TCS Daily

Toxic Shock

By Thomas R. DeGregori - October 16, 2003 12:00 AM

From Ripley Today online news site we learn that on Saturday September 27, "Greenpeace campaigners" exchanged "what they described as genetically modified milk for the organic alternative, free of charge" at a booth in front of a Sainsbury's grocery store. This was allegedly for the purpose of food safety and informing and protecting consumers. Somehow Greenpeace always seems to have an uncanny ability to get things exactly opposite to the truth and in this case, once again they have not failed us in being egregiously in error.

In a number of recently published scholarly articles by organic agriculture proponents, the argument has been made that organic food crops are more nutritious because they are less well protected against attacks by insects or micro-organisms. Consequently, organic food crops express a variety of toxins (secondary metabolites) such as the phenolics that are considered by some to contribute to good health though there is precious little evidence for these claims.


Ignored by the authors is the fact that most secondary metabolites expressed by plants that have been tested are shown to be rodent carcinogens and that two different U.S. National Academy of Sciences studies (in 1973 and 1996) have argued that 99.99% of the toxins that we ingest are from the plants themselves and not from synthetic manufactured chemicals. Or as Bruce Ames as put it, "we are ingesting in our diet at least 10,000 times more by weight of natural pesticides than of man-made residues."

Recent investigations by the UK Food Safety Agency have clearly validated the organic claim that their plants are less well protected as every batch of organic maize meal tested massively exceeded the allowable tolerance for fumonisins, a fungal toxin. Some conventionally produced maize also exceeded the tolerance but by a much smaller margin and many batches of conventional maize were safely below the tolerance.


Had the milk-producing cows in question actually been fed genetically modified maize, the margin would even be higher as field studies have found the fumonisin and mycotoxin levels to be 30 to 40 times lower in genetically modified maize than the conventionally grown maize which we have seen is significantly lower in infestation than the organically grown maize. While the medical evidence is mixed for the harm to humans from normal levels of fumonisins in animal feed due to the poor absorption levels by livestock, the evidence for the harm from other mycotoxins such as the aflatoxins is overwhelming and a major continuing health problem in poor countries today. Given the preference by organic consumers and producers for fecal enhancement of their food crops by using manure instead of synthetic fertilizer, the likelihood of fungal infestation is even greater.

What the Greenpeace promotion was saying is that the milk that you bought is poison so you should exchange it for good wholesome "organic" milk. Ironically, however small the probability may be, organic milk could well be highly toxic containing all natural poisons. At very least, organic milk poses a far greater threat than milk produced from cows fed genetically modified maize for which there is absolutely no evidence of harm.

The vastly lower levels of fumonisin and other fungal toxins in genetically modified maize were largely a by-product of lower insect infestation. Insects attacking plants in conventional or organic agriculture carried fungus on their hairs while creating plant lesions for the fungus to enter. Fungal toxins such as the fumonisins are known to be fatal to horses and pigs when they are contaminants of their feed. When cows eat infected grain, fumonisins and other mycotoxins can be passed into the milk.

Isn't it time that consumers everywhere hold Greenpeace and organic food producers to the standards of conduct and food safety that they claim to be promoting? Using the "logic" of Greenpeace, the findings of fumonisin-infested maize by the Food Standard Agency are more than sufficient to demand the testing for fungal toxins of all organic milk produced by cows fed organic maize in the US, the UK and elsewhere. The advocates of "zero tolerance" should consider anything less to be needlessly putting children in harm's way in order to further the ideological agenda of zealous activist groups.


It follows then, that until the mechanism for carrying out such as testing program are in place, there should be a moratorium on the feeding of organic grain to milk cows and the sale of organic milk and the recall of that which has been already been sold. Until there is the kind of absolutely certain knowledge that organic milk is not fungal toxin enhanced that Greenpeace demands for transgenic foods, they ought to set up booths and provide good wholesome milk in exchange for organic milk that is so much more likely to be contaminated. Such measures may sound extreme to some, this author included, but they are simply what Greenpeace has advocated for genetically modified crops for which they did not have the slightest theoretical or empirical evidence of possible harm. Evidence of harm, however slight, is vastly superior to absence of any evidence of harm and should constitute a basis for action.

Thomas R. DeGregori is a Professor of Economics at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas, USA and the author of the just published book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Publishing Company, 2003) where these and other food safety issues are discussed. He is also on the Board of the American Council on Science and Health.

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