Why are progressives so regressive when it comes to agriculture?

When I posted yesterday’s “dead bodies” post on my Facebook page, a friend weighed in with this response: “the progressive contrarian!! I hope this is as much bait as I take but…..it’s a nasty spiral, go ahead, take lots of antibiotics, eat animals that are fead antibiotics, wash everything with chlorine…..how’s that workin’? I ain’t doin’ that.”

His response made me think about the disconnect many progressives have when an issue like GMOs challenges their worldview. For the most part, these are intelligent people who experience severe cognitive dissonance around this issue. They refuse to believe the body of science of GMO is solid.  It doesn’t matter that all the major science NGOs have stated that GMOs are safe and there are over 400 peer-reviewed studies. Even the European Commission has come around.

The facts are only important when they fit their worldview I think it can be safely said that politically progressive types are going to be more prone to buy organic foods. And there is nothing wrong with that. They believe the food is healthier and growing it is better for the environment. It also has the allure of being anti-corporate which looms large in progressive culture. But I think the anti-corporate mindset is part and parcel of their rejection of GMOs. If corporations use it, it has to be bad.

While I am on the anti-corporate bandwagon, I think organic proponents have a delusion that organic is all mom and pop, small farms when in reality it isn’t the case. Organic farming is a worldwide $300 billion a year industry with industrial sized farms across the globe.

California leads the nation in the number of organic farms with 5,000. However, one-third of organic sales come from 19% of California farms.

Considering the size of the organic industry, could it be when they badmouth and denigrate conventional and GM farming that they too could have a vested interest as much as corporations? I think progressives fail to take that into the consideration.

They also tend to look to activist groups to bolster their beliefs rather than actual scientists.

Progressives believe that organic farming is environmentally friendly. But, it takes more acreage to get the same yield as conventional or GM. Plant pathologist Steve Savage analyzed USDA statistics taken from surveys of organic farmers and found:

“To have Organically produced the full output of 2008 US crops, it would have been necessary to harvest from an additional 121.7 million acres of cropland (based on 30 major crops and excluding crops for which Organic growers might be growing specialty types) That additional area would represent a 39% increase over current US cropland.

The theoretical, additional cropland needed (190,101 sq miles, 492,363 sq km) would be the equivalent of all the current cropland acres in Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota combined.

On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas.”

Doesn’t sound too environmentally friendly, does it?

(A side note: It should be noted that Savage is not anti-organic. He himself said he spent some years working on pest control products that would fit into organic guidelines.)

Another progressive mainstay is the belief that organic foods are the safest foods. That isn’t necessarily true. Because they are constrained by their methods, organic food carries its own risks. While there are less pesticides on organic crops, they can be higher in, or more susceptible to natural toxins. There are risks in all methods of farming. The fact is, it was organic sprouts from Germany that sickened and killed all those people in 2011, not conventional nor GM.

In 2006, the Institute of Food Technologies release a report that concluded:

“While many studies demonstrate these qualitative differences between organic and conventional foods, it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition. Pesticide residues, naturally occurring toxins, nitrates, and polyphenolic compounds exert their health risks or benefits on a dose-related basis, and data do not yet exist to ascertain whether the differences in the levels of such chemicals between organic foods and conventional foods are of biological significance.”

My friend mentions antibiotics used on animals. There is indeed an overuse of antibiotics use on livestock. But antibiotics have their place. Under organic standards, no antibiotics can be used, which can lead to the uneccesary suffering and death of livestock.  In 2010, In These Times, a very progressive publication, published an article, The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards in which they state, “The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.”  “The organic movement must incorporate compassion into organic standards and allow the rare, regulated use of antibiotics.”

So, my progressive friends, the purist ideology creates situations like this:

“A few weeks later, another calf started to fail. Too weak to suck, Jordan let milk from the bottle leak into my hand as I cupped her head. The farmer weighed his options, and muttering in frustration and anger, reached for the antibiotics and the phone. He injected the calf and called the organic standards regulator to report that Jordan was no longer organic. The next morning the calf was back on her feet, but ruined as an organic milker. With that one shot, an ethical farmer lost much of his investment in breeding and maintaining quality organic stock.”

It doesn’t have to be either/or. Our food supply, despite the abuses of factory farming is the safest it’s been in history due to technological advances. Insisting on outdated methods that eschew modern tools doesn’t seem to be so progressive, does it? What is so progressive about embracing an agricultural method that was used in the days when food borne illnesses were rampant; when crops routinely failed?

Why do progressives insist on this all or nothing idea? Why can’t we take the best practices of all farming methods and combine them to create a healthy sustainable food supply? Why can’t we utilize the best technology to increase yields, increase nutritional value and decrease the prospect of food borne illnesses?


Dead bodies demand organic food moratorium

Last summer a deadly eColi outbreak hit Europe resulting in over 25 deaths and 1,000+ hospitalizations. The outbreak was traced to organic sprouts from Germany.

Now imagine if a health disaster like this had happened as a result of GM crops. The anti-GMO crowd would have been yelling from the internet rafters, demanding the immediate destruction of all GMO crops and failing that, would insist they be labeled as dangerous.

So, it was with much amusement I came across this humorous editorial in the right wing Washington “Moonie” Times from last year. It basically turns the anti-GMO, pro-organic arguments on its head.  Read it here. In the meantime, here are some snippets:

“The time has come for even the mighty organic lobby to accept the precautionary principle – the idea that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to organic farms’ potentially deadly practices. Until we know for certain that the outbreak could not have been caused by the suspect organic farm, we must act to protect the public from the unknown risks of organic practices.”

“…before organic farms are allowed to expand again, the industry must prove that ignoring modern technology does not hold hidden risks to public health or the environment. A permitting program for obsolete technology, perhaps as part of the existing agricultural or environmental permitting program, should demand that old technologies outperform new ones at each site where a business proposes to open or expand using obsolete technology.”

“Those who cling to the 1850s feces-based agricultural technology should face the same hurdles. As should those who reject key safety advances such as the E. coli-killing practice of irradiating suspect foods and genetic engineering, which holds promise in using natural biological processes to limit the spread of food-borne illness.”

Ask scientists, not activists

In a recent interview with the man who saved the Hawaiian payapa industry, the writer, Jennifer Mo raised an interesting, seemingly obvious question: Why shouldn’t we always address our science questions to scientists, not lobbyists or activists?

Good question, Jennifer. Almost all information regarding GMOs comes from lobbyists and activists, none of whom are scientists.

CBS News give false ammo to anti-GMO crowd

Several weeks ago in Elgin, Texas, a herd of cattle “mysteriously” died. The culprit was Tifton 85, a type of grass that has been grown down there for the last 15 years. CBS News reported, “The grass is a genetically-modified form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85…” They were wrong. Tifton 85 is a conventional hybrid, not a GMO.

According to the Texas Agricultural Service:

“Tifton 85 is a hybrid bermudagrass that was jointly developed and officially released in 1992 by the USDAARS and the University of Georgia Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia. It is a cross between a selection from South Africa (PI 290884) and Tifton 68.”

What happened was the grass started spontaneously producing cyanide gas. Texas has been experiencing a drought and there is a connection. During droughts, some grasses like Tifton 85 can produce high concentrations of cyanide.

This page from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension explains what can happen:

Prussic Acid (Cyanide) Poisoning

“Young plants, including roots, and leaves of older plants contain a compound called dhurrin which can break down to release a substance called prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Sudangrass has low levels of this compound and rarely kills animals. Sorghum has the highest levels and sorghum-sudangrasses are intermediate. There is also considerable varietal difference in prussic acid content for all types of sorghums.”

“High levels of nitrogen fertilizer will increase the likelihood of prussic acid poisoning as well as nitrate poisoning. Very dark green plant growth often contains higher levels of prussic acid.”

“Most prussic acid is lost during the curing process. Therefore hay and silage are seldom toxic even if the original forage was. Do not leave green chop in a wagon over night and then feed. The heat that occurs will cause a release of prussic and make the feed more likely to be toxic.

Individual animals vary in susceptibility to prussic acid poisoning. Cattle are more susceptible than sheep. Animals receiving grain with the pasture are less likely to be affected.”

Other internet outlets have picked up the story and as of Sunday, CBS has not corrected their story.

Although this event wasn’t  GMO related, it will probably be repeated for eternity on all the anti-GMO wesbites.

Bt corn study majorly flawed

This picture has been making the Facebook rounds. It references two discredited studies. The first one regarding rats was done by Gilles-Eric Seralini whose study was discredited. When it was, the pitchforks came out and the anti-GM crowd started yelling about how it was a smear campaign. Sigh.

The claim that Bt was found in the bodies of pregnant women (they forgot to say in the in the fetuses as well) was based on a faulty Canadian study.

Apparently, the tests were flawed because they used a test designed for plants and vegetables, not animal/human tissue. Even then the tests showed an almost negligible amount. Experts in this area say that since the amount was so low, it fell in the range of “noise.”

The researchers, in the cites, failed to reference a study in 2007 which warned of the dangers. The scientists reporting finding Bt protein in the human samples (Aris and Leblanc) are detecting only noise in the assay system because they use an invalid assay system (Agdia) intended to test plants, not animals for Bt.

The inconvenient truth about this is described in an earlier paper Paul and others 2007 that demonstrates how to do a valid assay for this Bt protein and also shows what kind of results you get from a valid test with animal samples.

The basic message is that:  no detectable Bt protein in GM food enters an animal body from the gut.

Read an analysis of the study here at GMO Pundit

More on arsenic in rice

In my last post,  I wrote about high levels of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup.  I found this by science writer/blogger Deborah Blum who answers the question of what made the researchers investigate organic brown rice syrup in the first place?

The more interesting immediate question anyway, at least to me, was:  why were Dartmouth chemist Brian Jackson and his colleagues looking for arsenic in these supposedly healthy products at all?  I rapidly discovered though that I just hadn’t been paying attention. They were simply following up on an issue well known in health science, a body of work establishing a troubling connection between rice and arsenic in the food supply.  On rice and arsenic