IS IT OK to gloat? After all, it’s not every day we see those trying to turn back the clock on modern agriculture so resoundingly defeated. There are plenty of them too, from the multinational Luddite organisation Greenpeace to the Safe Food Foundation (one of many fronts for the Greens), the GM-Free Australia Alliance (headed by Bob Phelps, who has made a career campaigning against genetically-modified food), and the left-wing law firm Slater and Gordon.
I am somewhat curious as to whether they will put their hands in their pockets to pay the costs of their hitherto hero, WA farmer Steve Marsh, whose case against his neighbour, Michael Baxter, they championed and who is now stuck with paying the costs of the man he sued. Somehow I doubt it; zealots are rarely generous.
Perhaps a few moments of gloating are permissible, but I prefer to think this victory gives encouragement to the normal, rational, optimistic members of society. Those who understand we only have enough to eat because of modern agriculture. Those who know we need scientific innovation if we are to feed everyone in future. And of course, those who believe scientists when they tell us GM food is safe. On that, the science is well and truly settled.
And if we are to have a moment of normal, rational optimism, perhaps it is time to start burying the notion that organic food is normal, rational or optimistic. Because it is none of those.
When it started to gather momentum, following the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s book about DDT, Silent Spring, the organic industry might have had a point. Pesticides were broad spectrum and persistent in the environment, and not always used as judiciously as they are today. There were pesticide residues in many foods which, while well below hazardous levels, had the potential to accumulate in rare cases. The organic movement grew out of a desire to avoid these residues.
Over the years it has morphed into something far less coherent, based on a fundamental rejection of modern agriculture. Now, it doesn’t matter that modern pesticides are narrow spectrum, low toxicity and highly targeted, or that they are used very sparingly. It is immaterial that they are rapidly degraded in the environment and there are no pesticide residues whatsoever in the vast bulk of food. It is irrelevant that the pesticides approved for organic use, such as sulphur, copper and rotenone, tend to be more toxic than modern synthetic pesticides.
It is also irrelevant that genetically modified crops lead to less use of pesticides, or that the main pesticide used on them is glyphosate, which is almost as safe as water. Even the environmental benefits of GM crops, of preserving the soil and reducing water consumption, are not enough. The organic food movement has become fundamentally anti-science and, in many ways, anti-capitalist. Even when it pays homage to small business, it inherently discourages them from becoming too successful lest they grow into big businesses.
That the organic industry has become so significant is attributable to the fact that many consumers believe organic food is safer, more nutritious and healthy. Safety is expressed in terms of concerns about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and GM food.
Since organic food is objectively no safer, more nutritious or healthier, it is clear the public has been grossly misled. That leads to the question, can the public be convinced of its error?
In fairness, most members of the public are sensible enough to know that organic food is nothing special. Otherwise it would not be limited to the small percentage of the market it holds. Quality is often variable and the price is usually higher. But there is a tendency, when the price of organic food drops to match that of conventional food, to choose the organic. It is given the benefit of the doubt.
That translates into pressure on conventional food producers to go along with the organic lobby. Indeed, for some people at least, belief in organics is like a religion to be promoted with evangelical zeal. Like missionaries in Africa, they prey on ignorance and suspicion to enlist believers.
If this is to stop, it requires the truth to be told about organics. We need to hear more about how organic food is often fertilised with manure, leading to increased instances of food poisoning. We need to hear about the natural pesticides that have evolved in certain varieties of organic fruit and vegetables which, while probably no more hazardous than synthetic pesticides, have never been tested. We need to hear more about the environmental harm caused by tillage, which is used to grow many organic crops. We need to see comparisons between organic and conventionally produced food, showing there is no nutritional or health difference. I could go on.
Whether you believe in free markets or fair markets, deception should not be a part of it. The organic industry, which is founded on deception, deserves to be exposed. Losing the case in WA, on which its supporters had such high expectations, represents a serious defeat. Now might be a good time to follow up with some truth telling.