The Lies that Whole Foods Tells

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The organic food market is estimated at $63 billion globally, with more than half of those sales occuring in the United States. (If “natural products” are included, the organic market is $290 billion in the U.S. alone.) It’s no wonder, then, why Wal-Mart and other mainstream retailers are jumping onto the organic bandwagon. There is an awful lot of money to be made.

However, according to a damning report issued by the organization Academics Review, the rapidly growing organic food market is built upon a foundation of lies.

The report states, in no uncertain terms, that the organic food industry conspired to deceive the public about the safety of conventionally grown food. By raising doubts over the scientific consensus on pesticides, hormones, and GMOs, organic food marketers deliberately played on people’s fears in order to expand the industry. One company, Organic Valley, even goes so far as to distribute activity books and promotional materials to schoolchildren that tout the alleged health benefits of organic food, indoctrinating a new generation of consumers. Parents are urged to lobby schools to serve organic-only meals.

Unsurprisingly, the author* concludes that “food safety and health concerns are the primary drivers of consumer organic purchasing.”

Furthermore, the author claims that the USDA has been unwittingly complicit in this scam. The “USDA Organic” label was meant only to convey that food bearing the label met certain standards of production (e.g., it does not contain GMOs or additives and was not produced with synthetic pesticides). The label was not meant to be taken as a government endorsement of the organic industry’s claim of superior food quality. Yet, a large majority of consumers believe just that, and the organic industry is happy to perpetuate the misconception.

For example, Whole Foods — the most (in)famous face of the organic industry — maintains on its website a list created by the Organic Trade Association called the “Top 10 Reasons To Go Organic!” Many of the statements are misleading or completely false.

“Organic products meet stringent standards
. Organic certification is the public’s assurance that products have been grown and handled according to strict procedures without persistent toxic chemical inputs.”

FALSE. Actually, this statement is false on two counts. First, organic products do not meet stringent standards. Usually, all that is required for organic certification is paperwork. The USDA itself does not conduct any field inspections, but instead hires third party contractors (who make their money by collecting fees from the farmers they inspect). Second, organic farms use “natural” pesticides, some of which could be considered toxic. Further, these “natural” pesticides aren’t nearly as regulated or understood as their synthetic counterparts. (In reality, the amount of pesticides used by both conventional and organic farms fall well below what is considered unsafe.)

“Organic food tastes great!”

MISLEADING. The implication is that organic food tastes better than conventional food. Indeed, many organic shoppers believe that. However, as hilariously demonstrated by Penn & Teller, most people cannot tell the difference between conventional and organic food. (Warning: Video contains lots of naughty language.) A more serious study showed that organic milk came in last in a taste test.

“Organic production reduces health risks
. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Organic agriculture is one way to prevent any more of these chemicals from getting into the air, earth and water that sustain us.”

FALSE. This is pants-on-fire territory. 97% of pesticides used in California, for instance, are less toxic than caffeine or aspirin. Agricultural technologist Steve Savage argues that, sometimes, increased herbicide use is actually a good thing. That is because herbicides allow no-till farming, which is better for the environment. And, of course, organic farmers use pesticides, just not necessarily the same ones that “Big Ag” uses.

“Organic producers are leaders in innovative research

MISLEADING. While it is true that some techniques developed by organic farmers can and should be implemented by larger conventional farms, it is a serious stretch to claim that the organic industry is a leader in “innovative” research. Revolutionary innovation, in the form of GMOs, comes from the biotech industry. And the organic industry is adamantly opposed to GMOs, even going so far as to fund anti-GMO groups.

“Organic abundance — foods and non-foods alike. 
Now every food category has an organic alternative.”

MISLEADING. It is true that there are more organic food choices. But, this hardly makes the case for “abundance.” Indeed, a study in Nature concluded that organic farms yieldedsubstantially less food than conventional ones. It would simply not be possible to feed the world using organic farming techniques alone.

People who want to eat organic food should by all means be allowed to. And big corporations (like Whole Foods) who want to exploit those gullible customers ought to be allowed to, as well. But, this widespread and deliberate misinformation campaign needs to stop immediately. The future of biotechnology, and perhaps even scientific research itself, depends on it.

*Update (6/18/14 @ 3:30 pm PST): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the authors as Bruce Chassy and David Tribe. Instead, they were reviewers. The author was Joanna Schroeder. Our apologies.

(H/T: Food Safety News)