I was at a meeting with an agriculture executive and he handed me a print-off from the Whole Foods website, their Organic landing page. A few things were highlighted. "Can that be right?" he asked.
I chuckled at the question. I was pretty confident that if I had the agriculture knowledge in his brain I could donate mine to research but that was his modest way of introducing something that he knows but I may not have been aware of, yet would agree is completely bananas. And I did.
"There is so much wrong with this," I remember thinking as I looked at the Whole Foods page, but writing is no longer my real job. We are opening an office in D.C., we have grown in leaps and bounds in the last year, and if you have ever run a non-profit you know the real job is making sure the lights stay on, and that means meeting with donors, applying for grants and then writing at night, when you have some free time.
I noted four outright lies right away but the paper just sat in my computer bag as I moved from hotel to hotel. Then it sat on a kitchenette table. It was only "four" lies because one whole section was either false or what people in rhetoric call a "strawman"; something you erect so you can knock it down, all the while pretending it is a soldier of the opposition that you have defeated.
The anti-science movement loves those kinds of strawmen. If you tell them you support science, they demand to know why you hate the environment, that sort of thing. It is classic political framing, and if there is one thing that Big Organic has mastered, it is framing. Their vendors, and by extension their customers, are the good guys, and everyone else are the bad, in their take on the world.
Finally, I couldn't take staring at it any more. So below is a copy, with the sentences I am going to discuss highlighted. I added a 10th but that is really just marketing of bucolic imagery, which everyone does. Still, no one engages in rustic buffoonery about dinner the way Whole Foods does, so it will get called out at the end. Click on the image below to see the larger size if it's not readable on your screen.
So here we go. Right at the top, ALL ABOUT ORGANICS.
1. You’re supporting farmers and producers who work hard to meet the standards because they believe in good health, quality and sustainability.
This is their first strawman. So conventional farmers don't believe in good health, quality and sustainability? That is a lie. When I was a kid on a subsistence farm in 1980 (more on that in #10) society was still in a panic about the Population Bomb. Charlton Heston had done that movie where the soylent green feeding people turns out to be people. Doomsday prophets Dr. John Holdren, Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Mrs. Anne Ehrlich had written Ecoscience, which argued that it might be necessary to have forced abortions, sterilization and government permission to have kids because Malthus was right all along.
Well, he wasn't right, nor were they. Instead of mass starvation our big worry is obesity because American farmers are producing more food on less land using less energy, chemicals and water than naysayers ever believed was possible. We're feeding people using 20 percent of the land it took in 1950, and water usage is the same as in 1960, despite having a population 75 percent higher.
Farmers do believe in good health, quality and sustainability - maybe even organic ones. Without any of those things, all farmers are out of business. It is just that farmers who embrace science and not pre-1950s mysticism about food put that into action a lot more, as we'll see.
2. All organic products begin as crops grown without toxic and persistent pesticides which can end up in soil and water, as well as in your food.
Is Whole Foods calling the US government liars when the USDA writes this about organic?
"Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a farmer may use non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions."
This is worse than marketing hoopie, this is a lie, and they rationalize it based on their definition of "non-toxic" being whatever organic food lobbyists get labeled as an organic product.
Their products can have boron and selenium and cobalt and phosphoric acid and ozone and hydrogen peroxide and a whole bunch of other stuff that can clearly be toxic. But they claim their seeds are all organic (they are not) and their pesticides are not toxic (they are) or persistent (ditto). This will be detailed more in #4 below.
3. Since 2002, all organic food products sold in the U.S. are required to meet strict USDA Organic standards.
Strict? No, that is a lie. When the National Organic Standards Board was created in 1990 at the request of industry lobbyists, the USDA gave them the ability to draft their own standard for inclusion because there was no indication this would grow to be a $100 billion industry. They assumed that, like kosher food or any other cultural process, the vendors could self-certify and their customers would run them out of business if they violated the cultural norm and got caught.
Boy were they wrong, Big Organic is Big Ag, but who has prevented USDA from bringing organic food back under the same oversight as the rest of Big Ag? Organic lobbyists, who don't want surprise spot testing or the regulatory hassles that conventional farmers face for their clients.
Today, there are dozens and dozens of synthetic ingredients that can be included in organic products, for no other reason than that the NOSB exempted stuff at the request of clients. Is a chemical synthetic but there is no organic equivalent? Okay, let's exempt fructooligosaccharides and put them in there. I could go on, but USDA has published all of the details so you can just read it on the federal regulations site.
Basically, there are three problems with this claim. First, you can be an organic farmer if you buy a certification from any number of certifying bodies, since there is no surprise spot testing you can even be "dual" and grow regular food and organic side-by-side. Organic trade groups say that is a great system, yet they would be horrified if you posited that pesticide trade groups should be certifying the people who pay them. It's simple hypocrisy. Second, you can use all kinds of synthetic ingredients and still be organic and have a gigantic company claim you are more ethical than people honest about their process. Third, farmers are exempt from having any certification if they gross less than $5,000 per year in organic products. In other words, the smaller the farm, the greater the chance it is just someone selling you a feel-good fallacy on a Sunday morning at the farmer's market.
That does not add up to "strict."
4. No toxic or persistent pesticides or herbicides
Dr. Steve Savage, writing on Science 2.0, cleared that up for my home state of California, the one place where every application of science has to be logged and that accounted for:
As you can see, many organic pesticides are non-toxic, though so are conventional. They're all basically non-toxic for everything but pests and the toxic stuff is not easy to obtain. (1) At that time only 12 percent of farms in California were "organic" (more were calling themselves mixed, claiming to do both) but they were using nearly 50 percent of the pesticides. That is not better for the environment.
The downside to legacy organic pesticides is they don't work very well. That is why superior products were invented.
And why does Whole Foods claim copper hydroxide, copper oxide, copper oxychloride or copper sulfate, all allowable until organic certification, don't "persist" in the soil? Of course they persist in the soil. This is another lie.
5. No sewage sludge or synthetic fertilizers. There is sewage all right, it just comes from a barn. It's still feces. And they use organic fertilizers rather than synthetic, which means more nitrogen runoff ending up in rivers. Unlike pesticides, chemical fertilizers have been around for 200 years. They have gotten a whole lot better since then. Whole Foods shoppers are back in the early 1800s with Malthus in lots of ways.
6. No GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This is not an outright lie, they probably don't, to their knowledge, but they are framing it in ways that are deceptive. GMOs are a legal definition, it is a technology patented by Monsanto. That does not mean they were not genetically modified.
Basically, Whole Foods is doing the equivalent of saying they don't use John Deere. And customers who don't know a lot about food who have heard the name John Deere nod, because they think it must be bad or a company wouldn't state they don't use it. It turns out they still use a tractor, it's just a Kubota, yet they want you to think they don't use a tractor at all, to make you feel like your food is hand-picked and more in harmony with the universe.
Genetic modification has been done throughout agricultural history. Without it, our corn would still be grass. Mules are artificial selection, they are not found in nature, and have existed for 3,000 years. Whole Foods has genetically modified crops, but they were created using techniques like mutagenesis, which existed before GMOs. Since CRISPR/Cas-9 editing is not a GMO, will Whole Foods still block them out? Almost certainly. Activist groups have found a fundraising goldmine in being anti-GMO, they are not going to give that up, they will switch to being anti-CRISPR, the way Greenpeace switched from being against nuclear bombs to saving whales from fishing.
7. No antibiotics. This is either a lie or incredibly expensive animal cruelty. They have no detectable antibiotics - just like every other piece of meat you buy. If a random test of an animal shows the presence of an antibiotic, the whole shipment is lost, regardless of the process in raising them. And farmers or ranchers are out the money.
What if they really used no antibiotics? Entire ranches would be wiped out by a sick animal. No wonder so many Whole Foods shoppers are more likely to be anti-vaccine. They think all medicine is bad medicine.
8. No synthetic growth hormones. Like claiming they don't use John Deere, without mentioning they use a different brand of tractor, this is a technical truth used to lie. Whole Foods products contain estradiol (estrogen), progesterone, and testosterone. Trenbolone acetate and zeranol are just brand names of synthetic versions of those natural hormones. There is no difference in what they are, it is basically a Kubota instead of a John Deere. It makes no difference at all in food, both natural and synthetic have zero day withdrawal. No steroid hormones, natural or synthetic, are approved for growth purposes in any dairy cows, veal calves, pigs, or poultry. Whole Foods knows this.
9. No irradiation. The lie here is not that their food may not have it, the lie is in making you think your food is safer without it. Want to get poisoned in a Whole Foods? Buy their alfalfa sprouts without any irradiation and soak them in fetid water, like Whole Foods wants you to believe is healthy and natural. And why not wash it down with raw milk you let sit on the counter for a day? Meat, vegetables, fruits, shellfish should all be irradiated to prevent foodborne illness.
Whole Foods marketers clearly don't know much about science so I will keep it simple: Irradiation is the meat and vegetable equivalent of pasteurization.
10. That guy is not a farmer. He may be a model for farming ads, he may call himself a farmer, but that tractor in the background tells you at best he is a subsistence farmer, he is not making a living. I grew up that way and I can tell you, if you ever want to buy a television or furniture, it is not the way to go.
Here is what an actual tractor used by a farmer looks like:
These folks live in a world of Big Data. They need to know how much they are putting where, they need to know what time a machine is getting to the next field, etc. It is time and money with razor-thin margins of error. It is not some guy meandering 75 yards to pull up a plant and smell it and show it to you.
Obviously the Whole Foods ad guy could actually be a farmer and they stuck that old tractor in the background and show him picking by hand to look like all of their vendors are tiny small business owners cooing to their plants, but that is just another way they are lying in their ads.
1. For context:
Credit: Steve Savage