Americans’ Quest for ‘Authenticity’ Is Often Ill-Informed (Part 2)

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Mar 07, 2023
The world's biggest consumer hoax is organic agriculture, which pretends to be what it isn't. And very successfully.

As I discussed in Part 1, many Americans have begun to seek “authenticity” in many aspects of their lives.  There’s nothing wrong with that unless in the process they are misled by special interests’ false claims that cause them to be endangered or merely ripped off. 

Arguably, the most pervasive hoax in this country, dwarfing phone and internet scams, is the widespread rejection of “industrial,” conventional farming in favor of more “natural,” “organic,” and "sustainable" offerings at your local supermarket.  The definition of “organic” is a movable feast, with the organic industry and government constantly tweaking its practices.  The products and practices that define it are completely arbitrary, with no scientific basis; “organic” is nothing more than agricultural and nutritional mumbo jumbo, the goal of which is to fleece consumers. It does this remarkably well – to the tune of over $50 billion worth of overpriced products annually in the U.S.

Is organic safer or more nutritious, as the industry claims and many consumers believe?   A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.                                           

Moreover, because of its lower yields, organic agriculture is wasteful of water and arable land.

What, then, is “organic” all about? Well, when organic standards were established in 2000, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was unequivocal, emphasizing the fundamental meaninglessness of the organic designation: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” That really says it all.

It’s worth repeating: The organic label is no more than a marketing tool. And it’s a cynical one because so many unsuspecting consumers are ripped off by the high prices of organic products, without palpable benefit.

Advocates tout organic-food production — in everything from milk and coffee to meat, produce, and even cigarettes (yes, you read that correctly) — as a "sustainable" and “authentic” way to feed the planet's expanding population.  Overwhelming evidence argues otherwise.

For one thing, lower crop yields are inevitable, given organic farming's systematic rejection of many advanced methods and technologies.  If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues. 

Another limitation of organic production is that it disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality — namely, the minimization of soil disturbances such as tilling, combined with the use of cover crops.  Both approaches help to limit soil erosion and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.  Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, often they have to rely on tillage for weed control, which promotes the runoff of chemicals and soil erosion.

One prevalent myth is that organic agriculture does not employ pesticides and other “synthetic substances” that would belie a commitment to authenticity.  Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops.  Dozens of “synthetic substances” are allowed under U.S. organic rules and are commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops.  They include nicotine sulfate, which is highly toxic to warm-blooded animals, and moderately toxic copper sulfate. 

The reason these chemicals are permitted is revealing.  Organic practices are so primitive and inferior that organic farmers plagued by low yields periodically go whining to USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (whose members are from the organic industry), which rubber-stamps their requests for new chemicals to be approved.  For example, as described in Food Safety News:

the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to change restrictions on 17 substances allowed in organic production or handling: micronutrients, chlorhexidine, parasiticides, fenbendazole, moxidectin, xylazine, lidocaine, procaine, methionine, excipients, alginic acid, flavors, carnauba wax, chlorine, cellulose, colors and glycerin.

The changes up for public comment also add 16 substances to the National List, meaning organic producers can use them in production and handling: hypochlorous acid, magnesium oxide, squid byproducts, activated charcoal, calcium borogluconate, calcium propionate, injectable vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, kaolin-pectin, mineral oil, propylene glycol, acidified sodium chlorite, zinc sulfate, potassium lactate and sodium lactate. [emphasis added]

Xylazine?  The organic food industry wants to reduce restrictions on xylazine, also known as "tranq," which has been called the "newest killer street drug" and the "zombie drug?" Xylazine, which was subject of an FDA import alert issued on February 28 because of the drug's imminent threat to human health?

Also, note that the list contains only one meeting’s request to “adjust” the chemicals permitted in organic agriculture.  

Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive analysis of hundreds of published academic, industry, and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. It also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods. 

Their analysis found that “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition, and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

All that doesn’t sound terribly authentic to me, but whether it is or not, what’s even worse is the pervasive cheating at every link of the organic agriculture and food supply chain. In the 2014 USDA survey of pesticide residues on crops, for example:

USDA scientists collected just over 10,000 samples of 15 crops taken from ordinary retail food channels.  The scientists then used extremely sensitive laboratory methods to check for traces of hundreds of different chemicals.  409 of the samples were labeled as organic, and residues were detected in 87 of them.  Thus 21% of the organic samples had detectable residues representing 142 detections in 78 crop/chemical combinations. 

The importation of fake organic imports is an especially weak link. A landmark report issued in September 2017 by USDA’s Inspector General after a yearlong investigation exposes the systematic failure of government officials to ensure the integrity and safety of organic food imports. Over the past several years, there has been a huge spike in organic imports – particularly corn and soybeans – to keep pace with consumer demand, and more than a hundred countries now ship supposedly organic products here. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is tasked with making sure those countries meet our rigorous organic standards, but they employ a dubious system largely based on reciprocity and good faith, rather than tight controls and federal enforcement.  Moreover, USDA is in the untenable and arguably unethical position of both promoting and regulating organic products.

The USDA Inspector General found widespread problems with the National Organic Program that could result in “reduced U.S. consumer confidence in the integrity of organic products imported into the United States.”  The report cited the agency’s failure to reconcile organic standards between different countries, verify documents at U.S. ports of entry, and conduct mandatory audits of major exporters.  The inspector general also discovered that not only are prohibited pesticides being used on organic shipments, but that the government’s ability to detect them is virtually non-existent:

Imported agricultural products, whether organic or conventional, are sometimes fumigated at U.S. ports of entry to prevent prohibited pests from entering the United States. [USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service] has not established and implemented controls at U.S ports of entry to identify, track, and ensure that treated organic products are not sold, labeled, or represented as organic. As a result, U.S. consumers of organic products have reduced assurance that foreign agricultural products maintain their organic integrity from farm to table.

The report concluded that National Organic Program officials have performed so poorly that fraud and corruption are common throughout the supply chain in a burgeoning food sector that claims to be healthier, safer, and more eco-friendly than non-organic food.  Thus, many consumers are paying a large premium to buy imported organic foods that aren’t organic at all. 

At long last, the mainstream media has begun to cover this scandal.  The Washington Post published three investigative reports (here and here, and the one cited below) on the lucrative but fraudulent organic business, exposing organic milk producers who failed to meet federal regulations and tracking the importation of millions of pounds of falsely labeled organic grains from Eastern Europe.  Post reporter Peter Whoriskey described three shipments of supposedly organic imported corn and soybeans that were “large enough to constitute a meaningful portion of the U.S. supply of those commodities.  All three were represented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary.”

And here’s the irony of ironies: With respect to food safety, consumers who are being bamboozled into buying conventional food masquerading as organic might actually be better off.  Organic foods are notorious for contamination. According to Bruce Chassy, professor of food science at the University of Illinois, “Organic foods are recalled four to eight times more frequently than their conventional counterparts.”

That is hardly surprising. Aside from the presence of pathogenic bacteria, organic grains are particularly susceptible to toxins from fungi.  Here’s why… Every year, scores of packaged food products are recalled from the U.S. market because of the presence of all-natural contaminants such as insect parts, toxic molds, bacteria, and viruses. Over the centuries, the main culprits in mass food poisoning have often been mycotoxins, such as ergotamine from ergot or fumonisin from Fusarium species. These toxins come from the fungal contamination of unprocessed crops, which is exacerbated when insects attack food crops, opening wounds in the plant that provide an opportunity for pathogen invasion. Once the molds get a foothold, poor storage conditions also promote their post-harvest growth on grain. 

Fumonisin and some other mycotoxins are highly toxic, causing fatal diseases in livestock that eat infected corn and esophageal cancer and neural tube defects in humans. Regulatory agencies such as the U.S. FDA and UK Food Safety Agency have established recommended maximum fumonisin levels in food and feed products made from corn. Unprocessed or lightly processed corn (e.g., corn meal) can have fumonisin levels that exceed recommended levels. The UK Food Safety Agency tested six organic corn meal products and 20 conventional (non-organic) corn meal products for fumonisin contamination. All six organic corn meals had elevated levels —from 9 to 40 times greater than the recommended levels for human health — and they were voluntarily withdrawn from grocery stores. By contrast, the 20 conventional (i.e., non-organic) products averaged about a quarter of the recommended maximum levels.

Moreover, the consumption of genetically engineered Bt-corn – which, like all genetically engineered crops is banned from organic agriculture – can reduce the incidence of birth defects caused by fumonisin.

Stanford’s Professor Carroll has some business advice that should give pause to the organic industry about its long-term prospects: “If you open up and start telling your story, you better make sure it’s true and that you’re actually doing what you claim you’re doing because you’ll be found out if you lie or exaggerate.  Someone will eventually discover the hypocrisy and go around telling everybody about it, and you’ll be worse off than if you hadn’t gone down that route in the first place.”

That “someone” should be the federal government, which ought to have ended its amicable relationship with the organic industry long ago.



Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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