The site is no longer being updated, including the FSnet archives, but remains a vast source of food safety information. For current information, please visit the iFSN successor, bites, at bites.ksu.edu
 

Organic, Conventional and Genetically Engineered Foods

10.jul.02, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

In crops like sweet corn and potatoes, genetic engineering can substantially reduce pesticide use. But that is anathema to organic growers, who insist, for philosophical ­ and marketing -- reasons, on excluding a technology which, on some crops, is entirely consistent with the goal of reduced pesticide use and more sustainable farming.

10.jul.02, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Why did the Toronto opening of Whole Foods Markets -- a grocery store few mortals can afford to shop at ­ create an orgy of hype and hucksterism, largely for its selection of so-called organic and natural foods?
Why does Prince Charles continue to praise the so-called virtues of organic farming?
Why do people buy organic foods?
Consumers often cite "tastier", "safer", and "healthier" as reasons for paying the premium for organic products. However claims of safer and more nutritious have never been substantiated.
A small, unscientific sample commissioned by the Globe and Mail and CTV comparing the nutritional attributes of organic and conventional foods concluded exactly what numerous, large, scientifically valid studies have found ­ organic foods have essentially the same nutritional content and conventional produce.
A comprehensive report published earlier this year in the the journal, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition by researchers at Otago University in New Zealand concluded there is no convincing evidence to back claims that organically grown foods were healthier or tastier than those grown using chemicals. The nutritional value of food was influenced by the time of harvest, freshness, storage, and weather, but many studies claiming organic food had more vitamins and minerals did not take proper account of these factors.
One year ago, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld four complaints against claims in a Soil Association leaflet entitled, Five Reasons To Eat Organic, similar to the 10 Reasons to Eat Organic being flogged by Whole Foods. The ASA ruled there was no evidence, contrary to the assertions of the Soil Association, that consumers could taste the difference, organic was healthy, it was better for the environment, and organic meant healthy, happy animals. On one claim, the Soil Association responded that 53 per cent of people buying organic produce did so because they thought it was healthy. The ASA rightly ruled this did not constitute any sort of clinical or scientific evidence.
The New Zealand reviewers and others have concluded there were environmental benefits from growing organically and that organic products had lower residues of synthetic pesticides. And many consumers believe that organic is a more sustainable way of farming.
Yet contrary to public opinion, organic produce does contain natural pesticides; in fact, there is a whole list of naturally-occurring chemicals that are regularly used in organic production.
Further, organic often has lower yields, which means that more land is required to provide the same amount of food. Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was recently quoted as saying, "Growing more crops and tree per acre leaves more land for Nature.
Without higher yields, peasant farmers will destroy the wildlands and species to keep their children from starving. Sustainably higher yields of crops and trees are the only visible way to save both. Right now, too many environmental groups are pushing low-yielding, low-input systems -- such as organic farming -- in the belief that environmental purity is the primary goal. But what good is pure farming if it takes over all of the planet's land area? We need a balance of responsible, high-yielding technologies on our farms so we can produce the food we need and leave more of the natural landscape for wildlife."
One of those technologies is genetic engineering. A new study from the Washington-based National Center for Food and Agricultural documented a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in the U.S. in 2001 because of genetically engineered crops such as cotton, canola, soy and field corn.
In crops like sweet corn and potatoes, genetic engineering can substantially reduce pesticide use. But that is anathema to organic growers, who insist, for philosophical ­ and marketing -- reasons, on excluding a technology which, on some crops, is entirely consistent with the goal of reduced pesticide use and more sustainable farming.
In fact, one of the ways that organic foods are marketed ­ and something some consumers apparently look for -- is by declaring a zero-tolerance for genetically modified organisms (without distinguishing between genetic engineering and other methods to modify genes). Should a gene from the increasingly popular genetically engineered crops used by North American farmers appear in organic product, the result is deemed contaminated and ineligible for organic status.
But how realistic is this apparent zero tolerance? Or is it nothing more than marketing bumpf?
Australian researchers recently reported in the journal Science that based on an examination of 48 million seeds from 63 fields across southern Australia, canola pollen was indeed carried to other fields, but in amounts well below internationally recognized levels for unwanted genetic transfer, and that the amounts were so small that it would be almost impossible to detect the gene flow using current DNA assessment methods.
Genes move around; they always have. Biology is messy. And that is why accepted levels or tolerances have always been in place for seed purity, pesticide drift and other factors.
So even if a particular food is promoted as absolutely free of genetic modification, it probably isn¹t. Just like if food is promoted as nutritionally superior or healthier, it probably isn't.
But food, organic or otherwise, is 21st century snake oil.
Farmers, though, may heed the advice of InterNutrition, the Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, which published a comparative review concerning the biological, conventional and genetic engineering methods used in agriculture and nutrition in 2000 and concluded that the "scientific literature published so far shows that all the methods currently available have the right to exist. The specific combination of all useful approaches offers the greatest potential for sustainable agriculture and healthy foods."

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph
519-821-1799
dpowell@uoguelph.ca