Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rabbit Hole

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Scene: Plowing farmer.
Public Domain

Back on 02 July, Alexis Keinlen retweeted a blogpost suggesting that the differences between organic and "conventional" farming (I always understood that organic was the historically conventional method of farming, but hey...) were not that different. As an example, organic farming has it's own suite of pesticides that are sprayed on fields.
I was quite disappointed by the lack of information contained in the post at Real Clear Science. It cited two systematic reviews, one in the Annals of Internal Medicine (tucked behind a paywall I have no access through), and the other in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The abstract of the first study states in it's conclusion: "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." (italics mine). The second study, in AJCN, says:
To our knowledge, this is the only systematic review to assess the strength of the totality of available evidence of nutrition-related health effects of consumption of organic foodstuffs. Despite an extensive search strategy, the review only identified 12 relevant articles that met our inclusion criteria and were published, with an English abstract, in peer-reviewed journals over the past ≥50 y. The identified articles were very heterogeneous in terms of their study designs and quality, study population or cell line, exposures tested, and health outcomes measured. This inherent variability prevented any quantitative meta-analysis of the reported results, and from our narrative review, we concluded that evidence of nutrition-related health effects from the consumption of organic food is currently lacking.
Ross Pomeroy, who wrote the blogpost at RCS, has this as his takeaway: "The majority of Americans believe that organic foods are healthier than food grown using conventional methods. The majority of Americans are wrong."
But that's not actually what the studies say. Both quotes above use similar language, saying that "evidence is lacking." There is not a statement that organic food is more or less nutritionally good for you. Rather, there is no evidence either way. A study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition sums it up best in it's abstract:
Studies comparing foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. It is evident from this assessment that there are few well-controlled studies that are capable of making a valid comparison. (emphasis mine)
Pomeroy dismisses the claims that organic food is any better for us nutritionally very quickly, and moves on to a jeremiad against organic agriculture for using various pesticides approved under the USDA organic standards. He claims that these sprays are less effective than those used by industrial agriculture and are frequently more damaging to the environment. There is some evidence he may be correct. But he relies on a piece in Academics Review, a site which is itself rather suspect as being an astroturf-type site (being industry-funded propaganda disguised as posts by disinterested parties. A practice that goes back to the Big Tobacco wars).
The website for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) points out:
The Koch brothers are the conservative billionaire co-owners of a conglomerate of chemical and oil companies, including Koch Ag & Energy Solutions. They and other biotechnology/chemical companies have a lot to lose from the explosive growth of pesticide-free organic foods.
Academics Review claims to be an independent “association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors” from around the world “committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science.”
However, recent articles on its website and Facebook page paint a picture of industry-biased, agenda-driven organization focused on discrediting public interest organizations, organic companies, media outlets and scientists who question the safety of GMOs and pesticides, or who tout the benefits of an organic diet.
The co-founder of Academics Review is Bruce Chassy, a recently retired professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Chassy was among 11 scientists named by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a complaint (8/21/03) to the journal Nature for failing to disclose “close ties to companies that directly profit from the promotion of agriculture biotechnology.”
As the letter notes, Chassy “has received research grants from major food companies, and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene”—companies with a large financial stake in pesticides and GMO technologies designed to boost pesticide sales.
Chassey is also on the advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that bills itself as an independent research and advocacy organization devoted to debunking “junk science.” Carl Winter, one of Slate’s key sources, is also on the ACSH board.
However, as Mother Jones (10/28/13) revealed in a expose based on leaked documents, ACSH’s funders include agribusiness giants Syngenta and Bayer CropScience, as well as oil, food and cosmetics corporations that have a vested interest in getting consumers to stop worrying about the health effects of toxic chemical exposures.

 So we fall down the rabbit hole into the information netherworld where nothing is certain. Propaganda clashes with hyperbole, ideological positions become set in stone, and the world continues to spiral unchecked into environmental collapse. Or not.
We're not really very good at this any more, this "whole citizens discussing public issues" thing. The process is corrupt. Of course, it always has been, but it has become so much worse since Walter Lippmann worked out the principles of manufacturing consent and applied them in the US. Polished during the Second World War, Big Tobacco used the principles to recast a public health issue as a personal choice one through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and the tactic eventually found its current success with the giant PR firms like Burson-Marsteller.

So we end up in the position of chasing our own info-tails. A site like Academics Review publishes a piece. It may or may not be supported by facts, but is certainly presented as such. It gets picked up by other sites, some ideologically driven, some by honest concern, some by corporate money. Eventually the story gets noticed by someone like Alexis Keinlen, a busy writer working in the agricultural field who simply doesn't have the time to research the background (after all, it was just a "Hey! This is interesting!" tweet). And this is the point: if you can't manufacture consent, at least manufacture uncertainty.

And that's easier with a phrase like "organic agriculture". Just what organic agriculture is--is a question tautologically answered with "organic agriculture is whatever the regulations say is organic agriculture." Which is, of course, why Big Ag was pushing for a regulatory structure around the phrase; definitions and regulation mean the ability to advance regulatory change and weakening, which is exactly what has happened in the US. Organic once meant more than the use or non-use of chemical fertilizers and pesticidal sprays. It once encompassed sustainability, soil health, locality, and size limitations--all of which were ignored in the creation of the USDA organic standard, in favour of easily quantified restrictions.
But despite the advent of organic regulation is the US, people have gone on to demand more from their food system. The Hundred Mile Diet, books by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman et. al., and a rise in concern for food security issues have led to a concerted attack on the alternative food movement by those involved in industrial agriculture.

There is a lot at stake for these stakeholders. But for the rest of us, the citizens of these countries, there is a lot more at stake--like democracy, health, and survival. And concerns about food security have a lot of overlap with other concerns, like climate change for example.

The USDA released this chart:

The agricultural sector accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2012. Given that agricultural production accounts for only about 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity. In agriculture, crop and livestock activities are unique sources of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, notably from soil nutrient management, enteric fermentation (a digestive process in animals that produces methane), and manure management. GHG emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990. During this time period, total U.S. GHG emissions increased approximately 5 percent.

If you're a Koch brother, with most of your money coming from petroleum products, this matters. If the world gets serious about greenhouse gas emissions, you're going to suffer. Agriculture is a big contributor to GHG emissions, and industrial agriculture is utterly dependent on oil.

There are places to check if your sources of information are possible greenwash, astroturf, or propaganda sites. Places like offer updated lists of known propaganda sites on their "myth maker" pages. Not that they are perfect--hyperbole sometimes gets the best of everyone (like Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science). Better is someone like Nathanael Johnson at Grist are very good about researching an issue and staying transparent when coming to an unexpected conclusion.

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