Is organic food dangerous?

The Daily Mail has been doing some good muckraking. Yesterday, it led its front page with a nine-month-old scientific report suggesting that lettuces and sprouts grown to organic standards with the help of farmyard manure had 100 times more E coli cells than conventionally grown ones. Shock. Was not E coli responsible for all those deaths in Lanarkshire? "The findings will alarm millions who switched to organic foods following the BSE crisis and concern over the safety of GM foods," said the Mail.

But should it? Is organic farming inherently more risky than conventional farming, as a stream of articles and TV programmes in the past six months on both sides of the Atlantic have suggested? Unhappily for the Mail, the answer is no. E coli is one of the commonest microbiological organisms on the planet. It is everywhere. On your coffee cup, your pencil, your hands, in everybody's stomach.

The Daily Mail report glossed over the fact that the E coli found in the organically grown lettuces was totally harmless and indeed rather welcome. Without E coli and other micro organisms our immune system would be in tatters. Indeed, it would have been far more surprising if the Atlanta veggies did not show higher numbers of E coli cells. At least they were being grown in biologically alive land.

But one strain of E coli - 0157 - can indeed be virulent and deadly, and the Mail was quick to report that Tesco had recently withdrawn all its organic mushrooms after a routine check by environmental health officers found one with 0157. But not with the deadly strain known as 0157:H7. It went on to say that the strain found in the Tesco mushroom was completely harmless.

So where are all these organic scare stories coming from? What's new about muck? As the Soil Association, which sets UK organic standards points out, animal manure has been used for thousands of years as an essential component to maintain the organic matter content, biological activity, fertility and structural stability of agricultural soils. Moreover, conventional UK farmers use about 80m tonnes of it a year as a fertiliser. Just 9,000 tonnes goes on organic land and crops. So why the attacks on organic foods and not conventional ones?

Enter the highly charged and politically motivated industry of environmental "contrarianism". It questions accepted eco "truisms" which suggest that global warming, holes in the ozone layer, large dams, intensive farming, nuclear power and GM foods are major problems. However, it frequently uses extremely selective scientific studies, funded by industries with strong vested interests in keeping the status quo, to rubbish governments and environmentalists. They are, variously, "negative", "against progress", "luddite", "making the poor poorer" and "peddling bad science".

The spate of recent "organic scare" stories probably started with Denis T Avery, Director of Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, a rich and powerful US free-market, pro-globalisation think tank funded, amongst others, by chemical companies, agribusiness and biotech companies - all of whom have taken a battering in the global GM furore.

In 1998, Avery published "The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food" in American Outlook, a quarterly Hudson Institute publication. It began: "According to recent data compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E coli bacteria (0157:H7)."

The trouble was, the CDC denied ever having done the studies. But the Hudson and its British counterparts such as the European Science and Environment Forum, and the Institute of Economic Affairs, have been peddling variations of the story to shock-hungry journalists, notably at C4, Living Marxism, a BBC Counterblast programme, and even the Wall Street Journal.

No one denies that farmyard manure carries dangerous pathogens. But not even the most naive vegetarian would suggest that you should ignore fundamental rules of hygiene like washing fruit and vegetables before eating them, or cooking meat thoroughly.

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