Viewpoint: How ‘organic’ agriculture evolved from marketing tool to evil empire

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

The organic products industry has been on a tear for the past decade, with total organic sales by farms in the United States increasing 83% between 2007 and 2012. In spite of the fact that organic products are expensive and objectively offer little to recommend them over conventional ones, devotion to everything organic–food, bed linens, pillows, clothes, even tobacco–has developed into a kind of cult. It reminds us of a Japanese proverb, “Faith makes even the head of a sardine the object of worship.”

But the cult is being threatened, and its members are fighting back, in part by attacking proponents of modern genetic engineering, which poses a mortal threat to organic agriculture.

After a spate of setbacks for the anti-genetic engineering movement, including the FDA’s approval last month of a faster-growing, genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, the organic industry (which finances most of it) is leading an assault on university scientists who research and advocate for genetically engineered crops.  Devoid of any systematic scientific evidence to back up claims of organics’ nutritional, health or environmental superiority, industry executives and their fellow travelers are disparaging modern genetic engineering (which organic categorically rejects) by leading a variety of smear campaigns.

Such scurrilous attacks are hardly new, and the campaign against university researchers began earlier this year when an organic-funded front group called U.S. Right to Know filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the email cache of dozens of researchers at public universities who contribute to a consumer information website about genetic engineering.  The group was seeking any correspondence between the scientists and agribusiness companies like Monsanto (dog whistle alert).

A primary target was Dr. Kevin Folta, a molecular biologist and head of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. Professor Folta is not only a researcher but also a prolific and passionate voice on behalf of the science behind genetically engineered crops—which have higher yields, conserve water and arable farmland, and enhance food security for subsistence farmers. As Ivory Tower academic-types go, he has been highly accessible, answering questions daily on social media and traveling everywhere from local schools to debates and professional seminars to offer perspectives on genetic engineering. He has won awards for his work with undergrads as well as for volunteering to teach newly-minted Ph.D.’s the grant-writing and interviewing skills necessary to find a job.

Folta turned over almost 5,000 emails, only one of which showed any connection with Monsanto, the world’s leader in plant biotechnology. In 2014 the company had donated $25,000 to the University of Florida to fund a science communication outreach program. (Folta is a national leader in teaching scientists to better communicate with the public, something desperately needed as consumers now seem willing to believe all kinds of quackery and jiggery-pokery). Folta neither controlled nor received the money, nor was there any evidence of impropriety, collusion or quid pro quo between him and Monsanto. “I haven’t done anything wrong.  No rules were broken, no ethics challenged,” Folta said, and no one has disproved those assertions or questioned the accuracy of his research or the content of his presentations.

But the opposition were neither persuaded nor persuadable, and pounced. The anti-genetic engineering activists and their organic industry benefactors subjected Folta to a vile hate campaign. He became the object of professional and personal harassment, his email accounts were hacked, and he and his wife were threatened with physical violence, simply because his expertise and advocacy run counter to the organic industry’s narrative (and financial well-being). On November 4, Folta announced that he was “bowing out of the public science conversation,” a loss to us all.

Other scientists were maligned simply for writing articles about genetic engineering for a science website. In a hatchet job published in the Boston Globe, Harvard University professor Calestous Juma was accused of “failing to reveal a connection” to Monsanto. The connection? A single email from a Monsanto executive asking Juma and other scientists to write an article on their area of expertise. Neither Juma nor any of the other scientists was paid and none championed or even mentioned Monsanto. But in the eyes of the anti-genetic engineering Mafia and their sympathizers in the media, a simple email exchange constitutes a nefarious “connection.”

Juma is an internationally renowned figure for his work on sustainable agriculture, particularly in his home continent of Africa. He has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society (U.K.) and the African Academy of Sciences. But the organic industry and their accomplices are only too eager to portray him as a shill who takes marching orders from Monsanto.

The shameful attacks could have long-lasting repercussions. “I don’t know what scientist would ever talk to a public audience after seeing what I’m going through,” Folta said. “As a department chair, I find it very difficult to advise my younger faculty or students to get involved with the public, as any topic can be made into a controversy, and tarnish a career.”

A splendid editorial in the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology got to the nub of the issue: “Smear campaigns against those speaking out against scaremongering on [genetically engineered] crops highlight why support for scientists involved in public outreach is so important.”

Why all this nastiness and mendacity from the organic industry, the darling of the elitist food movement and its media enablers? The short answer is they’re running scared. Genetic engineering labeling referendums failed last year in Colorado and Oregon–following similar defeats in California and Washington–and the organic industry spent big bucks to try to pass those ballot initiatives. Worse still for them, a recent Supreme Court decision appears to proscribe, on First Amendment grounds, the kind of labeling they have been demanding.

The June 18, 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. the Town of Gilbert has cleared a judicial path for challenging the constitutionality of special labeling to identify foods that contain “genetically engineered” (sometimes called “genetically modified,” or “GM”) ingredients. Information that is required on labels is considered to be “compelled commercial speech” and thus must conform to the speech requirements of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The essence of the Reed case is that it expands the range of regulations subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most rigorous standard of review for constitutionality, to include special labeling laws. Absent a compelling state interest—such as issues of safety or proper usage—a requirement to label foods that contain “genetically engineered” ingredients is not likely to survive the strict scrutiny standard, and thus would be unconstitutional.

There have been more defeats. Chipotle’s “G-M-Over it” marketing blitz was roundly excoriated by editorial boards and political publications across the political spectrum for promoting pseudoscience. The company is now being sued in California for false advertising since its soft drinks and cheese contain ingredients from genetically engineered ingredients, and the meat they serve is from animals fed genetically engineered grains. None of this would pass muster if the company sought quasi-official non-GMO or USDA organic certification.  Moreover, FDA considers a food to be “misbranded”—and banned from commerce—if its labeling is “false or misleading in any particular way.” (Chipotle has other problems that are unrelated to dishonesty about its advertising: repeated outbreaksof food poisoning, not all of which the company has publicly revealed.)  There is an interesting recent discussion of FDA’s view of nomenclature and labeling by New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom.

Related article:  Mimicking Climategate, anti-GMO activists fund legal attack on biotech academics

But Chipotle is far from the only company that is bashing genetic engineering and thereby misleading consumers. Academics Review, a nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review last year of hundreds of published reports about consumers’ views on 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. The report concluded 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.”

Organic agriculture has spread like a noxious weed, a far cry from its original conception: “Let me be clear about one thing,” said then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when organic certification was being considered, “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.” (One wonders how many Whole Foods shoppers are aware of that. Maybe Secretary Glickman’s statement should be posted prominently in all establishments that sell organic products.)

Consumers may be catching on. Even as retailers scramble to offer more organic choices, a wide-ranging study conducted this year by the consumer research firm Mintel Group shows that organic “sales have hit something of a plateau” and consumers are somewhat skeptical about the integrity of the organic label. And with good reason: Consider that Whole Foods’ supposedly organic house brand for produce, “California Blend,” was imported from China. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

According to the Mintel study, about half of consumers think an organic label is just an excuse to charge more money, and most people who buy organic do so because of a perceived health and nutritional advantage over non-organic–a false narrative the industry pushes hard. But as consumers eventually learn there’s little evidence that organic is healthier or more nutritious, organic companies will find it increasingly challenging to promote their products on that basis. And as Millennials–unquestionably the industry’s key demographic–age, raise children and take on more expenses, justifying the higher cost of organic products for dubious benefits may be more difficult.

The backstory here is that the organic industry is on a collision course with genetic engineering. Among the greatest challenges to organic food production is the unrelenting progress of genetic engineering, which is forbidden to organic farmers. The paradox is that much of the organic agenda–decreased food waste, reduced pesticide use, less impact on the environment (reduced runoff, soil erosion and release of CO2) and enhanced food security–can be advanced with this technology.

Last year researchers at the University of Göttingen published an analysis of studies that assessed the impact of genetically engineered crops. They found that the agronomic and economic benefits, not only in the United States but also in the developing world, have been significant: “On average, [genetic engineering] technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 8%.”  Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage recently analyzed the data from USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey, which measures various parameters from virtually every certified organic farm in the nation, and compared them to conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state.

His findings are stunning. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap”—poorer performance of organic farms—in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were significant: strawberries, 61% less than conventional; tomatoes, 61% less; tangerines, 58% less; carrots, 49% less; cotton, 45% less; rice, 39% less; peanuts, 37% less.  (And these gaps are actually underestimates: Organic farming that is performed in proximity to conventional farming benefits from a “halo effect” caused by the conventional farming’s superior control of ambient pests, which reduces the pest-pressure on the organic farms.)

How important is the yield penalty of organic farming? As Savage observed, “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”

As high-performing genetically engineered varieties become more and more prevalent, the yield penalty of organic farming will increase.

Genetic engineering increasingly is providing consumer-friendly as well as agronomically important traits. Recently, the USDA and FDA approved genetically engineered potato varieties that are bruise-resistant, reducing the high percentage of waste for those crops. The potatoes also contain much less asparagine, a chemical that is converted to acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures, and have lower reducing sugars, which increases their storage life. The genetically engineered Arctic Apple is also resistant to bruising, music to the ears of parents who know that the slightest brown spot on the cut surface of an apple will elicit a “Yuck” from most kids.

Genetically engineered papaya varieties have saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from devastation by the papaya ringspot virus, and the technology has been used to develop citrus varieties resistant to the “citrus greening” disease that is crippling the citrus industry in Florida, Texas and California. We’d like to see farmers produce organic papayas and citrus under those environmental stresses. (A fifty-dollar glass of organic O.J., anyone?)

These kinds of benefits, more of which are in the development pipeline, are the real motivation for the relentless and bitter opposition to modern agricultural practices–the fear in the organic industry that as technologies and products that are unavailable to organic farmers become ever more efficient and productive, the current gap between organic and conventional agriculture will become a chasm. The only way for them to keep up is to vilify the competition and mislead consumers with “black marketing”—that is, trashing the opposition. Harm to scientists and others who work at cross-purposes to their agenda is just collateral damage. But like the buggy-whip manufacturers who ridiculed and reviled the horseless carriage, the organic industry is on the wrong side of history .

Julie Kelly is a food writer, cooking instructor and owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, Ill. You can reply to her on Twitter @Julie_Kelly2. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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