The backlash against organic food has begun.
But who is behind it?
The Ecologist, February 2001
Andy Rowell uncovers a global network of naysayers putting the boot into healthy food -- and profiting from it.
The organic food movement is a modern success story. Although still small in comparison to conventional food producers, it is growing at a rate of 40 per cent a year in the UK alone. The popularity of organic food is so high that demand is outstripping supply. It is chemical-free, wildlife-friendly and popular with consumers.
So what was the head of the Food Standards Agency doing attacking it? Appearing on BBC TV last August, Sir John Krebs, the head of the newly- formed FSA1 - the government organisation whose aim 'is to make sure the food you eat is safe, and to offer independent, balanced advice' - said bluntly that consumers buying organic food were 'not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the FSA, if they think they are buying extra nutritional quality or extra nutritional safety, because we don't have the evidence'.2 The media reported his comments widely.
Why had Krebs decided to put the boot into organic food, when more serious issues such as genetically modified crops and BSE were lying unresolved on Britain1s dinner plates? Interestingly, though Krebs' intervention angered many food campaigners and organic producers, other were unsurprised. For this was not the first time that Sir John had spoken out against sustainable food and farming, and implicitly in defence of the status quo.
Harry Hadaway from the Soil Association, the UK's biggest organic certification body, said that Krebs was 'a historic supporter of GM foods.'3 Alan Simpson, MP, a longtime opponent of biotechnology, went further. 'It was always predictable that there would be a backlash targeted against organics,' he said. 'There is so much money at stake in agribusiness and biotech, it was certain to lash out at anything that threatened continuous profits. The only thing that surprises me is that the FSA have joined in the kicking... I just didn1t think they would be so susceptible to the corporate food lobby.'
Simpson is not the only one saying such things. For it seems increasingly clear that Krebs' attack on organic food was only the most prominent example in the UK so far of a growing reactionary movement in the world of food - the corporate and agribusiness backlash against organics.
Sir John Krebs has taken controversial stances before. Whilst at the Natural Environmental Research Centre, his previous job, he advocated the deep-sea dumping of Shell's Brent Spar oil platform.4 He also designed controversial tests, known as 'the Krebs experiments', to investigate whether badgers are responsible for increasing incidences of TB in cattle. These experiments will lead to the slaughter of 20,000 badgers, according to the National Federation of Badger Groups (NFBG) and have provoked considerable criticism.5
Some say that the way Krebs worked with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) on what many believe to be a Oflawed1 experiment with badgers, showed that he was willing to toe the line with a Ministry reviled by many food campaigners and environmentalists. Whether this helped the government decide on his appointment or not, he had certainly shown himself to be unsympathetic to concerns about GM foods long before he joined the FSA, dismissing criticisms as 'shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven'. He even went as far as endorsing GM foods on the day of the announcement of his appointment to the FSA, when he told the BBC that GM products 'were as safe as their non-GM counter-products'.6
Joining the SIRC-us
If Krebs' record already looked less than impartial, he was about to add to the concerns. Shortly after joining the FSA, Krebs also aligned himself with an Oxford-based organisation known as SIRC, the Social Issues Research Centre, which has set itself up as an arbiter of what is good and bad in the journalistic reporting of health and science stories. In September 2000, SIRC issued a set of 'Guidelines on Science and Health Communication' in partnership with the Royal Institution. SIRC's avowed remit - to promote fair and accurate reporting in the media on science and health matters - sounds laudable. But a closer look at SIRC's work shows that it appears to be, in reality, an attempt to encourage media reports supportive of corporate science and technology, such as genetic engineering, and condemn reports of research seen as problematic for corporate interests.
SIRC maintains a pro-biotech position, 'taking into account the potential benefits of GM technology in disadvantaged areas of the world'.7 SIRC's funding comes from its sister organisation, MCM Research, but also The Ministry of Defence, several large food companies, and the drinks industry front organisation, the Portman Group. It shares offices, directors and key personnel with MCM Research, a PR company whose client list reads like a Who's Who of the international drinks industry, and Conoco, the oil company.
The British Medical Journal has questioned what an organisation that is so closely aligned to the drinks industry is doing setting guidelines for journalists.8
The Wider View
Krebs, SIRC, the FSA - it would be easy to attack such organisations and individuals for their anti-organic stance,but they fit into a much more worrying broader picture. Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University, Tim Lang says he feels that Krebs was 'being set up to say things he doesn't believe and the evidence doesn't warrant'.9 But set up by whom?
The real question is, has Krebs and the FSA fallen victim to a long- standing campaign by agribusiness in both America and the UK to undermine organic agriculture? Was he being set up by the agribusiness exponents who had moved so forcefully from MAFF into the fledgling Food Standards Agency. Was he part of those forces himself? And why is the attack on organic food increasingly a well-organised, well-funded and international effort?
To understand the answer, it's necessary to understand not only what organic agriculture stands for, but what it stands against. The organic movement, based on a pesticide-free philosophy, seeks a more sustainable and holistic agricultural system; one which is fundamentally opposed to biotechnology, the science which the world's giant agribusiness corporations are frantically developing. Organic agriculture, which promises consumers a 'non-GM product', is the biggest obstacle in the way of the biotech revolution.
The two-pronged attack
'Agribusiness companies were perfectly happy to ignore organics when it was a tiny niche market,' says Jeanette Longfield from Sustain, the UK alliance for better food and farming. 'Now it is no longer a niche market, they are clearly thinking it is going to have an impact on profits and they had better do something'.
That 'something' is an increasingly ruthless attempt to destroy the organic movement. 'The agribusiness companies are taking a two-pronged attack' says John Stauber, from PR Watch, an investigative quarterly in the US (see www.prwatch.org). 'Firstly, big businesses are buying up organic processors and marketers to reap the higher profits of the fastest growing food segment in the US. Secondly, at the same time, these companies are blasting the integrity of organics through their PR front groups. It's a brilliant 'win/win' strategy for business. They get to hide behind [such front groups] and at the same time, they are moving to control the organic food industry so that any profits will go to them'.
In the UK, the strategy is similar. So while a spokesperson for biotech corporation Novartis says, 'I think the FSA were completely right in what they were saying in that organic food is no more nutritious than conventionally grown food', other biotech companies refuse to question organic, as they are more interested in co-opting the movement for themselves.
'In principle, the aims and objectives of the people who are producing organic foods is very similar to ours,' says Professor Howard Slater, a spokesperson for CropGen, a pro-biotech umbrella group. 'Organic farmers are trying to reduce the inputs into modern agrochemical practice... To a large extent that is a major plank of the GM crop objective. We would be very keen to see organic farming take on some of the GM crops that are beginning to become available and to use them within their regime.' --Both strategies will lead - quite deliberately - to the undermining of the organic symbol. The implications are clear, says Dr Ben Mepham, from the Food Ethics Council. 'One of the dangers for the organic movement is the appropriation of its ideology by big business and I think that is happening.' The word organic may not mean that much soon.
In these efforts, the agribusiness and biotech corporations are supported by a loose network of think-tanks, both in the US and in the UK. To an unsuspecting eye, these think-tanks appear to offer a veneer of independence from the big businesses which plough billions of dollars into their bank accounts to push forward a deregulatory, pro-high-tech, corporate agenda.
Anyone for Dennis?
So who are the main characters involved? If all roads lead to Rome, then Dennis Avery is the most famous gladiator in the Coliseum; he is the source of many of today1s myths about organic food. Author of the inspirationally-titled Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming, Avery sees himself as a missionary, promoting the hi-tech farming industries: pesticides, irradiation, factory farming, and the newcomer: biotechnology. Unsurprisingly, he is also a keen free-trader.10 That he 'welcomed' Krebs' 'well-considered' attack on organic foods tells us much about him.
Avery, a former agricultural analyst for the US State Department during the Reagan era, is now Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, which is part of the Hudson Institute, a right-wing US think-tank. Avery1s message is simple: organic food takes up too much land, and is actually dangerous for you. The growth in organic agriculture is due to an Oimage created by the environmental movement1. Presumably unlike GM, it is a Ogigantic marketing lie1. Avery believes it would take an extra 10 million square miles of land if the world was to go organic, making it the Olargest existing threat to wildlife habitat1.
Avery1s defence of agribusiness sometimes borders on the absurd. 'The people pushing organics the hardest' he says, 'seem to believe that the world is overpopulated. Are they trying to force us into an organic- farming straitjacket, so that they can then say that the world has too many people, we must have forced abortions - are they trying to back us into a corner where inhuman solutions will be accepted?'
Having dismissed organic food, Avery turns his attentions to the wonders of biotechnology. 'Genetically modified foods,' he says, 'are significantly safer than organic and natural foods. Over the last decade, consumers have eaten millions of pounds of genetically altered foods, and millions of tons of feed corn and soybean meal have been used to produce our meat and milk. So far, not even a skin rash has been linked to these new-tech foods'.11
Harry Hadaway, for the Soil Association points out how 'scientifically unsound' such statements are. 'The UN recently put a report out saying that GM in agriculture was unnecessary to feed the world,' he points out. But the nub of the issue is clear: 'The protagonists of GM and those involved in the Hudson Institute are keen to promote the use of any technology which will improve the financial position of the companies backing them.'
Avery dismisses critics who point out the funding of the Hudson Institute by agrochemical companies. Commenting on the Hudson's funding sources he laughs: 'If the major criticism they can offer is that the Hudson Institute gets money from farm input companies, that1s pretty weak criticism. I am not bought. I am a missionary.' This said, the Hudson's Board includes James Dowling from PR firm Burson-Marsteller, and Craig Fuller, an ex-Philip Morris Executive who led the PR firm Hill & Knowlton's front organisation during the Gulf War called 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait'.12 Both Burson-Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton have a history of working against environmental activists.13 Hudson's funder1s include many companies behind the agribusiness and biotech revolution: Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), Cargill, Dow Elanco, DuPont, and Monsanto.14
Widening the circle
As the attacks on organic food increased, so others at the Hudson Institute joined Avery in his anti-organic fight. Other officials at its Centre for Global Food Studies include Avery1s son and Dave Juday, who also coincidentally works for World Perspectives Inc, whose clients include, amongst others, 'major grain and oilseed trading companies, processors, food companies, financial institutions, trade associations, and multilateral development banks'.15
In America, Avery's message has also been picked up widely by other organisations, most prominently the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The ACSH is run by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, regarded as one of the top 50 'heroes' of the anti-environmental, pro-industry 'Wise Use' movement in the US. She too is on a 'crusade' against the 'toxic terrorists' of the organic movement. 'I am furious when I see the manner in which these terrorists take on and destroy the people who are feeding this country,' she says.16 Before they stopped revealing their funding sources, ACSH used to receive some 50 per cent of their funding from corporations and foundations, including the Coors Foundation, Monsanto, Shell, Ciba- Geigy, Exxon, Du Pont and Union Carbide.
'The interests of her benefactors inevitably raises some questions', writes Howard Kurtz in The Colombia Journalism Review, 'Could there be any connection between Whelan's defence of saccharin, and funding from Coca-Cola, the PepsiCo Foundation, the NutraSweet Company and the National Soft Drink Association? Her praise for fast food and grants from Burger King'? Her defence of hormones in cows and backing from the National Dairy Council and American Meat Institute?'17
The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition1s (TASSC) membership was also heavily corporate-backed, listing some 400 members including Amoco, Chevron, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Lorillard tobacco, Philip Morris, Proctor & Gamble and WR Grace and Company. Set up in 1993, supposedly as a coalition to promote 'sound science,' TASSC was actually formed by Philip Morris to debunk the link between second-hand tobacco smoke and cancer, although considerable effort was made to hide this from the public.18
In 1997, Steven Milloy became TASSC1s Executive Director. Since 1998, TASSC has not been active, and Milloy has turned his attention to running web pages, which attack environmentalists and organic agriculture: www.junkscience.com, www.nomorescares.com and www.consumerdistorts.com. He is also an 'adjunct scholar' with the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute. Based in Washington, Cato receives funding from oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical, agricultural and biotechnology companies. Rupert Murdoch sits on the board. Amongst the Institute1s curious opinions is that smoking-related deaths are Opurely statistical artefacts1.
Crossing the ocean
The anti-organic backlash is part of a wider, international anti- environmental movement. There is a cross-pollination of people, ideas and articles between America and like-minded think-tanks and academic institutions overseas in Europe and the UK. In August last year, Milloy launched a new 'No More Scares' campaign in Washington, promoting a new web-site, www.nomorescares.com and a book called The Fear Profiteers. A month later the No More Scares campaign launched a report attacking organic agriculture, written by Dennis Avery1s son, Alex Avery along with Graydon Forrer from a company called Life Sciences Strategies and John Carlisle from the National Centre for Public Policy Research. According to the report, Marketing and the Organic Food Industry, the company Life Sciences Strategies 'specialises in public policy and communication programmes for bio-science, pharmaceutical, medical and related health industries'. The authors thanked and acknowledged the reviewers at the Institute for Economic Affairs in London.19
These contrarian groups and individuals do not just club together to propagate the anti-environmental/anti-organic message on the internet. Often they go further, deliberately reiterating each other's work in order to generate a critical mass of contrarian thought, which is picked up by a media anxious to find opposing viewpoints on previously uncontentious issues. The strategy has worked before; contrarians used it most obviously to dismiss climate change, when views from a small group of scientists funded by the fossil-fuel lobby were repeated so frequently that they were given far more prominence than their unsupportable, self-interested theories actually deserved.20 In attacking the organic movement, the contrarians are using the same tactics, backing their arguments up by quoting the same small group of corporate-funded scientists.
One of the central characters spreading the anti-organic backlash in Europe has been Roger Bate from the Institute of Economic Affairs, one of Britain1s leading think-tanks, who helped set up the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF) in 1994. ESEF was formed, in its own words, as an 'independent non-profit-making alliance of scientists whose aim is to ensure that the environmental debate is properly aired. To maintain its independence and impartiality ESEF does not accept outside funding from whatever source.'21 The truth is somewhat different.
The driving force behind ESEF was actually the tobacco corporation Philip Morris, along with leading anti-environmental PR firm Burson Marsteller, and another PR company, APCO Associates, which had been looking to form an associate to TASSC in Europe. Originally tentatively named Scientists for Sound Public Policy, the organisation was later renamed ESEF. Burson Marsteller believed that makers of 'consumer products (food, beverages, tobacco), packaging industry, agri-chemical industry, chemical industry, pharmaceutical industry, biotech industry, electric power industry, and telecommunications' could be persuaded to back ESEF.22
But all is not going to plan, and towards the end of last year, ESEF1s web site suddenly disappeared off the internet. So Bate is now primarily leading the charge through the IEA, using the same strategy he did to attack climate change ? repeatedly quoting the few known 'sceptics'. This time, the IEA is using Dennis Avery's arguments, which have been shown time and time to be based on flawed data and analysis.23
In August 1999, a book called Fearing Food; Risk, Health and the Environment was published, edited by Bate and a colleague from the IEA, Julian Morris. 'The book shows that intensive agriculture is good for health and the environment, and is essential if the world1s population is to be fed without converting vast areas of biodiverse ecosystems into cropland, which would be necessary if organic agriculture, with its lower yields, were used,' said the press release.24
One of the chapters, The Fallacy of the Organic Utopia, was by Dennis Avery.25 Another was co-written by John Hillman from the Scottish Crop Research Institute. Hillman is on the board of the Bioindustry Association of the UK, whose mission is to encourage and promote biotechnology.26 Although his chapter was mainly concerned with promoting GM, Hillman has also espoused anti-organic views, which were re-iterated in the Institute's last Annual Report.
'Organic farming raises risks of faecal contamination not only of food stuffs but also of waterways; food poisoning, high levels of natural toxins (eg aflatoxins) and allergens,' wrote Hillman. 'Contamination by copper and sulphur-containing fungicides and production of blemished, diseased and irregular produce of low consumer and food processing acceptability, low productivity and creation of reservoirs of pests and diseases, including sources of weed propagules'.27 When asked for the references to back up his comments by BBC Radio 4's Food Programme, Hillman was said to be Otoo busy1 to provide the data.28 Incidentally, Hillman also believes it is 'breathtakingly na´ve' to try and stabilise climate change.29
Once again the press - this time in the UK - picked up on remarks made by Avery, and also from Bate and Morris. Anti-organic articles ran in The Evening Standard, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail, amongst others. Similar attacks even appeared in reputable science journals. For example, Anthony Trewavas from the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh, attacked organic agriculture in the scientific journal, Nature. 'As a plant biologist myself, I have little time for big, insensitive agribusiness,' Trewavas wrote in Nature, before launching into a broadside against the organic and environmental movements.30- -'Going organic worldwide, as Greenpeace wants, would destroy even more wilderness, much of it of marginal agricultural quality,' writes Trewavas, quoting Dennis Avery. 'The organic philosophy is negative and restrictive in its rules and regulations. It started as a movement simply to eliminate pesticides from food, and it is indeed beneficial to use pesticides sparingly, as organic farmers do. But the philosophy was founded on a fallacy.'
Trewavas, whose anti-organic articles also appear on Monsanto's web- site, is not alone at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology in questioning all those who stand in the way of the biotech revolution. One of Trewavas1 colleagues is Noreen Murray, who chaired the Royal Society1s Working Group into Arpad Pusztai, the controversial scientist from the Rowett Institute, whose experiments into GM potatoes led to questioning of the safety of GM food. In an unprecedented move, the Royal Society publicly rubbished Pusztai's work calling it 'flawed',31 even though they knew they only had an 'incomplete' set of data.32
Trewavas also appeared on a BBC Counterblast programme attacking organic agriculture which aired in January 2000. Other contributors included Professor Phillip Stott, from the Department of Geography at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He also runs the 'Pro-Biotech', web- site at www.ecotrop.org, and takes issue with organic agriculture, tropical deforestation and climate change. Another interviewee was contrarian journalist Richard D North, an unashamed apologist for industry.
You can also read Trewavas and Alex Avery's anti-organic views on another pro-biotech web discussion site, run by Dr. Prakash, the Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in the USA, at www.agbioview.listbot.com.
Understanding Trewavas' and Krebs' attack on organic agriculture is key to the understanding of why apparently independent scientists have taken issue with this form of agriculture. Many of its opponents see the organic movement as standing 'against science', and specifically high tech science, a significant proportion of which is now funded by agrochemical or biotech companies. 'There is a mindset that is wedded to this high tech approach and 'scientism', that science is the answer to everything', says Dr. Ben Mepham, from the Food Ethics Council. For the FSA, this modus operandi is not to be challenged, but to be embraced.
'What I am suspicious of is that the FSA's starting point begins with the recognition that a huge amount of research in agriculture and food is now commercially driven. We have swapped public science for private/commercial science,' concludes Alan Simpson, MP. 'The pursuit of knowledge for public or environmental safety has already been ditched in favour of a culture which says we will pursue knowledge for the purpose of commercial gain, and anything that steps in the path will either be excluded or suppressed.'
Andy Rowell is a freelance journalist and author of Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement (Routledge, 1996).
- home -