The organic myth: a food movement makes a pest of itself

The organic myth: a food movement makes a pest of itselfSOMEWHERE in the cornfields of Britain, a hungry insect settled on a tall green stalk and decided to have a feast. It chewed into a single kernel of corn, filled its little belly, and buzzed off--leaving behind a tiny hole that was big enough to invite a slow decay. The agent of the decomposition was a fungus known to biologists as Fusarium. Farmers have a much simpler name for it: corn ear rot.

As the mold spread inside the corn, it left behind a cancer-causing residue called fumonisin. This sequence repeated itself thousands and thousands of times until the infested corn was harvested and sold last year as Fresh and Wild Organic Maize Meal, Infinity Foods Organic Maize Meal, and several other products.

Consuming trace amounts of fumonisin is harmless, but large doses can be deadly. Last fall, the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency detected alarming concentrations of the toxin in all six brands of organic corn meal subjected to testing--for a failure rate of 100 percent. The average level of contamination was almost 20 times higher than the safety threshold Europeans have set for fumonisin. The tainted products were immediately recalled from the food chain. In contrast, inspectors determined that 20 of the 24 non-organic corn meal products they examined were unquestionably safe to eat.

Despite this, millions of people continue to assume that organic foods are healthier than non-organic ones, presumably because they grow in pristine settings free from icky chemicals and creepy biotechnology. This has given birth to an energetic political movement. In 2002, activists in Oregon sponsored a ballot initiative that essentially would have required the state to slap biohazard labels on anything that wasn't produced in ways deemed fit by anti-biotech agitators. Voters rejected it, but the cause continues to percolate. Hawaiian legislators are giving serious thought to banning biotech crop tests in their state. In March, California's Mendocino County may outlaw biotech plantings altogether.

Beneath it all lurks the belief that organic food is somehow better for us. In one poll, two-thirds of Americans said that organic food is healthier. But they're wrong: It's no more nutritious than food fueled by industrial fertilizers, sprayed with synthetic pesticides, and genetically altered in science labs. And the problem isn't limited to the fungal infections that recently cursed organic corn meal in Britain; bacteria are a major source of disease in organic food as well. To complicate matters further, organic farming is incredibly inefficient. If its appeal ever grew beyond the boutique, it would pose serious threats to the environment. Consumers who go shopping for products emblazoned with the USDA's "organic" seal of approval aren't really helping themselves or the planet--and they're arguably hurting both.


Here's the good news: At no point in human history has food been safer than it is today, despite occasional furors like the recent one over an isolated case of mad-cow disease here in the U.S. People still get sick from food--each year, about 76 million Americans pick up at least a mild illness from what they put in their mouths--but modern agricultural methods have sanitized our fare to the point where we may eat without fear. This is true for all food, organic or otherwise.

And that raises a semantic question: What is it about organic food that makes it "organic"? The food we think of as nonorganic isn't really inorganic, as if it were composed of rocks and minerals. In truth, everything we eat is organic--it's just not "organic" the way the organic-food movement has come to define the word.

About a decade ago, the federal government decided to wade into this semantic swamp. There was no compelling reason for this, but Congress nonetheless called for the invention of a National Organic Rule. It became official in 2002. Organic food, said the bureaucrats, is produced without synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or germ-killing radiation. There are also varying levels of organic-ness: Special labels are available for products that are "made with organic ingredients" (which means the food is 70 percent organic), "organic" (which means 95 percent organic), and "100 percent organic." It's not at all clear what consumers are supposed to do with this information. As the Department of Agriculture explains on its website, the "USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food."

It doesn't because it can't: There's no scientific evidence whatsoever showing that organic food is healthier. So why bother with a National Organic Rule? When the thing was in development, the Clinton administration's secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, offered an answer: "The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety." In other words, those USDA labels are intended to give people warm fuzzies for buying pricey food.

And herein lies one of the dirty secrets of organic farming: It's big business. Although the organic movement has humble origins, today most of its food isn't produced on family farms in quaint villages or even on hippie communes in Vermont. Instead, the industry has come to be dominated by large corporations that are normally the dreaded bogeymen in the minds of many organic consumers. A single company currently controls about 70 percent of the market in organic milk. California grows about $400 million per year in organic produce--and about half of it comes from just five farms. The membership list of the Organic Trade Association includes the biggest names in agribusiness, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Gerber, and Heinz. Even Nike is a member. When its capitalist slavedrivers aren't exploiting child labor in Third World sweatshops (as they do in the fevered imaginations of campus protesters), they're promoting Nike Organics, a clothing line made from organic cotton.


There are, in fact, good reasons to eat organic food. Often it's yummier--though this has nothing to do with the fact that it's "organic." If an organic tomato tastes better than a non-organic one, the reason is usually that it has been grown locally, where it has ripened on the vine and taken only a day or two to get from the picking to the selling. Large-scale farming operations that ship fruits and vegetables across the country or the world can't compete with this kind of homegrown quality, even though they do make it possible for people in Minnesota to avoid scurvy by eating oranges in February. Conventional produce is also a good bargain because organic foods can be expensive--the profit margins are quite high, relative to the rest of the food industry.

Unfortunately, money isn't always the sole cost. Although the overwhelming majority of organic foods are safe to eat, they aren't totally risk-free. Think of it this way: Organic foods may be fresh, but they're also fresh from the manure fields.

Organic farmers aren't allowed to enrich their soils the way most non-organic farmers do, which is with nitrogen fertilizers produced through an industrial process. In their place, many farmers rely on composted manure. When they spread the stuff in their fields, they create luscious breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty microbes. Take the dreaded E. coli, which is capable of killing people who ingest it. A study by the Center for Global Food Issues found that although organic foods make up about 1 percent of America's diet, they also account for about 8 percent of confirmed E. coli cases. Organic food products also suffer from more than eight times as many recalls as conventional ones.

Some of this problem would go away if organic farmers used synthetic sprays--but this, too, is off limits. Conventional wisdom says that we should avoid food that's been drenched in herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Half a century ago, there was some truth in this: Sprays were primitive and left behind chemical deposits that often survived all the way to the dinner table. Today's sprays, however, are largely biodegradable. They do their job in the field and quickly break down into harmless molecules. What's more, advances in biotechnology have reduced the need to spray. About one-third of America's corn crop is now genetically modified. This corn includes a special gene that produces a natural toxin that's safe for every living creature to eat except caterpillars with alkaline guts, such as the European corn borer, a moth larva that can ravage whole harvests. This kind of biotech innovation has helped farmers reduce their reliance on pesticides by about 50 million pounds per year.