Science Reporting on Organic Food is Out to Lunch

Little is discussed of the danger of the amount of organic pesticide used in organic foods.

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If the American people are largely uninformed on scientific issues, as the media so often complains, is it possible that one reason is the appallingly low level of science and health reporting in the media itself?

Science is supposed to be about asking questions. Scientists have theories and hypotheses, but they are not supposed to have agendas. They are supposed to be constantly challenging their assumptions by taking what they learn and asking themselves challenging questions about it.

The most outstanding characteristic of science and health reporters, however, sometimes seems to be their unwillingness to ask obvious follow up questions if the answers might disrupt the narrative their preconceived storyline.

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The examples are almost endless. But science reporting basically bottoms out when it comes to food and health, particularly the pesticides, herbicides, and other modern chemistries that allow modern agriculture to produce over 99 percent of everything we grow in this nation.

Endless articles and blogs preach the health benefits of eating organic food and the theoretical risks of the "chemicals" used in mainstream farming. But these reporters almost never ask the obvious question: how do organic farmers prevent their crops from being devastated by the same pests—insects, weeds, and fungi—that have bedeviled farmers since the invention of agriculture?

The answer is surprisingly simple: organic farmers do use pesticides. Lots of them.

It's probable that most of the food you bought during your latest trip to the health foods store was grown with pesticides. The only difference is that the pesticides used to grow foods labeled "organic" foods have been certified by the National Organic Safety Board.

[Read: Could Re-Wired Plants Be the New Cancer Killers?]

As Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute explains in The Truth About Organic Foods some of these can be highly toxic. One heavily used copper compound, copper sulfate, has caused liver disease in farm workers and has been classified as highly toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency. It would have been banned in 2003, except that organic growers protested that there was no other way to protect their crops from fungal disease.

Other organic pesticides could be labeled "natural," but that hardly makes them safer. Pyrethrins, derived from the African chrysanthemum, are powerful nerve toxins. Rotenone, also extracted from plants, causes liver and kidney damage and Parkinson-like symptoms in rats. Another flower extract, Sabidilla can cause paralysis and death in high doses and kills honeybee.

Used correctly, all these organic pesticides are likely as safe as the thoroughly studied and tested pesticides that mainstream farmers use. The difference is that unlike modern pesticides, whose use is highly regulated and monitored, the U.S. government makes no attempt to record the volume of pesticides used by organic farmers. Worse, many organic farmers are forced to use pesticides in much higher volumes than mainstream farmers because these organic pesticides are much less effective than synthetic ones.

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And the amount used is probably the most important fact that we need to know, as a basic principal of toxicology is that "the dose determines the poison." In other words, at low enough doses, most things are safe. At high enough doses, everything is poisonous, including water.

But this essential scientific fact is rarely mentioned in the scare stories that fill the press and TV. And of course, the antichemical activists have become masters of exploiting this blind spot.

Thus, when the radical Environmental Working Group published their "Dirty Dozen" list of produce with pesticide residues (all at levels measured in parts per billion that couldn't possibly have any deleterious health effects), CNN's Sanjay Gupta simply relayed the group's warning to avoid conventionally grown produce and buy organic instead, explaining that organic food is better because it is grown "using materials of plant or animal origin, instead of chemicals."

Of course, this last statement is neither true nor to the point. But such passes for science reporting these days. When some brave writer dares to point these facts out, the activists and media generally ignore the substance of their arguments and accuse them instead of being shills for industry. Ultimately, however, it's the facts that matter. And it's the facts, not needless scare stories, half-truths and untruths, that the health and science media should be reporting.

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  • Updated 3/5/12: The White House Writers Group includes agricultural companies among its many clients.