Asking hard questions is one of the true delights of being a science journalist. People's assumptions, understanding of the facts, and inherent biases should be subjected to scrutiny. Therefore, I like to think of myself as the science version of HARDtalk's Stephen Sackur -- that is, without the international name recognition and striking good looks.
It is with this skepticism that I approached the announcement by ALDI, a discount supermarket chain, that it would go "full organic" in 2017. Basically, it wants to target consumers who would like to eat at Whole Foods but are unable to afford the parking lot.
As part of that mission, ALDI will ban eight more pesticides. Of course, that is a marketing ploy rather than a solid health decision. The pesticides approved for use in America are safe. But the executives at ALDI know that many people don't know that, so they are capitalizing on public ignorance. They are also exploiting the "health halo" that surrounds organic food, which leads many people to falsely believe that organic farmers don't use pesticides. They absolutely do. And even if they did not, plants produce their own pesticides. Nicotine and caffeine, for instance, are actually natural insecticides.
In order to clarify the rationale for its business decision, I contacted ALDI's public relations office and asked the following questions:
1) Is Aldi also banning products that contain caffeine? (Caffeine is a natural insecticide.) If not, why not?
2) Are all pesticides being banned or just synthetic ones?
3) If organic food was grown using pesticide, will Aldi still sell that food?
4) What is your position on GMOs?
An ALDI spokesperson said, "[T]hey would like to decline providing commentary outside of the statement that we have already shared."
These questions aren't all that hard. Answering them, however, would have revealed ALDI's executives to be either (1) completely ignorant of science or (2) profit-driven hypocrites. No wonder they remained silent.
Like all peddlers of organic food, ALDI is engaged, either wittingly or unwittingly, in a deceptive business practice. By refusing to answer simple questions from a journalist, it shows contempt for public accountability. By promoting organic food, ALDI is rejecting scientific consensus. By banning approved pesticides, it is undermining public trust in agricultural technology and the safety of the food supply.
In other words, ALDI is the "Poor Man's Whole Foods."