Several weeks ago, a group called Academics Review published a report harshly attacking the organic industry and its nonprofit allies for what they called “deceptive marketing practices,” designed to instill “false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods.” The study also implicates the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a willing partner that allows companies to use their sanctioned organic label to deliver fear-mongering messages about the dangers of industrial food.
And while most coverage of the study appeared in small and agriculture-focused publications, some other sources, like the New York Post and Food Safety News, picked up the story without much in-depth research about its source. The headlines–“Report: Organic Industry Achieved 25 Years of Fast Growth Through Fear and Deception” and “The Organic Industry Has Been Fibbing All Along”–were especially alarming.
But the more important questions here, and ones overlooked by the glaring headlines, is who is behind the Academic Review and how might they benefit from dragging organics through the mud?
Academics Review claims to be an “independent association of academic professors” and “researchers” from around the world “committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science.”
However, recent articles on its website and Facebook page paint another picture. In one example, an article titled “10 Ways to Keep your Diet GMO-Free” is described as “slick, deceptive internet advertising for the lucrative health and wellness industry,” based on “unqualified, hopelessly unreliable writings.”
Many other articles on the website focus on discrediting public interest organizations, organic companies, media outlets, and scientists who question the safety of genetically engineered foods (or GMOs) and pesticides or touting the benefits of an organic diet.
The groups’ co-founder Bruce Massey is on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health, a pro-industry science advocacy group that takes significant funding from corporations such as Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta, which can be seen as having a financial stake in these debates. Links to this and other pro-biotechology organizations, such as International Food Biotechnology Committee, Center for Environmental Risk Assessment, and GMO Pundit, are listed prominently on their website.
More Spin than Evidence
The Academics Review report does do a good job of documenting the marketing tactics of dozens of companies and their allies. However, it provides scant evidence to back up its fundamental premise that these marketing strategies are deceitful and that eaters in fact have nothing to fear from conventional food, or that there are no appreciable health, nutritional, or safety advantages of organic over genetically engineered and other conventional foods.
In fact, in the entire 24-page report, the principal researcher, Joanna Schroeder, cites just two highly contested meta-studies, including one by Stanford researchers, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012. This study has been soundly discredited by Chuck Benbrook in this comprehensive rebuttal as well as by many articles here, here, and here.
The other cited study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) in 2010, concluded that organic food offered no significant nutritional benefits over conventional products, but failed to consider several important studies that suggest higher nutritional benefits for organic food. (The Organic Trade Association responds to the AJCN study here and Benbrook explains why their conclusion is wrong here.)
However, neither of the studies Schroeder cites mentions the question of GMO safety, a major focus of the Academics Review article. And while Massy and his chemical company friends claim the science is settled on the safety of GMOs, 300 scientists and doctors from around the world who signed this letter say there is no consensus on safety.
The author is right about one thing: Health and safety concerns about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs are driving more and more people to choose organic foods over their conventional counterparts and there’s a lot of money at stake in the battle to win hearts and minds at the grocery store.
Unfortunately, these same flawed studies, along with aggressive agribusiness PR efforts, have swayed several mainstream reporters in recent months to write stories questioning the benefits of organics. Information presented in several of these pieces such as Slate’s “Organic Schmorganic” or this more recent Washington Post article were refuted effectively by the Environmental Working Group, the Organic Center, and here on Civil Eats. Regrettably, even Mark Bittman, in his New York Times column this week, made the conversation even murkier claiming that organic shouldn’t be a priority.
These rebuttals cite important studies from U.C. Berkeley and University of Washington, which suggest that people, and especially children, should be concerned about the health risks of pesticide exposure from food. They also provide evidence of how eating organic reduces that risk.
They also raise concerns about the impact of pesticide mixtures, weak U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory frameworks, and the extreme toxicity of pesticides when combined with “inert” ingredients that are found in products such as Roundup. Increased breast cancer risk has also been linked to many chemicals found in food.
Other articles and numerous peer-reviewed studies, including this one out of Newcastle University and a recent peer reviewed study on soybeans point to organic food’s higher levels of minerals, antioxidants, omega-3’s and other beneficial nutrients.
But clearly it is the promise of reduced chemical exposure that delivers the broadest health benefits and has driven more and more eaters to choose organic. For instance, many consumers are choosing organic meat, which Academics Review points out has grown by 12 percent in the past year, because they can reduce their exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, heavy metals, cleaning supplies (antimicrobials), growth hormones, and feed additives. (These additives are all banned in the E.U.) Some are also choosing organic meat because of concerns that the animals have eaten GMO grains doused in glyphosate.
While it is true that health is among the top concerns of organic consumers, the Academics Review article conveniently ignored the environmental benefits that also drive the choice for many. Numerous studies have shown the farmworker, soil health, water quality, and climate benefits of organic agriculture. For example, a recent Oxford University study found that “organic farms support 34 percent more plant, insect, and animal species than conventional farms,” including important pollinators.
Contrary to the oft-repeated refrain that we need GMOs to feed the world, this important Atlantic Monthly article by Barry Estabrook cites numerous studies suggesting that organic agriculture has the best potential to feed people in a way that protects our critical natural resources, including the 2011 landmark U.N. Report, Agro-ecology and the Right to Food,
As U.N. Special Rappateur Olivier De Shutter, the author of the report, said: “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live—especially in unfavorable environments.” He added, “Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change, and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today.”
Big Food’s Spin Machine
The Academics Review accuses organic companies of “paid advocacy” in which companies fund their NGO allies for promoting messages that “amplify negative health risk allegations linked to conventional foods and the corresponding safety, healthfulness, and ethics of organic production.”
The relatively small amount of money spent by the organic industry to support mission-aligned nonprofits is nothing compared to the more than a billion dollars that the agribusiness industry has spent over the last decade in lobbying and on PR front groups or “industry trade groups” to help spin a story about the safety of chemical-intensive and GMO foods.
These include the Association of Food and Farming, the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Association, and the Biotechnology Industry Association, among others. The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food is the latest front group to join the party.
With a reported annual budget of $20 million designed “to bolster the image of agriculture and enhance public trust in our food supply,” the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance is one of the more aggressive of these groups. In a 2011 piece published here on Civil Eats, Anna Lappé characterized their Food Dialogue series as an “orchestrated framing of the message about ‘modern agricultural production’ from the perspective of big business.”
Another leading PR front group, the Alliance for Food and Farming, has spent millions, including a $180,000 grant from the USDA, to denigrate the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide and to convince eaters that they have nothing to fear from pesticides. When that didn’t work, they shifted tactics and issued a misleading report showing how organic agriculture also relies on pesticides—a thinly veiled attempt at trying to make people question the value of organics.
All of this begs the question: Why spend massive resources on PR efforts to convince consumers not to care about pesticides, antibiotics, hormones or GMOs in our food, rather than giving consumers what they want: Safe, healthy food grown in ways that don’t harm people or the planet?