Recent attacks on the organic food industry are about discrediting it to soften up the public to accept genetically modified (GM) crops, Dr Maggie Lilith of the Conservation Council of WA and the Say No to GMO campaign told Green Left Weekly.
"The spate of recent claims that organic food is riskier and linked to health scares seems to have come from proponents of GM and those with a vested interest", said Lilith, who is also a member of the Fremantle Organic Growers Association. "The claims about the safety of organic foods are unfounded and aim to spread misinformation to the public."
On April 12, a syndicated piece by Bettina Arndt entitled "Organic myths pose real risks to health" appeared in newspapers across Australia. The article is a savage attack on the organic food industry and consumers who choose its products.
"The organic food industry is booming with ever more people deluded into thinking that paying two or three times more for organic food products will provide them with healthier, safer food", stated Arndt.
In an attempt to portray organics as backward and unscientific, Arndt quotes British Lord Dick Taverne as saying, "What is most worrying about the whole organic product movement is the underlying notion that scientific progress is inevitably bad and we are all better off reverting to primitive, 'natural' ways of doing things."
Lilith disputes this unscientific claim. "Organic systems rely on modern scientific understanding of ecology and soil science as well as traditional methods of crop rotations to ensure fertility and weed and pest control", she said.
"Moreover, organic production aims to be sustainable and reduce dependence on non-renewable resources. The soil is not depleted as under conventional agribusiness practices. Organic produce is not covered in toxic chemicals as no pesticides or artificial chemicals are used. Animals are not treated with synthetic growth hormones or drugs."
Arndt also quotes Taverne glorifying GM crops: "If people were really worried about the effects of pesticides in farming on wildlife or human health, they should promote pest-resistant GM crops, which reduce pesticide use ... The solid scientific support for the safety and efficiency of GM crops means nothing to blinkered souls who trust instincts over science."
Janet Grogan, a leading activist with the Say No to GMO campaign, described Arndt's article as "a thinly veiled pro-GM rant against organic foods".
"It was misinformed and biased. Arndt cites two cases to prove the dangers of eating organic foods, neither actually linked to organically-derived produce."
"What's more, her list of experts comes from pro-GM groups. Lord Taverne is the chairman of the pro-GM lobby group the Association of Sense in Science. His book was lambasted in the Guardian newspaper as ... mingling myth with fact."
A month later, on May 16, an article appeared in the West Australian, promoting the idea of growing GM cotton in the Ord River district of northern WA and attacking organic growers.
A key GM scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, claimed opponents of the scheme were largely "self-serving organic farmers and ill-informed environmental activists". Peacock was instrumental in developing GM cotton while working at the CSIRO. Some 100 hectare trials of GM cotton along the Ord have already been approved by the WA government.
Lilith is scathing about Peacock's criticism. "It's the pro-GM groups who are self-serving, interested only in making profits at the expense of farmers and community health. Moreover, GM cotton should be considered a Trojan horse as it leaves the door open for other unwanted GM crops."
Another attack on organics followed soon after. The May 22 edition of the Bulletin contained an exclusive titled "The Truth About Organic Food". Two large photos of shopping baskets graphically illustrate the expense of organic food over conventional.
Lilith contests the claim that organic food is expensive, saying, "A lot of supermarket pre-packaged food costs far more than organic staples. The typical household spends far more on junk food, or alcohol, or take-aways than on fruit and vegetables."
"The Bulletin article also ignores the nutritional benefits of organic produce", Lilith told GLW.
"Scientific evidence shows that fresh organic produce is more nutritious than non-organic food, containing higher nutrient levels, more vitamins, minerals, cancer-fighting antioxidants and enzymes."
But the Bulletin article does concede "consumption of organics is growing at 25% to 44% per year, outstripping the rise in organic food production at 6% to 15% ... in 2000, there were 7.6 million hectares under organic management, with a value of $19m. By 2006, that had grown to 12.3 million hectares valued at $400 million."
According to Annie Kavanagh, president of the Organic Growers Association WA, suppliers are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand from consumers.
Across Australia, in addition to the 12.3 million hectares under organic cultivation, a further 1.1 million hectares land is being prepared for organic certification. In 2006, there were 176 listed organic processors and producers in WA, compared to 58 in 2002. This shows a 300% increase in four years, which reflects the increasing demand for organic produce.
Perhaps this trend explains why the GM lobby is so keen to demolish the credibility of organic agriculture.