Organic Threat? Hogwash!

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, February 25, 2000

Earlier this month, the 20/20 program on Disney's ABC-TV ran quite an inflammatory segment on organic food. The show combined a focus by host John Stossel on the higher cost of organic food and an attack by Dennis Avery on the safety and productivity of organic agriculture.

Focusing on the higher purchase price of organic food ignores both the real unpaid costs of conventional agriculture (such as poisoned farmworkers, polluted water, eroded soil, and devastated ecosystems) and the fact that the farmer receives only five cents of each food dollar we spend. About 15 cents buys chemical, seed, and machinery inputs. Nearly 80 cents pays for distribution (that is, to get food from farms to stores and restaurants).

Mr. Avery works at the Hudson Institute, a private organization funded by the proponents and financial beneficiaries of the current industrial food system. His bias, therefore, isn't surprising. Avery is inconsistent, however, when he accuses mostly small-scale organic farmers of having a vested interest in promoting their harvests, while he shamelessly praises pesticides and plastic for his very influencial corporate funders. Over a year ago, Marian Burros writing for the New York Times (February 17, 1999. "Eating Well; Anti-Organic and Flawed") pointed out the serious weaknesses in Avery's claims. (See also the Wallace Institute.)

20/20 reported finding bacteria on 5% of conventional and organic leafy produce. If you put tender, fresh-cut lettuce or greens into a plastic bag in California, it isn't so surprising that without chlorine or some other strong treatment, those veggies will be covered with all kinds of bacteria by the time they get to the east coast. Here is yet another compelling reason to localize our food supply. The ever-growing distances between growers and eaters can be as damaging as pesticides.

In response to concerns about contamination, organic certifying agencies have lengthened the time required between manure applications and harvest. In Connecticut, Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Organic Standards require 75 days and strongly recommend careful composting first. The dangerous e. coli can't live for long in the presence of oxygen, in a good compost pile or in healthy soil.

Contrary to Avery's position, the real threat to human, community and planetary health comes from the current, highly-concentrated, long-distance, industrial food system. Farmers now receive almost the lowest prices ever for what they grow, while consumers spend willingly and lavishly for specialty foods like fancy coffees. Meanwhile, rural communities and local foodsheds are decimated worldwide as large-scale monocultures and centralized distribution systems replace the productive biodiversity of small farms and local foods. Mr. Avery ignores not only the environmental damages of industrial farming, but also those from the farm input and food distribution sectors, including toxic wastes, profligate energy use and excessive packaging.

Organic farmers as well as home and community gardeners, avoid these economic and environmental costs. Home gardens, community-supported agriculture projects and local farms all reduce the damages caused by the food distribution sector while they revive local communities.

For decades, we in the organic movement, have been creating an alternative food system that respects human health, farmers, communities and ecosystems. This 20/20 attack is a sign that we're making progress against some very powerful opponents.

To learn more about "Organic Farming at Home and Abroad," join us one week from tomorrow for the Connecticut NOFA End of Winter Conference for gardeners, farmers, and consumers. Call 203-484-2445 or visit NOFA for more information.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

* The story as posted by
20/20Ős John Stossel Investigates:
How Good is Organic Food?

This page and its contents are copyright © 2000 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.