By CHARLOTTE VALLAEYS
For the Capital Press
As Americans become increasingly aware of the story behind conventional foods -- the ecologically destructive monoculture fields, the petrochemical fertilizers, the toxic pesticides and dangerous fumigants -- the agrochemical industry has launched an all-out media offensive against the booming organic industry.
The agrochemical industry's communications specialists have apparently found willing partners in major nationwide media outlets like the New York Times and Time magazine, which have recently published articles discouraging people from buying organic foods. The message is nearly always the same, as industry-friendly researchers and reporters downplay the role and harm caused by agricultural chemicals and focus instead on the differences between a handful of common nutrients. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, the conclusion is always that organic foods are not worth the extra price because the nutritional differences are minimal.
First, we must set the record straight. Scientific studies show that milk from pastured cows contains higher levels of beneficial fats. Beef from grass-fed cattle and eggs from pastured hens are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat and higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E. Organic strawberries and tomatoes contain more healthy antioxidants. These are all undisputed facts laid out in a myriad of published, peer-reviewed scientific papers.
Consumers increasingly turn to organic and grass-based foods, based on this scientific evidence that has been reported in magazines, including Time, in recent years. Now, the Dec. 3 issue of Time mindlessly repeats the agribusiness mantra: "Nutritionally, an egg is an egg." Milk is milk. And canned peas are just as healthy as those for sale at a farmers' market, picked fresh from a local field just hours ago.
The purpose of these media reports seems to be to pull Americans away from thoughtful discourse about our food. Concern over pesticides, animal welfare, fostering local economies and pollution turn people toward organic and local foods -- and that's bad for business for the chemical and industrial farming industries. No wonder they want us all to look at an egg, whether produced on a factory farm or laid by a free-range, pastured hen, and see nothing more.
The paternalistic message -- to shut up and eat our food -- is no longer working. Americans are no longer ignoring the mounting scientific evidence that pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, antibiotics and other drug residues are harming us, even at extremely low levels, and especially our children.
This scientific evidence about pesticides' harmful effects, most recently reviewed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and covered in the latest issue of Pediatrics, will continue to be a major driving force behind the booming success and growth of the organic food movement.
The agrochemical industry will not win the hearts and minds (and stomachs) of Americans, especially when the health of our children is on the line. So they have turned their latest attempt to bring Americans back to blind trust in conventional foods by focusing on our collective class resentments. A more sinister message has taken hold, likening a diet of conventional foods to "The 99 Percent Diet" and a chemical-free organic diet as "elitist."
In Time magazine, Dr. Mehmet Oz, who once told millions of viewers, "I want you to eat organic foods" and "your kids deserve better than to be part of a national chemistry experiment," has seemingly changed his tune and turned the decision to buy organic foods into a political and class issue.
Not only did Oz write that conventional foods are nutritionally equal to organic foods (he never mentions pesticide contamination), he calls organic foods "elitist." Suddenly, a middle-class mother who decides to pay extra for a safe haven from pesticide contamination is called "snooty" and a "food snob" by the very same celebrity physician who once urged her to protect her children from agricultural chemicals by choosing organic.
The conventional food advocates are now attempting to dissuade Americans from buying organic foods by turning the issue into one of class and privilege. The tactic is to paint food as a reflection of one's position in society, like owning a Mercedes or fancy yacht, rather than a question of health and safety -- organic food is painted not as a safe haven from pesticides, but as an elitist food for the "1 percent." Would any of us 99 percenters want to be considered a "snob?"
Middle-class Americans who prioritize personal finances and choose to protect their children from harmful pesticide residues should be proud of this decision, and should not be bullied or shamed by Oz. Our children, as Oz once noted, should not serve as the human equivalents of lab rats. Rather than malign organic foods as elitist, we must recognize the very real and indisputable health benefits of organics and work to make pure, wholesome, uncontaminated foods more accessible and affordable for all.
Charlotte Vallaeys is director of farm and food policy at the Cornucopia Institute, a pro-organic watchdog group.