TCS Daily

Food Fear-Mongers Move an Agenda Comprised of Their Science

By Duane D. Freese - August 27, 2001 12:00 AM

You may have missed this on your last trip to the grocery, but according to Walnut Acres, "Americans fear their food."

Yes. Fear.

"There is palpable fear of the unknown and an increasing belief that what you can't see might hurt you," opined Oliver Sonnois, vice president of strategy and development for Acirca Inc., maker of Walnut Acres soups and salsas.

And what are people doing? Well, according to a Walnut Acres consumer survey, they are turning to fecal and carbon agricultural technology, FAT CAT for short, or organic to fans.

"The explosion in popularity of organic food is largely attributable to the barrage of headlines about Mad Cow, growth hormones, foot-and-mouth disease, and other threats to food safety," Sonnois said.

"Certified organic foods and beverages," he said, "provide American consumers with peace of mind and an assurance of safety."

Why they would have such assurance for organic foods but not others is strange.

Certified organic, FAT CAT foods carry a premium price tag - 57% higher on average than their conventional agricultural counterparts, according to Consumers Reports. But there is no evidence that makes them any tastier, more nutritious or, in particular, safer.

As the British House of Commons noted in a statement issued because of outrageous claims made by their organic producers: "We have reservations about the claims made for organics and we believe that far more work needs to be done to establish a scientific basis for these claims." And the U.S. Department of Agriculture made it a point when it issued its organic guidelines last year that the label organic says nothing about safety or quality, only about the way the food is produced.

It's that method, relying on animal waste and limited pest management, that isn't necessarily safe. As Ricardo Gomez, chief horticulturist for the Department of Agriculture testified in 1998, "We do know a lot about manure and its relationship to the organic matter and fertility of the soil. We know a lot about it. But we do not know much about its microbiological problems with foods that we consume."

Except that microbiological problems can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 5,000 Americans a year die from nature's pathogens and toxins. While government knows pretty well the level of pesticide that people can safely consume, it has almost no idea how long it takes for pathogens from manure to die off in the field.

Still, puffing up your own product is no crime. What's hard to swallow is the organic food maker's attack upon advances such as genetic engineering needed to better feed the world, by linking imaginary dangers about it to more real ones such as mad-cow disease.

Julia Moore, formerly of Physicians for Social Responsibility and now a Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar, in an article "More than a Food Fight" in the National Academy of Sciences' Summer Issues on Science and Technology, notes that in Europe "the public response to GM foods can be linked to events that have no link to genetic engineering." She quotes Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, as exemplifying his Green Party's opposition when he said: "Europeans don't want genetically modified food - period. It does not matter what research shows; they just do not want it and that has to be respected."

The failure of European governments and Britain's, in particular, to deal with human dangers from mad cow and other threats underlies this distrust of government and science, she claims. And she suggests the only way to rebuild that trust is to fund independent research to examine new agricultural technologies, establish a "precautionary principle" based on sound science for introducing them, and have "civic scientists" come out to engage in a public dialogue.

Dig beneath the surface of those ideas and you'll see they can pose risks of their own.

For one thing, who would do "the independent research"? Greenpeace? Friends of the Earth? The United Nations? Moore suggests involving all of them - nongovernmental organizations and international bodies such as the World Health Organization -- to resolve scientific issues

That's a little scary. As the Oxford Economic Research Associates report on scientific advice to Britain's government concluded earlier this year, too much independence, especially of the wrong type, could sacrifice expertise, which is a bad deal for everyone. "The independent scientist is an ideal," the report concluded. "Individuals tend to have biases and personal motives. In practice it is better to identify and manage the biases of expert advisers, than to require their total independence." Amen.

The NGOs all have their own political agendas that tend to color their "science." And international bodies aren't exactly hallmarks of rectitude, either. The United Nations in claiming to be the final authority on climate change has given more credence in deliberations to the 1,300 NGOs it sanctions than to highly respected scientists who've challenged the UN's global warming prejudice.

As far as putting in place a sensible precautionary principle, science can never guarantee perfect safety. It can only assess relative risks, such as you are more likely to die of a gastrointestinal illness caused by a natural pathogen than to fall in the tub and crack your head and fall than be hit by lightning, and be hit by lightning than win the lotto, and win the lotto than suffer an allergic reaction to any GM food, no matter how much you eat it. This realism doesn't matter, according to Germany's Green Foreign Minister Fischer. Indeed, Greenpeace's British leader, Lord Melchert, mocks any idea of a science-based precautionary principle for judging GM products by saying his opposition to GM food was "permanent and definite and complete on a view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science, that there will not be absolute proof."

No scientist can argue with such blindness. Galileo certainly couldn't overcome it when he went before the Jesuitical Inquisition that forced him on threat of torture to recant his belief in Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. Neither mathematics nor direct observation through the telescope Galileo created could do the trick.

Fortunately, today, unlike Galileo's time there is no single authority - national or international -- controlling science. Businesses, universities and regulatory agencies all contribute their knowledge. And Greenpeace, while it may organize boycotts, smear campaigns and destruction of scientific experiments for those who don't agree with its views, cannot physically put scientists on the rack.

Unfortunately, though, more lives hang in the balance in this battle. Organic food is too labor intensive, too costly, too FAT CAT, to feed a burgeoning world population. Its technique can't be applied readily to large-scale agriculture. At the same time, the productivity growth sparked by the Green Revolution with the use of fertilizers and pesticides is slowing down. It allowed population to grow to 6 billion without massive starvation and malnutrition. Still, 880 million people remain malnourished, and about 6 million children under five die each year from malnutrition. And world population is expected to increase by 3 to 4 billion over the next 30 years before leveling off.

To feed them, more food is needed. Genetic modification is a key tool to produce more of it in an environmentally friendlier way. Yet, Greenpeace and the organic food groups like Walnut Acres prefer to raise phony fears about it. They continue to pursue principles of safety for conventional and GM crops that they never would apply to their own. And for what purpose? Well, having spent so much time looking through the long end of the telescope at genetic foods, maybe it's time to turn it fully on them. Why are Walnut Acres and Greenpeace so interested in stirring up a climate of fear about food?

As a diversion of what people should really fear, the real fat cats in the food fight, them?


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