Pushing Back the Organic Movement

This guest article is contributed by Mischa Popoff, a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector and is the author of Is it Organic?

In its first major action in 1972, the United States Environmental Protection Agency made history by banning dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). It led to a worldwide ban, all based on the public outcry elicited by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring.

This marks the beginning of the organic movement in America, and remains a badge of honor for organic activists, in spite of the fact that this ban resulted in the deaths of over 41 million people – roughly the same number of people Chairman Mao murdered in his Great Leap Forward – as public-health authorities lost their only effective means of controlling mosquitos that act as a vector for tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

But Carson never called for a ban on DDT, a substance viewed by activists as a product of modern science but which was first synthesized in 1874 and first used as an insecticide in 1939. Nor did she call for a ban on ANY pesticide in her bestselling book, or anywhere else. Contrary to popular belief, Carson only called for the more judicial use of pesticides.

But she failed to appreciate that there are no harmless chemicals, only the harmless USE of chemicals. Or, as the medieval father of toxicology, Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, puts it, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” With a “prosecuting attorney’s” style of writing, hand-in-hand with repetitive use of phrases like “elixirs of death,” the unfounded claim that there is “no safe dose” for such pesticides, and anecdotal tales of people dying from cancer within a year of using DDT, Carson and only Carson must be found guilty of perpetuating environmentalists’ interpretation of her book as an “impassioned plea for action against the use of these new materials.”

Alas, Carson was not available to comment by the time the EPA took its fateful action, having died 6 years before Republican President Richard Nixon even formed the EPA, 8 years before activists undemocratically twisted her words into this regulatory fiat. And so the way was paved for the default notion in organic circles that anything synthetic is bad and everything natural is good. As Mussolini so infamously put it, reason is a tool, but it can never motivate the crowd. Throngs of angry, often violent demonstrators, feed off inspiration, not boring ol’ facts and figures.

Photo: Malachy Shields
Photo: Malachy Shields

Fast forward to the present and the crowd of organic activists have found a new enemy. This time it’s not something toxic. It’s not even a substance. It’s a process; the field of science known as genetic engineering which creates novel traits in plants that are then referred to as genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. But never mind the facts. GMOs are viewed by organic activists in the same terms as DDT once was, and thus, they say, must be banned.

At a recent forum titled “Modifying the Future of Food: What If GMOs Are the Only Option?” a group of esteemed academics explain the many positive aspects of GMOs. There’s just one problem, one which all the experts in the world are proving incapable of solving. No one’s listening.

The GMO sector will never make headway simply by talking about the science-based agronomical facts surrounding GMOs. We have to come to grips with the fact that we’re under attack from the tax-subsidized anti-GMO organic movement, the exact-same baseless, hyperbolic, emotional attack in fact that was used with such ruthless efficacy against DDT. Do you know any scientists working on DDT? Neither do I.

A handful of public-health officials in the Third World are once-again using DDT having grown bold enough to stand up to anti-DDT organic activists. But beyond that, DDT is like toxic waste. Find me a graduate student somewhere planning to study DDT for her dissertation and I’ll show you someone destined for a career in obscurity who likely won’t pay off her student loans until she retires… assuming she’s even able to find employment.

And, unless we start fighting back, GMOs are headed for the same fate. Dr. Gonsalves alludes to this at the forum (around the 23:30 mark) when he points out that the development of the GMO papaya was a fantastic scientific achievement, but then asks (and I’m paraphrasing) What have we done since? The answer, sadly, is nothing… nada… zip… rien! He goes on to say (24:30) “It’s not about science, it’s about people skills.” In other words, we have to win the public-relations debate, once and for all, the same way General Electric did when the light bulb replaced the gas light over a century ago.

The alternative is atrophy. We’re now in a holding pattern in modern agriculture. Public and private interests are no longer willing to lead this field of science, leaving farmers to rely on the handful of GMO crops that have already made it through the maze of regulatory and public-relations obstacles.

Sure, there are a few academics pressing ahead with GMO research. But the crops they’re working on – GMO wheat and flax for instance – have ZERO chance of making it to the field unless a company like Monsanto, Bayer or Syngenta purchases the technology and invest a quarter-of-a-billion dollars into commercializing it. And why would a company make such a bold decision when the deck is stacked against them? There is simply no business case for taking such a high-risk gamble.

Research and development into GMOs is rapidly approaching the same position we’re witnessing in the field of antibiotic development; forget about developing new products; concentrate on existing ones, even as they gradually lose effectiveness. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria were observed by scientists almost immediately after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. But the the medical community didn’t throw up its hands and use less penicillin. New antibiotics were developed! And thankfully so. No… not stronger antibiotics. New varieties were developed, to the point where doctors and veterinarians now have well in excess of 100 antibiotics to rely upon in fighting infection.

But now, thanks to over-regulation resulting from tax-funded lobbying by anti-antibiotic, naturopathic, homeopathic, sustainability and organic activists, pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the development of new antibiotics, focusing instead on treating phony ailments like attention-deficit disorder, obesity and erectile dysfunction.

And how far behind is the field of genetic engineering? Or is it already on par with antibiotic research?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we stoop to the same level as the anti-GMO organic movement has. Never! Facts matter, to the exclusion of anything speculative that could be interpreted as a mean-spirited attack on the organic industry. But where is the line-up of speakers at any forum exposing the complete absence of facts emanating from the anti-GMO, anti-antibiotic organic industry?

Let’s face it, the impetus for change will not come from industry, nor from industry organizations, farm bureaus, commodity boards or academia. The people at the helm of these institutions have all consciously chosen to enter the holding pattern on GMOs, cognizant that just a single misstep could result in banishment. DDT anyone?

And so, it befalls to farmers in the freest nation on the planet to fight fire with facts, and engage those who would take farming backwards in time as the rest of the American economy finally starts to move forward.

Let me know when you’re ready.

(Source: Greener Ideal)

Mischa Popoff, B.A. (Hons.) U. of S. Former USDA contract organic inspector. Author of Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry – Some people won’t like this book, but you will. Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute. Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy.