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Organic vs. Conventional: Pundits Are Welcome to Their Own Opinion, But Not Their Own Facts

Opinion

Because Food Safety News holds an important perspective in the industry, I was surprised to see the website publish a commentary by Mr. Mischa Popoff.

Mr. Popoff has spent the last few years promoting his self-published book, Is It Organic.  He has made irresponsible and unsupported claims that 80 percent of all organic food in North America is imported and riddled with fraud — a grave disservice to the hard-working organic farmers in this country and their loyal customers.

The subtitle of his book says it all: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Million$ in the Process, and a Comprehensive History of Farming, Warfare and Western Civilization from 1645 to the Present.

Whoa Nelly!  If you connect the dots, by looking at the other issues that Mr. Popoff writes about, and commonly published on ultraconservative websites (challenging climate change, defending genetically engineered food production, challenging the efficacy of hybrid automobiles and even parenting issues) you would have to conclude that organic food is a component of some kind of Bolshevik plot to take over this country.

He joins the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute, in taking every opportunity to denigrate the reputation of organics.  Many of the think tanks that support the Averys, and now Popoff, have received funding from Monsanto, DuPont and other interests in the agrochemical and biotechnology industries.  Companies that produce farm chemicals and genetically engineered seed quite rightfully might be concerned by the growing competition stemming from the shift to eating organically by consumers.

I encourage you to read The Cornucopia Institute’s backgrounder, Who Is Misha Popoff.

Popoff has had almost no exposure in the mainstream media here in the U.S., so it is disturbing to find his byline on Food Safety News. 

There is no factual basis for his thesis, articulated in his op-ed, that somehow organic food is more dangerous than conventional food and that the basis of the problem is the lack of testing for pathogenic contamination.

It is incumbent on all farmers and food producers to follow basic food safety protocols.  The organic law prescribes a set of standards for farmers and food processors.  Organic production is subject to the same regulatory protocols prescribed by the USDA and FDA and any applicable state and local laws.

In addition, Popoff’s essay includes the following inaccurate and misleading information:

1.      His claim that, “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology,” is patently false.  There’s been virtually no human health testing (not required by the federal government) and there have been almost no lifetime trials on laboratory animals (just short term studies).  Furthermore, there is a growing body of peer-reviewed, published scientific literature pointing to some significant abnormalities in laboratory animals and livestock being fed genetically modified feed.

Consumers choosing to eat organically are exercising caution by operating under the “Precautionary Principle.”

2.      He suggests that any organic food contaminated with pathogens should not be allowed to be certified as organic.  This is a specious argument because any food, organic or conventional, contaminated with dangerous pathogens should not be marketed for human consumption, period.

3.      He uses the example of a prior outbreak of contaminated bean sprouts in Europe as a model of organic production protocols run amok.  And he suggests that contaminated water might have been a factor.  However, producing bean sprouts is a high risk enterprise, be they organic or conventional, and using tested, potable water is universally a regulatory requirement.Most problems with contaminated bean sprouts, as the example he cited in Germany, are thought to emanate from contaminated seed which, again, is a hazard for organic and conventional production alike.  There is nothing inherently more dangerous about organic bean sprouts than conventional.

4.      His claim that organic food consumption in the United States is about 1 percent of the market is inaccurate.  I have seen authoritative reports pegging it at 3 to 4 percent with some commodities, like organic milk, being at about 6 percent, and fruits and vegetables significantly higher than that.  These numbers are based on market studies by the USDA, the Organic Trade Association and published by respected trade journals in the produce industry.

5.      He suggests that the director of the USDA’s National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, took it upon himself to institute random testing for agrochemical contamination in organics.  The truth is that this testing requirement was part of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress.  Pressure from The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union and other advocacy groups prompted an investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General as to why testing had not been implemented as required by law.

6.      The cost of testing, sample collection and transportation requirements (sometimes refrigerated) for chemical residues and pathogens, as suggested by Mr. Popoff, on 100 percent of organic operations, would greatly increase the cost of organic food.  Cornucopia supports the 5 percent , annual, random testing requirement.  At this rate, the USDA will conduct over five times as many audits as the IRS currently conducts.  It is a prudent adjunct to the established rigorous annual inspection of both organic farms and facilities and all documents pertaining to organic management.

In closing, the fundamental precept of Mr. Popoff’s attempt to challenge the credibility of organic food production is flawed.  Organic food is subject to the same standards of cleanliness, and regulatory safeguards, as any other food in the market, imported or domestic. 

There is a history of inexcusable neglect during this presidential administration and prior administrations in the execution of food safety laws to protect U.S. citizens.  And Congress has been grossly remiss in failing to adequately fund the infrastructure and inspectors in the field, especially in scrutinizing imported food.  We should demand excellence from our government in this regard and we certainly are not getting it.           

Again, we respect the important journalism being done at Food Safety News, in putting pressure on the food industry and government to, literally, clean up its act.  Publishing Mr. Popoff’s opinion piece was an unfortunate aberration.

 

© Food Safety News
  • Anna Fiona

    Thank you so much Mr Kastel for your response to the FSN article. It seems as if this site has changed their agenda over the past year, or perhaps I just did not notice it before, but a large percentage of their articles are opinion pieces with an extremely poor vetting process, especially regarding fact checking. I have tried to skip over the op pieces and just go for the alerts, however I am finding that even throughout the alerts they are interjecting their opinion. Perhaps I should just discontinue receiving their posts altogether. Thank you again for taking the time to write the counterpoints.

    • Oginikwe

      More than once I have been disgusted by the pro-big agri stance as presented on FSN but usually within a few days, someone responds with the other side of the coin. If we are to counter the big money that pushes the food status quo on our citizens, we have to be able to respond with data and this is what the counterargument usually gives us. It is a learning experience, I’m sure, for both sides. This is one reason why a response like this is so valuable and why I find I’m actually grateful for the industry’s propaganda in this venue.

  • susanrudnicki

    I admit to be a monthly donor to Cornucopia Institute, but they are a bull-dog on the NOSB and the creep and push to water down regulations by Big Organic pretenders. Often, in this world, it is the smallest groups who have the most commitment and honesty of purpose in exposing the machinations of the corporate money machines. My dad was a rancher in NB, and he got the targeted visits from the “better living through chemistry” Conagra folks every Spring. Pushing chemicals without even visiting the field was the model.
    Thank you, Mr Mark Kastel, for this erudite and clear refutation of Popoff ( funny—the name is a inelegant reflection of his slant!)

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Happy to see Popoff exposed, though I respect Food Safety News for providing an open forum for all views.

    For instance, the writer of this piece is also from outside the publication and is expressing his views. I agree with much of what is written…except for the Cornucopia Institute material. I find the Cornucopia Institute to be as extreme in its views as Popoff is. Why else would the organization attempt to legitimatize a piece of bilge water such as the Ijaz study?

    http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/06/new-studies-confirm-raw-milk-a-low-risk-food/

    I would suggest that FSN do something to more strongly note that the publication may or may not agree with the views expressed. The notation marking the writing as an opinion piece is too small, and a casual reader may feel that people like Popoff, or even the author of this piece, represent the views of those behind the publication. Noting that something is an opinion doesn’t necessarily disassociate the publication from the opinion.

    I would recommend a disclaimer in italics along the bottom of the piece, with wording to the effect that FSN provides an open forum for different viewpoints, but cannot vouch for the accuracy of the claims made, and may or may not agree with the content of the writing. Something that politely, but clearly, draws a line of separation between the opinion content and the publication.

  • Tim Cox

    Mr. Kastel is entitled to his version of the facts some of which are accurate and some of which are not. There is zero conclusive evidence that GMO products are harmful to humans, the few studies that have been done have been largely dismissed by the scientific community as poorly executed, flawed in process and technique and in several cases the wrong type of rat was used. Recent studies showed that organic produce tested for pathogens and pesticides showed higher than normal rates, while no cause was determined and the levels were not considered harmful it does speak to a problem with organic production. If you can afford organic and it makes you feel good, clean it and eat it. But do not buy the hype that it is better for you every study conducted as proven that it is no more nutritionally healthy than conventionally grown food. I do agree with him that our government has let the people down in the arena of food safety and we the people need to send a direct message to our bought and paid for congress to do something about it. This article you will find interesting: Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture | Science Sushi, Scientific American Blog Network

  • Carlo Silvestr

    Thank you for your refutation of a biased and inaccurate article even though the article is called an “Opinion”. But some opinions are so way out that the term “opinion” elevates them above the level that they really are. These types of articles should be labeled “fantasy” or perhaps “propaganda”.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Interesting juxtaposition:

    ‘ His claim that, “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology,” is patently false.’ and

    ‘Consumers choosing to eat organically are exercising caution by operating under the “Precautionary Principle.”’

    While there may be reasons for opposition to “big ag” and support for small scale organic farming, the “precautionary principle” is hardly one of them. The recent evidence, documented widely on this site, is that organic produce has been repeatedly linked to contamination with pathogens. Meanwhile, though GM technology is largely the provenance of mass commodity crops, evidence for health hazards of GM itself are entirely in the form of hypotheticals. HFCS might be bad for you, but that has nothing to do with GE. The precautionary principle is not doing any work here, any more than for people who think their aches might be due to “electromagnetic sensitivity” or that their children might get autism from the MMR vaccine. Just because you can fantasize that there “might” be some risk (the word “may” in all its forms does a huge amount of work in the anti-GE community) doesn’t provide genuine leverage for any “precautionary principle”. It just feeds fantasy.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      “The recent evidence, documented widely on this site, is that organic produce has been repeatedly linked to contamination with pathogens.”

      Stop right there. I’m a regular reader of FSN. No such claim has been made, other than in these little opinion pieces from who knows what has crawled in from the outside.

      Yes, there have been foodborne illness outbreaks from organic produce. However, there have been some pretty significant ones related to conventional produce, such as cantaloupes.

      None of this has anything to do with GMO.

  • Jennifer Boyles

    The only difficulty I have with organics is that they tend to be higher in salicylic acid (aspirin), because of a bacteria normally killed off by pesticides. I advise patients on blood thinners to restrict their intake of organics to the major pesticide laden foods (like strawberries and others of the “dirty dozen”). Of the conventional foods that are low residue (like root vegetables), I advise against GMO if known. We already KNOW exactly what risks we take with conventionally grown foods, while there is no good science that tells us what GMO does, other than BT cotton taking twice as much water as conventional cotton, etc.

    The way it was covered in school was that conventional foods are higher in nutrition, but organics are easier to absorb, resulting the same net amount absorbed. Patients with digestive problems we recommend organics, and patients with bleeding problems should eat balanced conventional foods. We always recommend cooking meals over prepackaged, not just for health, but for cost.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      First, aspirin is _not_ salicylic acid. There’s no concern or caution about people on blood thinners eating organic vs conventional foods, other than they need to control intake of certain types of foods (regardless of how grown), based on the type of thinner needed.

      There’s no appreciable difference in nutrition between organic and conventional crops. That’s not why people eat organic food. Or conventional for that matter.

      The whole absorption thing smacks of pseudo science from places like Mercola.

      You have some sounds bit intermixed with a lot of junk science.

      • tallen2007

        Thank you Shelly for being the voice of reason (and taking the time to do it!) on this site. It’s a full time job trying to sort out the fact from fiction. This one was a new one, and after the initial “WHAT?” had me doing a double take! Thank you for saving me the time to debunk this BS!!! :-)

  • Karen

    This article and so much of the defensive tirade commentary illustrates the classic “response” by organic fanatics whenever truth is exposed — bash the messenger, foment hate and mistrust of good common sense, pinch out another pile of the same old discredited soppy pro-organic emotional soundbites. And that is what is wrong with organics…and why they are dangerous. Silly sloppy grubby organic food in quantities too small to feed the world but plentiful enough to sicken and kill hundreds at a time. It was something like 50 Germans killed by organic produce a couple years ago. Now over 100 sickened with a severe disease. All because of fecal contamination amplified by “organic practices”. Then, of course, no sensible safety precautions or testing of this magical organic stuff — doesn’t need any according to the myth, in fact the mythology says exposure to manure germs in your food stimulates your immune system, making you “healthy”. Organic food is a foolish and dangerous travesty targeting a vulnerable fringe of affluent consumers too gullible for their own good. Just like any other modern day for-profit industry special interest lobbying effort — “certified organic” kills and maims for monetary gain. Good that at least a little truth slips through to remind us of the very real health risks of organic profiteering.

    • susanrudnicki

      Your “common sense” is simply that—your proprietary formula of justification for your biases. Could you pile on a few more nasty adjectives to make the point that you despise food grown without the benefit of “better living through chemistry”? What a list!
      “defensive tirade, organic fanatics, foment hate, soppy pro-organic emotional soundbites, silly sloppy, grubby organic, fecal contamination amplified by organics, magical organic stuff,” and on and on. And, of course, the ultimate touche’, it is all about profit and money. Considering that the modern, urban human is carrying a load of blood-borne chemicals accumulated from everything we eat, touch, breath and drink, in quantities unimaginable just 100 years ago, I will take my backyard grown, organic produce and honey from my backyard bees any day. You can have your Big Ag, chemically soaked soil and plant products,( or processed “food”) with a shot of corporate Ag PR spin to wash it all down nice and easy.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    That’s the “recent” study he’s quoting?

    The study was published in 2004. By any definition, this is not recent. Not as recent as the follow up study that corrected the flaws in the earlier study.

    http://www.misa.umn.edu/Search_and_Ask/FAQ/OrganicVegetableSafety/index.htm

    We should celebrate reason in the land of the extreme by quaffing a cool pint of raw milk, just declared to be safe in yet “another study”.

  • Bill Reeves

    I am a Monsanto employee and I agree that it’s outrageous when interested parties try to imply the presence of a hazard in the food system where none exists. The US has one of the safest food supplies in the world thanks to the USDA, FDA and this country’s food producers. I have to take issue, however, with point 1 in the author’s claims. Biotech crops undergo significant amounts of testing and regulatory review in the US and around the world prior to commercialization. A 90 day rat study is the equivalent of 10 years for a human (rats typically only live 2 years so 90 days is about 1/8 of their life). New biotech crops are typically also tested in lifelong feeding trials with broiler chickens. Newly expressed proteins are tested for acute toxicity in mice. This is not to mention the detailed molecular and compositional characterization studies. The recent animal studies the author alludes to have been routinely rejected by scientific experts for being agenda-dirven rather than science-based. Attempting to claim that USDA and FDA reviewers routinely allow dangerous products on the market while also relying on USDA oversight to argue in favor of organic crops is insulting and wrong.

  • Rei Miraa

    my $0.02. How to keep this short (could easily make this too long)… I have seen what many people consider “organic”. I think before the argument about Conventional vs. gmo vs. organic vs. IPM. The very first step is education. I have experience with direct market. Grower -> consumer. People ask if our fruit is organic, i say no, we are IPM. “What is that?” I Ask them, “what is organic?” i get a vast range of responses to this. my favorite common one is: tree is in the ground and you just water it. the most common one is “organic isnt sprayed”. Often when i Quote the USDA definitions of organic for different commodities they think i lie.

    So i think before we have a civil argument on how the world food should be handled, the people need to be educated. Let them decide for themselves what risks, or marketing ploy they like. why have groups advocate the arguments? Educate the people, then let them vote. how? with their $$$. Organic was a quick marketing scheme, for many, they went organic, cashed in on the high early market prices. then switched back once their quality of the crops decreased.
    because people liked the idea of organic more people buy it, therefor creating demand…

    Educate, let the public make their own choices and have them vote with their own dollar.