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The Blurred Vision of ABC’s 20/20

by J. Robert Hatherill, Ph.D, Environmental Studies Program,
University of California at Santa Barbara

A recent segment of ABC’s 20/20, entitled “How Good is Organic Food?” grossly misrepresented the safety and value of organically grown food crops. According to the 20/20 show that aired on February 4, 2000, commercially grown food is superior to organically grown produce because organic food has higher concentrations of bacteria and is “dangerous,” and because organic farmers waste land and resources compared to commercial growers.

An Unbiased Expert?

The organic food critic, Dennis Avery, was identifi ed on the 20/20 show as a former researcher for the USDA and as a leading critic of organic produce. 20/20 failed to disclose Mr. Avery’s full credentials. He is presently the Director of the Center for Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute, and the author of such books as Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming.

Mr. Avery’s employer, the Hudson Institute, is a duplicitous, non-profit “watch dog” group that serves as a mouthpiece for big business. Hudson identifies many of its corporate sponsors on its website, including AgrEvo, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto Company, Novartis Crop Protection, and Zeneca — the very companies whose bottom lines are most threatened by organic agriculture.

Mr. Avery is also a member of the American Counsel on Science and Health (ACSH), another chemical, pharmaceutical and food industry-funded PR organization, which specializes in orchestrating media assaults on scientists and activists who take positions contrary to the interests of ACHS funders. ACSH asserts, for example, that trans-fatty acids pose no health risks, and they champion everything from red meat to pesticides and genetically modified foods (GMOs) — even Ritalin and junk food for kids. ACSH tries to debunk the link between the standard American diet and cancer, and claims that global warming doesn’t exist or is of no real concern.

In short, 20/20 failed to reveal that the anti-organic “expert” they presented has strong ties to business interests in the organic debate, and a vested interest in promoting the use of herbicides, pesticides and GMOs.

In his 1998 book, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, celebrated scientist Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Studies at Stanford University, details the current scheme whereby industry-paid pitchmen promote highly questionable, discredited – or sometimes non-existent – studies to try to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems. Ehrlich cites ACHS and specifi cally Avery as purveyors of what he terms “brownlash” – the practice of “distorting or misstating research fi ndings” in an attempt to “fuel a backlash against ‘green’ policies.”

Individuals like Avery, “aided by allies in the media, have been surprisingly effective in getting brownlash messages across to the public,” Ehrlich writes. “In some cases, the messages simply confuse the issues; in others, they offer a seemingly credible (though generally unfounded) rationale for relaxing or eliminating environmental regulations or forestalling development of new policies to address serious global problems…. [Using science in this way] is anti-science. It sounds authoritative, but it is well known among scientists as a totally incorrect conclusion.”i

20/20’s Hack Job

The 20/20 show is a perfect illustration of how groups such as Hudson and ACHS help ensure that the media does not present a balanced account of the facts concerning organic food. The show spotlighted a rather meaningless and flawed study undertaken by ABC reporter and 20/20 host John Stossel, intended to create the impression that organic produce is “dangerous.” Stossel implied that the unscientific study showed organic produce contained higher levels of pathogenic (disease-producing) bacteria than commercially grown produce. In truth, pathogenic bacteria was not specifically measured in the 20/20 study, there was no peer review and no apparent statistical analysis that is typical to a scientific study. In fact, to term it a “study” is anti-science at its best.

Why would a reporter like John Stossel permit himself to be used in this way? An article in the March, 2000, edition of the magazine Brill’s Content provides some insight.ii Entitled Laissez-Faire TV, the article exposes Stossel’s ties to a number of the same pro-business organizations that Professor Ehrlich cites in his book. According to the article, Stossel is the only correspondent in 20/20’s history to get his own weekly segment, and he has the power at ABC to produce prime-time specials on any topics he chooses. How does he use that power? According to Brill’s Content, he often uses it to promote pro-business positions and rail against government regulation. “Once a consumer reporter who rallied against corporations, Stossel has become a friend of big business. He has suggested shrinking the Environmental Protection Agency and boarding up the Food and Drug Administration.” Stossel is described as “enemy No. 1” to Jeff Cohen, who runs Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “He’s clearly one of the most openly and proudly biased reporters in the business,” says Cohen.

In his 20/20 piece smearing organics, Stossel also interviewed Katherine DiMatteo, the Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. Before the show was aired, Ms. DiMatteo wrote to 20/20: “Based on our further in-depth research, we feel Mr. Stossel is misrepresenting the facts from a study 20/20 conducted. Mr. Stossel asked several times if ‘organic food will kill you.’ Numerous questions along these lines were posed to me during the interview, many of which were citing non-existent data or incorrect information. 20/20’s own consumer poll showed that consumers purchase organic products fi rst and foremost because of benefi ts to the environment. Organic food production is an agricultural system that helps reduce environmental damage. Organic food is not deadly, and to cause consumer alarm based on the results of one small study would be irresponsible.”

As for Mr. Avery, he has repeatedly gone on the record as he did in the broadcast stating that “people who eat organic and natural foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by the deadly new strain of E.coli bacteria (0157:H7).” Mr. Avery claims “recent data” compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the source for this inaccurate statement. The Organic Trade Association, in its mission to protect the organic label and to educate consumers, investigated these claims by contacting the CDC directly. According to Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the CDC, there is no such data on organic food production in existence at their centers. In fact, Tauxe stated that Avery’s claims were “absolutely not true.”

According to Tauxe, “The goal of the CDC is to ensure food is produced using safe and hygienic methods, and that consumers also practice safe and hygienic methods in food preparation, regardless of the source, be it organic, commercial, imported or otherwise.” It would appear that Mr. Avery’s remarks, all premised on CDC data, have no foundation. In fact, the disease strain of E-coli (0157:H7) originates from animal- sources.

Piling It Higher and Deeper

Mr. Avery further states that “organic food is more dangerous than commercially grown produce because organic farmers use manure…”. But manure use is a common agricultural practice for both commercial and organic food production. Certifi ed organic farmers, however, must adhere to additional and more strict limitations on the application of manure, as mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. The OFPA prohibits the harvest of organic crops for human consumption for at least 60 days after the application of raw manure. Furthermore, organic certifi cation agencies and OFPA require longer intervals between manure application and harvest if soil or other conditions warrant it.

Mr. Avery claims organic farmers “compound the contamination problem through their reluctance to use antimicrobial preservatives, chemical washes, pasteurization or even chlorinated water to rid their products of dangerous bacteria.” We question how Mr. Avery measures “reluctance” among organic growers. Any organic grower that uses the certified organic label must abide by safe food production standards, and, as with all food producers, must be in compliance with his or herself local and state health standards.

The 20/20 segment also falsely claimed that organic farmers waste land and resources. The fact is, organic farming is not low-yield farming. The Rodale Institute of Kutztown, PA, recently completed a 15-year study comparing organic farming methods to commercial agricultural methods. Its findings, published in the November 11,1998, issue of the journal Nature, showed that organic yields equaled commercial agricultural yields after only four years. The study also demonstrated that, in organic farming, the quality of the soil continues to improve; carbon dioxide emissions are reduced; and in periods of drought, organic fields are more resilient and can actually out-perform the yield of commercial farm plots. (Although 20/20 traveled to and interviewed researchers at the Rodale Institute, they were not included in the broadcast.)

Experts have also shown that pesticide application does not guarantee increased crop yields. According to David Pimentel, Professor of Insect Ecology and Agricultural Sciences at Cornell University, “Although pesticides are generally profitable, their use does not always decrease crop losses. For example, even with the 10-fold increase in insecticide use in the United States from 1945 to 1989, total crop losses from insect damage have nearly doubled from 7 percent to 13 percent.”

Furthermore, in 1998, the EPA reported that agriculture is the single largest nonpoint polluter of our rivers and streams, fouling more than 173,000 miles of waterways with chemicals, erosion and animal waste runoff from livestock production.iii As we can see from the USDA land use figures above, aside from the waste runoff, a good share of this chemical pollution is also the result of growing livestock feed using chemically dependant agriculture.

Of Pesticides and Sewage Sludge

As media megamergers continue to swallow up smaller news agencies, unbiased news may become a thing of the past. Yet consumers should not be left in the dark while bought-and-paid industry scientists obscure the essential truth of the issue — organically grown food has many benefits that make it safer than commercial produce.

One major difference lies in the use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers. Commercially grown fruits and vegetables will often have multiple pesticide residues. Commercially grown strawberries alone, for example, can contain up to 64 different pesticides. Washing your hands and your veggies is a simple and effective defense against manure. Pesticides, on the other hand, are harder if not impossible to wash off, especially when plants are genetically engineered to express those pesticides in every cell in the active form, like the Bt toxin found in corn, soybeans and cotton.

Recent studies show that trace levels of multiple pesticides cause increased aggression. It is note-worthy that aggression was triggered with trace combinations of pesticides, but not with exposure to a single pesticide. Specifically, trace pesticide mixtures have induced abnormal thyroid hormone levels. Irritability, aggression and multiple chemical sensitivity are all associated with thyroid hormone levels.iv

Also, compounds such as nitrates (which can be converted into cancer-producing chemicals) are more prevalent in commercially grown produce because of the overuse of nitrogen-containing fertilizers.v

The 20/20 segment mentioned how a young girl became ill after she ingested lettuce that was contaminated from sewage. Because of the order of presentation, the viewer was falsely led to believe the lettuce was organically grown. The truth is, however, certified organic growers cannot use sewage sludge to amend the soil – but commercial operations can and do.

Unlike organic produce, which is grown using careful stewardship of the soil and time-proven farming techniques, commercially grown crops are often not rotated in different plots, and therefore tend to deplete the nutrient content of the soil. This is why extensive use of commercial fertilizers is required for the growth of these crops. In fact, many water supplies have been contaminated with nitrates because of the over use of commercial fertilizers. Although manure used in organic farming also contains nitrates, it does not migrate to the ground water as quickly as does commercial grade fertilizer.

It is widely known that organic farms have higher concentrations of organic matter in the soils. A soil high in organic matter has improved water-holding capacity and therefore is more drought tolerant and reduces the activity and migration of pesticides. Further, organic matter in soil serves as a repository for select nutrients and assists in keeping these nutrients

While there have been conflicting studies on the superior nutritional value of organic produce – with some studies showing organic food to be far more nutritious than commercially grown, while others showing it to be the same – the jury is still out. Far more research has been directed to aid mechanized, commercial agriculture in producing foods of uniform size and uniform dates of ripening. Commercial agriculture, with its focus on mechanical harvesting and large-scale storage, transport and processing also consumes vast quantities of energy in the form of oil, gas and electricity.vii

Organic farming does not rely on the intensive use of inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, it relies on natural soil builders and biological control of pests. Organic farming uses much less energy than commercial farming, and therefore generates fewer greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.viii

Just about any consumer can note the difference between an organically grown tomato and a commercially grown tomato. The organic tomato has a rich, deep red color that is indicative of the red pigment lycopene, which has been shown to have health-protective properties. Commercial grown tomatoes are often picked green and put in a chamber with sulfur dioxide to force the ripening of the tomato. Tomatoes treated in this manner will often have much lower amounts of health-protecting lycopene. Studies also show that health protective plant chemicals called phytochemicals are higher in organic produce. Many of these phytochemicals such as lycopene (tomatoes) and resveratrol (grapes) have been linked to reduced heart disease and cancer risk. And let’s not forget that organically grown produce just tastes better!

On March 20, 2000, researchers from the EPA and Population Council announced that a commonly used pesticide, methoxychlor, may interfere with levels of the male hormone testosterone, affecting male fertility. Interestingly, to lessen this risk, the lead researcher advises washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them or simply switching to organic produce.ix

John Stossel, Dennis Avery, 20/20 – and the corporations behind them, which profit from the sale of pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified substances – seem to hope we will all forget that the human species has been eating organic food for all but the last 50 years of life on this planet. It is commercial food, the product of chemical farming, that is the real experiment on the health of the public.

Dr. Hatherill is a research toxicologist at UCSB, the author of the national bestseller “Eat to Beat Cancer” (Renaissance Books; September 1999), and chief scientific advisor to EarthSave International.

End Notes

i Ehrlich,Paul andAnne, “Betray of Science and Reason” Island Press, 1996 p.38
ii Brill’s Content Magazine, “Laissez-Faire TV” by Ted Rose, March, 2000
iii US Environmental Protection Agency. 1984. Report to Congress: Nonpoint Source Pollution in the US Office of Water Program Operations, Water Planning Division. Washington, D.C. Chesters G. and L J Schierow. 1985. A Primer on Non-Point Pollution. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 40:14-18.
iv C.A. Boyd, M.H. Weiler and W.P. Porter,” “Behavioral and neurochemical changes associated with chronic exposure to low-level concentration of pesticide mixtures, ”JOURNAL OF TOXICOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol.30, No. 3(July1990),pgs.209-221. W.P.Porter et al.,“Groundwater pesticides: interactive effects of low concentrations of carbamates aldicarb and methamyl and the triazine metribuzinonthyroxine and somatotropin levels in whiterats, ”JOURNAL OF TOXICOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTALHEALTH Vol.40, No.1(September 1993),pgs.15-34.
v Brown &Smith, AgronJ. 58,1966 iv Harris, RS.,Nutritional Evaluation of Food Processing,Wiley &Sons,NY 1960
vi Harris, R.S., Nutritional Evaluation of Food Processing, Wiley&Sons, NY, 1960
vii Science, Vol 189, No.4205, 9/5/75p.777
viii Brown&Smith, AgronJ.58,1966
ix B.Akingbemi, M.Hardy,et al, Biology of Reproduction 2000;62:571-578