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. They try to debunk the link between the
standard American diet and cancer, and claim 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 1996 book, The 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 specifically Avery
as purveyors of what he terms "brownlash" - the practice
of "distorting or misstating research findings" 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 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 measured specifically;
to term what 20/20 did a "study" is anti-science at its
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,"
During the 1995 annual national conference of the Society of Environmental
Journalists, Stossel was pressed by a reporter about whether he
still considered himself a journalist in view of the tens of thousands
of dollars he receives in speaking fees from chemical companies
and other business groups. Stossel replied, "Industry likes
to hire me because they like what I have to say." He then added
that he supposed he was no longer a journalist in the traditional
sense but rather a reporter with a perspective.iii
In his 20/20 piece smearing organics, Stossel also featured an
interview with 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 first and foremost because of
benefits 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
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.
Piling It Higher and Deeper
Mr. Avery further states that "organic food is more dangerous
than commercially grown produce because organic farmers use manure..."
Let the record show that manure use is a common agricultural practice
for both commercial and organic food production. Certified 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 certification 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 their 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 shot interviews at the Rodale Institute regarding these issues,
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. iv
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 & 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. While
washing your hands and your veggies is a simple and effective defense
against manure, pesticides are harder to wash off, especially when
plants are genetically engineered to produce them in every cell.
Recent studies show that trace levels of multiple pesticides cause
increased aggression. It is noteworthy 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. v
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. vi
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 age old 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
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 available. vii
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. viii
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. ix
Just about any consumer can note the difference between an organically
grown tomato and a commercially grown tomato. The organic tomato
has rich, deep red color that is indicative of the red pigment lycopene,
which is 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!
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.
Healthy Reasons to Eat Organic:
Less herbicide residue
Less insecticide residue
Less fungicide residue
Less toxic metal contamination
Less toxic nitrate contamination
More essential and trace minerals
More healthy agents
Tastes much better and you can eat the skin
Better for children. Children receive four times more
exposure than an adult to at least eight widely used
cancer-causing pesticides in food.
Better for farm workers. A Natural Cancer Institute
study found that farmers exposed to herbicides had a
greater risk, by a factor of six, than non-farmers of
Prevent soil erosion
Protect water quality
Help small farmers
is a research toxicologist at the Environmental Studies Program
at University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the Chief Scientific
Advisor to EarthSave International and the author of "Eat
to Beat Cancer." (Also see Dr. Hatherill's related article,
of Chemical Farming.)
Jeff Nelson is President of VegSource Interactive and Chair-Elect
of the Board of EarthSave International.
This article was written for the EarthSave newsletter. For subscription
details, please visit http://www.earthsave.org.
Excellent related article: Organic
Vegetables are Safe (despite what 20/20 says) By Marty Root,
Another fantastic expose documenting Denis Avery's penchant
to invent statistics and attribute them to others.
i Ehrlich, Paul and Anne, "Betray of
Science and Reason; How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our
Future" Island Press, 1996 p. 38
ii Brill's Content Magazine, "Laissez-Faire TV"
by Ted Rose, March, 2000
iii S E Journal, 1995, p. 16.
iv US Environmental Protection Agency. 1984. Report to Congress:
Nonpoint Source Pollution in the US
Office of Water Program Operations, Water Planning Division. Washington,
Chesters G. an LJ Schierow. 1985. A Primer on Non-Point Pollution.
Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 40:14-18.
v 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 metribuzin on thyroxine and somatotropin levels in white
rats," JOURNAL OF TOXICOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol.
40, No. 1(September 1993), pgs. 15-34.
vi Brown & Smith, Agron J. 58, 1966 iv Harris, RS., Nutritional
Evaluation of Food Processing, Wiley & Sons, NY 1960
vii Harris, R.S., Nutritional Evaluation of Food Processing,
Wiley & Sons, NY, 1960
viii Science, Vol 189, No.4205, 9/5/75 p. 777
ix Brown & Smith, Agron J. 58, 1966