“Within memory, the biggest step backward that Phoenix dining has seen is the recent arrival of Morton’s: The Steakhouse. What an insult to anybody who has an ounce of intelligence…[S]o many people don’t realize when they eat those racks of flesh what their impact is on the environment. …It’s an absolutely archaic way of eating, given that we live in an age of diminished resources. …That’s why we need to focus on sustainable agriculture, renewable resources and the politics of food.”
The statement is not a tirade by a militant, vegan college student. The author is a professional chef, RoxSand Scocos. Ms. Scocos identifies herself as a leader of a disruptive new element in the U.S. food service industry: The Chefs Collaborative.
A wave of anti-agribusiness activism threatens the food and beverage industry like nothing we have seen before. “Celebrity chefs,” linked to cultish guru-followers, have joined forces with “green” brigades of anti-corporate activists and organic food marketers. They are flooding consumers with bad science. They seek to generate fears about the quality of the food supply and attack the morality of producers.
Their distortions are intended to wash out decades of progress made in conventional agriculture and to create consumer fear over our food supply. Left unaddressed, they will also extinguish the bright promise that advanced farming techniques, food handling regulations and genetically improved foods offer the world.
The Difference Between Organic and Conventional Foods
Organic farming is an agricultural philosophy. Organic supporters choose to have food grown as primitively as when humankind began to cultivate the earth thousands of years ago.
According to Dr. Robert Tauxe, the Centers for Disease Control’s food-borne diseases chief, “ ‘Organic’ means your food was grown in manure.” In a letter published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Tauxe wrote, “The public health hazard of fresh fruits and vegetables contaminated with feces as fertilizer is a long standing concern.” That concern was echoed by a spokesperson from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who said, “Most especially at risk are organic products because they could be fertilized with manure.”
The growth in world population has demanded that farmers find better ways to boost productivity. But an organic farmer fertilizes with animal waste (and the so-called “green” manure of decayed vegetation), does not use synthetic pesticides, and often must control weed infestation by hand. As a result, organic farming is very inefficient. According to a 1999 report on organic farming by the Scottish Crop Research Institute, the loss in yield is 5 to 10 percent per hectare for crops and 10 to 20 percent for livestock. Just when the world needs more food, organic farming delivers less yield per acre.
Fertilizing with nitrogen has made the soil far more productive. By applying pesticides to diminish insect damage, farmers greatly improve crop yield. These advances have enabled conventional farmers to produce more food, for more people…on the same amount of land. In fact, conventional farmers now feed twice as many people as they did in 1950 on the same amount of the planet’s arable land area.
Despite the accomplishments of conventional agribusiness, and the next wave of promising biotech advances, these methods of food production are today being demonized. The attack supports a political manifesto that challenges the core of large-scale agriculture (with its abundance of affordable food) and the ability of American food retailers to offer consumers a full range of choices.
A Radical Shift in Organic Growers’ Marketing Strategy
Gone are the days — and the stereotypical image — of quiet, contented organic cultivators tilling their private vegetable gardens. Today, large organic food growers and marketers have formed elaborate alliances with activist chefs to transform the food industry and consumer opinion. By generating consumer fears about the safety of conventional farming and genetically improved foods, they are propelling organic sales as they push their political agenda forward.
The “Keep Nature Natural” fear-marketing campaign — which includes Chefs Collaborative and the Center for Food Safety — is a nationwide effort to stop production of genetically improved foods. Their campaign website makes the unsupported claim: “When you purchase organic foods, you’re creating a safer, healthier food supply.”
“Keep Nature Natural” is underwritten by organic marketers whose derision of conventional foods is evidenced by the rhetoric on their websites and in-store materials:
- Eden Foods demands a halt to “the pesticides, drugs and chemicals used in the agricultural industry contaminating our food and water supplies.”
- Nature’s Path tags the products of modern agriculture as “foods nature never intended you to eat.”
- Wild Oats Market claims that the “gene pollution” of biotech would be harder to clean up than “nuclear contamination.”
- Whole Foods Market makes the unsubstantiated claim, “[If] all the indirect costs of conventional foods production (polluted water, eroded soil, costs of health care for farmers and workers) were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same, or be cheaper.”
USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has made the position of food regulators clear: “Just because something is labeled as ‘organic’ does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional food.”
Going for a Total Ban
“The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered (GE) Foods” points to European paranoia over biotech as the key to success here: “Labeling has nearly the same effect as a ban; we expect the same thing to happen in the United States. Perhaps in another two or three years there will be enough opposition to GE foods to ban them.” [Emphasis added.]
In mid-August 2000, The Campaign’s executive director Craig Winter issued an “Action Alert” attacking Kraft Foods after the company’s spokesperson told a reporter that “consumers in the U.S. are confident in the safety of the products that are on the market.”
In retaliation, Winter’s group created form letters and e-mail texts to harass Kraft (and other American prepared-food companies), threatening “not to buy their products until they label them as free of genetically engineered ingredients.”