A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

So you think organic food is really safer and better....

Why were these two stories not covered by the British media, I wonder? On September 10, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported: 'Contaminated maize meal withdrawn from sale'. The maize was 'organic'. The two batches of 'organic' products were tested for mycotoxins. It was discovered that they contained unusually high levels of fumonisins, which, after long exposure, have been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in animals. The European Commission (EC) has proposed a limit of 500 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg). The levels in the two 'organic' maize meal samples were considered to be 'high' at 4,712 and 20,435 mcg/kg. The toxins derive from a range of moulds growing on food crops, either in the field or in storage.

The FSA has now reported that further batches of 'organic' maize meal products have had to be withdrawn from sale for the same reasons: 'More contaminated maize meal products withdrawn from sale' (Friday, September 26).

While conventional and GM crops are subjected to a daily tirade of abuse in the UK
media, 'organic' products are lauded as the salvation of humankind. The scientific facts do not bear this out, as witness the above. The potential problem from mycotoxins in 'organic' products has long been predicted by scientists, who have often been attacked for saying so. Moreover, it is clear that the much-maligned FSA is doing its job well - and this fact is perhaps precisely why it too has been sniped at by Michael Meacher and his ilk. I congratulate the FSA for sticking to its scientific guns.

Serendipiditously, all this is brilliantly expressed by Dick Taverne in his quite outstanding 'Thunderer' column in today's The Times (October 7; apologies, no link possible for copyright reasons). Do read it, however, if you can.

The trouble is simple: the word 'organic' has been hijacked from its straightforward scientific meaning of 'containing carbon and being alive, or once alive' to the German philosophical meaning of 'holistic and pure'. This was precisely the myth behind Richard-Walther Darré's romantic, anti-industrial 'blood and soil' ideology when he was Reich Farmers' Leader and Reich Food Minister in Hitler's Germany. I'm afraid in scientific terms it is largely snake-oil. 'Organic' food is also expensive, and I see red when well-heeled 'organic' fetishists go on about people needing to pay more for food - just remember the number of poor souls struggling on benefits and low wages.

Let's get it straight: all forms of agriculture are not 'natural', if you exclude humans from the concept of 'Nature'; all forms of agriculture, without exception, have problems and limitations; what we need are carefully produced food products of all types; and, most importantly, agriculture requires every tool in the agricultural 'tool box', including both GM and 'organic', to keep ahead of pests, diseases, environmental change, and population growth. Please can we grow up over agriculture. And please can we have even-handed reporting in our media. Time for tea! Organic natural dandelion? Just taking the diuretic! Philip.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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