Study Shows Organic Food No Safer Or Healthier Than Conventional Food” (National Post).

Many hundreds of media outlets carried similar headlines, and – with the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and other news services also spreading the news item - it could be that thousands of media outlets world-wide carried news about a Stanford University study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that found (as AP put it) “little evidence that going organic is much healthier” for anyone.

What’s immediately striking about the initial media coverage is that, in Canada at least, only the Toronto Star (Sept. 4) seems to have carried a headline substantially different from the herd: “Study Confirms Organic Foods Superior, Canadian Organic Growers Say.” The study had also found that organic foods reduce consumers’ exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

On Sept. 8, the Toronto Star carried a column by Heather Mallick, which is worth quoting at length: “Scientific studies that debunk theories no rational person would hold in the first place always get the biggest headlines and thereafter win their authors more lucrative grants. Poor abused science. Take last week’s ‘Organic food “not any healthier”’ on the BBC’s website. I yield to no one in my admiration for BBC TV and radio, but its grossly misleading headline on its starved website was on the level of USA Today’s ‘Study sees no nutritional edge in organic food’ accompanied by a less-than-gripping online video about melons, featuring a cantaloupe... Call me cynical, but at no time have I ever thought organic food contained more vitamins or nutrients. Why would it? The suggestion is a straw man that lazy news outlets are happy to beat into the ground with a special science hoe. I do assume, however, that organic food contains fewer pesticides, which is why it’s called ‘organic’.”

Organically produced foods must be grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, insecticidal toxins, antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, genetically-modified seeds, sewage sludge, and other things that conventional agribusiness uses.

“Lazy News Outlets”

The anti-organics study was conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy. According to my research, not a single mainstream media outlet bothered to investigate the Stanford Center for Health Policy or the corporate funders behind the study.

Had they bothered, they would have found (by simply checking the university’s website) that the Stanford Center for Health Policy “is run under the auspices of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies,” whose 2011 Annual Report shows that its research is funded by millions of dollars from Cargill, BP, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Google, Goldman Sachs, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and other corporate backers.

Agribusiness giant Cargill has given at least $5 million to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for research and other purposes. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is heavily invested in both Cargill and Monsanto, and is a major promoter and funder worldwide of genetically-modified crops (see July/Aug. 2010 CCPA Monitor). Goldman Sachs (as the Oct. 2012 issue of CCPA Monitor revealed) was largely responsible for turning food into a commodity for Wall Street speculators, with the result that, by 2012, “bankers and traders sit at the top of the food chain,” causing rapidly escalating food prices that have brought “the total of the world’s ‘food insecure’ to a peak of one billion – a number never seen before.”

What these Stanford funders are pushing is genetically-modified food as the answer to global food insecurity, a situation which some of them have helped to create.

But back to the Stanford study.

Debunking the Debunkers

In the days immediately following the anti-organic media blitz, a number of alternative news sources questioned the Stanford study, especially because of the university’s ties to Monsanto and Cargill.

Toronto’s Now Magazine food writer Wayne Roberts wrote (Sept. 13-19): “Can I ask why the report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was considered so newsworthy when it wasn’t based on original research? The paper is a ‘meta-analysis’ of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years, the ninth in a decade and the fourth to turn thumbs-down on organic claims to nutritional superiority. Not exactly trailblazing stuff.”

The Stanford researchers looked at 17 studies of the effects of food on humans, and at 223 studies of the nutritional qualities of food. However, the project excluded all scientific studies not written in English.

Roberts also wrote: “How much does this 12-person [Stanford] research team, which includes nary a professional nutritionist, agrologist, or bio-medical specialist, actually know? One member is a librarian, a few are graduate students, several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious diseases, bio-terrorism, diagnosis, or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant. The heavy hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, a professor emeritus in statistics who once did work for the tobacco industry.”

By Oct. 2, a blogger for The New York Times (Mark Bittman) was calling the Stanford study “the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness.” He also called it “an exercise in misdirection” that was “aggressively spun by the PR masters.”

But by then, of course, the barrage of anti-organic headlines had already had its affect on the public – which was likely the purpose in the first place.

As observed ( Sept. 15), “By design, the [Stanford anti-organic] study appears to have been intended to both minimize the value of organic food, and maximize the supposed value of conventional and genetically modified (GM) food. The ultimate goal of this equalization effort is to increase public acceptance of genetically–modified organisms (GMOs), particularly as states like California ramp up to pass mandatory GMO labeling laws.

GMO Labelling

Big agribusiness, chemical, biotech, and major food companies are spending more than $24 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37 (the California Right to Know Act), which would require all food containing genetically-modified ingredients to be labelled as such. Prop 37 will be on the ballot in California on Nov. 8. According to the Alliance for Natural Health USA, of the 31 biggest financial backers of front groups opposing GMO labelling, Monsanto and DuPont have each spent more than $4 million, while PepsiCo, BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and ConAgra Foods have each put more than $1 million into the anti-labelling campaign.

Vancouver’s Common Ground (Sept. 2012) reported: “Fifty countries, including the European Union member states, Japan, and other key U.S. trading partners have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered foods. No international agreements prohibit the mandatory identification of foods produced through genetic engineering.”

In the U.S., polls consistently show that more than 90% of the public want to know if their food is genetically modified. In Canada, 91% of the public want mandatory GMO labelling of foods.

“Switching the Narrative”

According to an amazing article called “Mitt Romney, Monsanto Man,” published in The Nation (Sept. 12), “[Monsanto’s] profits plunged in 2010 as evidence mounted that GM seeds, 90% of which originate with Monsanto, weren’t boosting yields as promised. Consumer resistance has already forced Monsanto to retreat from the GM potato, tomato, wheat, rice, flaxseed and bio-pharmaceutical crops.”

On Sept. 26, 2012, Forbes published an article by a PR pro who wrote that studies showing health dangers from GMOs (and there are now dozens of such studies) should be referred to as “junk science.” He also suggested that companies “need to switch the narrative altogether to show that safe GM crops are an environmental survival tool; that, conversely, junk science is an environmental hazard.”

Since 2008, study after international study has concluded that organic farming is by far the best way to feed the world, provide more employment across all countries, and care for the planet. But North American agribusiness is intent on “switching the narrative” to discredit organic and extol GM crops.

The Stanford study is clearly part of that process.

(Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)