By Alissa Bohling
When the National Organic Program launched in 2002, who ever expected that organic advocates would find it necessary to convene private deskside briefings with editors at Newsweek and the New York Times?
That’s exactly where Organic Trade Association (OTA) staff found themselves last summer. Along with the rest of the organic community, the OTA has found itself on the defensive as media backlash threatens the credibility of organic food and agriculture.
Much of the anti-organic coverage relies on three scientific claims. Number one: Organic food has no nutritional advantage over its conventional counterparts. Number two: There is no proof that pesticides are harmful. Number three: Without genetic engineering, organic agriculture can’t produce yields capable of feeding a hungry planet.
It’s these last two accusations that pinpoint what’s really at stake as the organic debate unfolds. The claims and counterclaims exchanged bear an uncanny similarity to the debate over global warming, pitting environmentalists against big business and blurring the boundary between science and PR. Only this time, the environmental adversaries aren’t energy barons—they’re agriculture giants like Monsanto.
Forbes recently profiled Monsanto as its “Company of the Year.” Although the mostly rosy profile acknowledges a study that found Roundup-ready corn and soy seeds don’t increase yields, it also cites three additional sources that assert GE does produce larger crops.
Why does pro-biotech science continue to thrive as evidence against GE mounts? According to the Center for Food Safety’s Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese, just follow the money to the research institutions. “The industry has poured millions of dollars into funding these nonprofit groups,” said Freese. “They’re basically front groups that look like agriculture groups.”
That industry-backed science is shaping the organic debate beyond mainstream outlets like Forbes. In its 2009 article “A Natural Obsession,” SEED, a younger science publication, paints organic’s prohibition of GE as fear-mongering and anti-progress. The piece gloats that Clinton science adviser Nina Federoff “has little patience for organic proponents” because of what Federoff calls a “distaste for modern science.”
So how is the organic movement fighting back? One solution underway on the science front is marked by efforts to curtail the influence of the same ag giants who help back anti-organic research in the first place. Enter The Organic Center, which in November 2009, released a study it completed with two other groups revealing that herbicide use has increased by 383 million pounds since the widespread adoption of GE practices.
“It kind of hits the GMO industry hard in the sense that they’ve been promoting themselves on a sustainability platform,” said the Center’s Managing Director Steven Hoffman.
The Organic Center is also ramping up its outreach efforts. According to Hoffman, their research received 1,860 media placements in 2009, more than twice its 2008 number.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is also working to check biotech’s power. When the Department of Justice solicited public comments for its 2010 anti-trust workshops—which will focus in part on concentration in the seed industry—the OCA called on its members to speak up. According to OCA’s Political Director Alexis Baden-Mayer, over 8,500 people came forward.
Claims defending pesticide use are also finding a large audience. Readers of a 2007 Time article, “Eating Better than Organic,” had to make sense of this one: “If scientists could conclusively prove that agricultural chemicals are harmful, we would all go organic. But it’s not clear, for instance, that the low levels of pesticide typically found on conventional produce cause cancer.”
Organic proponents in the Pacific Northwest are uniquely equipped to refute misleading pesticide claims. Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides Executive Director Kim Leval believes biased or unfounded findings in favor of pesticides are enabled not only by a “marketing campaign disguised by science, but by an under-regulated environment ripe for exploitation.”
Leval says Oregon’s pesticide use reporting laws—among the strongest in the nation—provide scientists with cutting edge data that will reveal more about how pesticides affect human and environmental health.
But unflattering coverage of organics has not been limited to thinly veiled marketing campaigns and conservative media staples like Time. The integrity of the industry has been heavily scrutinized in the aftermath of oversight and food safety problems.
In 2008, The Sacramento Bee reported reported that a fertilizer manufacturer, with products formerly approved for use on certified organic farms, had been spiking its product with ammonium sulfate—and that the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which conducted the investigation, kept its findings private for over a year. After last year’s salmonella outbreak in peanut products, The New York Times raised questions about how one of the plants involved had kept its organic certification without a health certificate, quoting an organic inspector who suggested that “certifiers have a considerable financial interest in keeping their clients going.” Marion Nestle also criticized the certification system in The Huffington Post in an interview following the California fertilizer controversy, remarking that “certifying agencies differ substantially in their application of the rules for organic production. Some take them seriously; some clearly don’t.”
The Oregon Organic Coalition’s Organic Policy Analyst Lynn Coody agrees that “the accreditation system has to be much more transparent and accountable.” Coody is encouraged by the USDA’s decision to apply to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for a review of the National Organic Program’s accreditation system.
While certification issues play out, OCA’s Baden-Mayer believes consumers should support certifiers who advocate for strong organic standards. “As a consumer, I tend to want to go with certifiers like Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers, and Pennsylvania Certified Organic,” said Baden-Mayer. “They were the people who started the organic movement and they helped to shape the regulations.” Baden-Mayer said “there’s just got to be a difference” between certifiers who started out as advocates and those who got into organics “as just one of many agricultural certifications.”
Compared to the state’s delayed response, the organic community’s reaction to the fertilizer setback in California was swift. The CCOF began requiring liquid fertilizer manufacturers to submit to third-party onsite inspections in August 2009, and Earthbound Farms, one of the hardest hit by the scandal, now tests its fertilizers using a method that distinguishes between animal-based and petro-chemical nitrogen sources.
Is the organic movement’s reaction to media backlash hitting its target? According to Coody, “Sales of organic products are still going up, even in this incredible recession we’ve all been experiencing.” And NCAP’s Leval made clear that her organization’s work goes beyond mere damage control: “My philosophy is that we want to be proactive, not reactive. We want to be in front on the argument.”
Alissa Bohling is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland.