Myths and misleading claims about fertilizers and pesticides lead to GMO fear mongering

By Victor M. Shorrocks

March 26, 2018

Why did activists trash experimental crops of genetically modified (GM) maize and oilseed rape in the 1990s in the UK? Why were their activities closely followed by a pliant media?

Not having been closely involved with plant breeding, my first reaction was to wonder what I had missed that led the apparently well-meaning vandals to don their white pseudo-forensic outfits and start scaremongering through their talk of “Frankenfood”.

Apart from their hatred of Monsanto — and by extension the whole agrochemical industry – and their objection to anything that they perceived as unnatural, it was, and still is, difficult to understand the basis for their objections. There is no evidence supporting their claims of harm so what were their true motives?

It quickly became apparent that the organic farming movement was in the vanguard of the opposition to GM crops, together with Friends of the Earth. In the US, the organic movement is a major contributor to the anti-GM campaign. The question that has to be asked is this: Are they motivated to save the world from unspecified harm or is the real motivation to protect profits and a strong marketing tool for a niche market?

So began my study of the history of the organic movement in the hope that I would find the evidence to support not only their opposition to GM but also their earlier objections to fertilizers and pesticides. The result was eventually my new book: “Conventional and Organic Farming – A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science.”

Fertilizers and plant nutrition

The origin of the mainstream organic farming movement, currently practiced on about one percent of global agricultural land, can be traced back to India in the 1920s and 30s and the activities of Albert Howard, an agriculturist, and Robert McCarrison, a medical man, who investigated the relationship between diet and health.

The further development of the movement owes much to Lady Eve Balfour’s classic 1943 text, ‘The Living Soil — evidence of the importance to human health of soil vitality, with special reference to national planning’. Her belief that the health of a nation could be improved and diseases controlled by farming organically influenced thinking in many countries. Much of the support for Balfour came from professional people, doctors, journalists and reformers, but little from farmers.

To demonstrate the benefits of farming without fertilizers while relying on recycling of organic wastes, Balfour set up an experiment on two adjacent farms in which she compared the organic approach with traditional farming using fertilizers. The result was the 25-year-long Haughley experiment, which failed to show any benefits on animal health and by extension to human health. Moreover, soil fertility declined on the lower productive organic farm.

Potential health benefits of organic food

Studies on the anticipated health benefits of organic food since Balfour’s unsuccessful whole farm experiment have proceeded along two lines: epidemiological studies in which the consumption of organic food is linked to health and the determination of the amounts of potentially health-promoting compounds in organic crops and food.

Epidemiological studies in Norway have indicated a link between the condition of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy and eating organic food. The incidence of pre-eclampsia was slightly lower (4.2 percent) in those frequently eating organic food compared to 5.4 percent in those consuming little or none.

There have also been indications of a lower incidence of eczema and allergies in children of biodynamic farmers, but this is thought to be associated with lifestyle.

No clear links between the consumption of organic food and many kinds of cancer were found in a study on over 600,000 women. There have been indications of a possible reduction in the incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (0.29 percent in consumers of organic food compared to 0.38 percent in non-consumers). On the other hand, consumers of organic food showed a ten percent increase in the occurrence of breast cancer.

But what are the differences in composition of organic and conventional food? On average, organic food is likely to contain more vitamin C, more antioxidants, less nitrate, cadmium and pesticide residues. However there can be no guarantee that all organic crops will exhibit the claimed superior composition.

While there is solid evidence of the benefits of fruit and vegetables in safeguarding cardiovascular health, and fewer proven benefits in their role of reducing the incidence of cancer, it is not yet possible to ascribe the benefits to identifiable dietary components. This is not altogether surprising in view of the very large number of plant metabolites that might collectively be responsible.

Organic farming has long relied on convincing people that organic food is healthier than conventional and that pesticides should not be used because residues in crops will be harmful. What organic supporters fail to accept, however, is that since the 1980s it has been known that the amounts of pesticide residues consumed are tiny in comparison with the natural plant pesticides – the phytoalexins, which have been clearly shown to be toxicologically similar.

While an adult is likely to consume about 0.1 mg of pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables each day, the consumption of phytoalexins will be at least 1,500 mg. It has also been found that the amounts of toxic chemicals in one to two cups of coffee are similar to the amounts of synthetic pesticide residues consumed in fruit and vegetables in one year, suggesting that there is little cause for concern about synthetic pesticides residues.

The question must be asked as to why has such information conveniently been ignored by the organic movement?

At present there are no reasons for believing that organic crops are basically different from conventional crops or that organic food is healthier than conventionally produced food.

Yet, the organic food movement is booming. As Mark Twain said, “It is easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.”

Victor M. Shorrocks is the author of “Conventional and Organic Farming – A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science,” from which this two-part post is adapted.