[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[SANET-MG] Noblesse Oblige
Sir Dick seems to have reached his conclusions by ignoring the many peer
reviewed publications that show he is talking pure nonsense.
A little pesticide does you good but 'organic' farming harms the world
Our health is threatened not by chemicals and GM crops but by the
eco-fundamentalists and their crusade against intensive agriculture: in
an extract from his new book, Dick Taverne demolishes the myths and
pseudo science of the organic movement
Nowadays "organic farming" commands such wide public support that to
question its merits is to question the virtues of motherhood. Nearly
every famous cookery expert takes it for granted that organic food
tastes better and is more nutritious and healthier. Nearly every
environmentalist is convinced that organic farming is better for the
The British Government subsidises farmers to convert to organic farming,
and in 2002 an official Commission on Farming and Food recommended that
even more money should be spent to ensure that organic farming plays a
larger role in agriculture. Of course, by definition, all food is
organic and the term "organic farming" is meaningless, but to the
ordinary public, the label "organic" has a reassuring ring. Eating
"organic" food is like drinking "real" ale, not ersatz, imported,
imitation stuff. It sounds safe because it is guaranteed to be GM-free
and is assumed to be untainted by nasty, possibly carcinogenic
pesticides. Supermarkets promote it, which they would not do unless
there were a popular demand for it; it is also clearly to their
advantage that the public are prepared to pay premium prices for it.
Evidence to justify this enthusiasm has proved elusive. The Food
Standards Agency (FSA), set up to examine evidence about the safety of
food and to protect the interests of consumers, has persistently refused
to uphold claims for the superiority of organic food, much to the
chagrin of the Soil Association, the voice of organic farming in
Britain. In January 2004 the FSA stated: "On the basis of current
evidence, the Agency's assessment is that organic food is not
significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food
produced conventionally." When a complaint was made to the Advertising
Standards Authority that recruiting leaflets published by the Soil
Association made misleading statements, claiming that organic food
tastes better, is healthier, and is better for the environment, the
Authority found no convincing evidence to support the claims and the
leaflets had to be withdrawn.
It is not surprising that these two independent bodies should find no
evidence to support the claims, because public faith in organic food is
based on myth. The organic movement is governed by rules that have no
rhyme or reason; it is steeped in mysticism and pseudo-science; and,
whenever it seeks to make a scientific case for itself, the science is
shown to be flawed.
The philosophical reasons for supporting organic farming are part of the
"back-to-nature" syndrome. Like alternative medicine, they are based on
the belief that "nature knows best" and that what is natural must be
good. It is nostalgia for a mythical golden age of small-scale and
simple farming and pure and wholesome farm produce. Such a paradise
never existed. In the days before intensive farming, when farmers did
not use pesticides or artificial fertilisers, food supplies were
constantly endangered through climatic and environmental fluctuations
and crops were frequently lost to pests and diseases. Agriculture was
associated with grinding poverty, intensive labour, and low yield.
In the last 50 years, since synthetic chemicals came to be widely used,
our life expectancy has increased by seven years or more. Healthier and
safer food, together with better health provision, has improved our
physical well-being and increased longevity, and modern agriculture
deserves much of the credit.
Since the main reason given for buying organic food is to avoid
pesticide residues, the question has to be asked: Is organic food safer?
The Soil Association plays on the public's concern, as do a number of
other campaigning organisations that have helped to create a food-scare
industry. In November 1998 the Consumers' Association magazine Which?
under the heading "Pesticide Concerns", carried a story that test
results from animal studies linked high doses of pesticides with
cancers, hormone disturbances, and birth defects. It did not mention
that high doses of anything cause harm, or that official reports on the
concentrations of pesticide residues in food found that the amounts
present were so low as not to be a hazard to health.
There is evidence that low concentrations of many toxic chemicals may
actually have a beneficial effect. Examples are, of course, familiar. A
small dose of aspirin mitigates a headache and can help prevent heart
attacks, but a larger dose can kill. It is not generally realised that
this dose-related effect is also known to apply to many supposedly toxic
chemicals, including arsenic, dioxins, some pesticides and fungicides.
In fact, a little bit of poison or pollution can do you good, and serves
to reduce the incidence of cancer. More than 30 separate investigations
of about 500,000 people have shown that farmers, millers,
pesticide-users, and foresters, occupationally exposed to much higher
levels of pesticide than the general public, have much lower rates of
By demanding total elimination of all pesticide residues from our
foodstuffs, the organic movement promotes an unreasonable fear of
chemicals and scares us about non-existent dangers. The public is not
made aware of their beneficial effect on our general health.
DDT is another good example of a chemical that saved millions of lives
by eliminating malarial mosquitoes yet was banned after
environmentalists - including Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring
- accused it of causing cancers. Yet not a single study shows that
exposure to DDT damages the health of human beings. In Sri Lanka alone,
the reported number of malaria cases rose from just 17 in 1963 to more
than a million in 1968 after DDT was banned.
Possibly the most telling indictment of organic farming is its
inefficiency, its high cost and its wasteful use of land. The facts
cannot be seriously disputed: yields of most crops from organic farms
are about 20-50 per cent lower than from conventional farming. That is
why organic food costs more.
Efficiency matters. It affects the health of low-income families. Even
in a prosperous society like Britain we should not ignore the importance
of cheaper ways of producing food, provided they are not based on
intolerable breeding conditions for animals. Prosperous middle-class
consumers may not care about price, but the poorer you are, the more the
price of food matters. Pesticides keep down the cost of fruit and
vegetables and if the organic lobby prevails they will become more
expensive. People in the lower-income groups will buy less; this is all
the more important since they are now exhorted to eat more of them to
help control obesity. Moreover, the more pervasive the propaganda that
more expensive organic food is "safer and healthier", the greater the
pressures on poorer families to buy food they can ill afford. Their diet
will suffer and they will lose the protection against cancer that a
healthy diet provides. More will die younger.
The environment also suffers if farming is inefficient. Organic farming
wastes farmland. Since Europe produces an excess of food as a result of
efficient farming, farmers can be encouraged to set aside half their
land for environmental purposes.
However, all these considerations are minor compared with the world as a
whole. Farmers in Africa and Asia are already organic: they do not use
pesticides or artificial fertilisers because they cannot afford them.
The Green Revolution passed them by, which was one of its failures. The
organic movement seeks to go back to the days before the Green
Revolution. Unlike GM crops it cannot help eliminate the pests and
diseases that destroy nearly half the crops in Africa, or the
development of drought-resistant crops that can grow on arid or
semi-arid land. It cannot even match the yields which conventional
farming already achieves.
Organic farming may satisfy the whim of the rich European or American
consumer; its extension to the developing world would be a disaster. As
the Indian biotechnologist, C S Prakash, has correctly observed: "The
only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is
that it sustains poverty and malnutrition."
Taken from The March of Unreason: Science Democracy and the New
Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne, published by OUP, £18.99.
To unsubscribe from SANET-MG:
1- Visit http://lists.sare.org/archives/sanet-mg.html to unsubscribe or;
2- Send a message to <firstname.lastname@example.org> from the address subscribed to the list. Type "unsubscribe sanet-mg" in the body of the message.
Visit the SANET-MG archives at: http://lists.sare.org/archives/sanet-mg.html
For more information on grants and other resources available through the SARE program, please visit http://www.sare.org.