Moon-planting Fairy-worshipping Whackos

Update: Post by Mark Lynas here. I had missed the start of the Twitter debate, which originated with a tweet from @GMO Pundit (David Tribe) showing that the campaign to have GMOs labeled was funded by Big Quacka.

Update 16-07:
Simon Singh’s commentary here.

Update: Good piece on GE labeling by David Zilberman Why labeling of GMOs is actually bad for people and the environment

Interesting Twitter exchange yesterday on the subject of food labeling- specifically, the campaign from the Organic movement to make the labeling of GMO crops a legal requirement.

Mark Lynas started it, arguing that the only reason to label foods containing Genetically Engineered crops would be as a “skull and crossbones” for the benefit of those who have an ideological position against GE technology- ie as an aid to a boycott movement, and suggested instead

How about a label on organic foods: ‘Warning, land-inefficient product, may cause damage to the environment’.

Andrew Apel joined in:

I prefer ‘May Have Been Sprayed With Bacterial Toxins’ on organic veggies.Truthful and accurate!

The problem with labeling is, where do you stop, and what is the motive for the label? I am all in favour of more information for the consumer, but given the well-funded campaign against anything GE, a label for that alone would simply act as a falser warning NOT to buy- without reams of peer-reviewed references and lengthy discussions around all aspects of food and farming, such a label on its own would do little to benefit the consumer.

I had been thinking about the labeling issue for a while, and wondered what sort of label might be suitable for Biodynamic crops- that is, essentially “organic” food grown by people using astrology (planting by the moon) and other esoteric practices advocated by the extremist anti-science cult founded by Rudolph Steiner:

for Biodynamic produce “warning! Grown by moon-planting fairy-worshipping whackos. AVOID

This was re-tweeted by Lynas and then picked up by John Walker, author and award-winning organic gardener:

Real grown-up stuff eh? Oh the joys of constructive debate…

who then made his own grown-up suggestion:

Maybe the real priority is to label big ag’s produce with list of pesticide residues it contains? #choice

For someone of with such a high media profile, Walker seems lamentably unaware of the issues. Astonishingly, it would appear that he has not even listened to the Skepteco Podcast on Organics.

There is actually no evidence that “conventional” produce contain harmful levels of pesticides; these things are tested very thoroughly, and it maybe even that the tiny trace residues- far below what is considered safe- that are found may even be beneficial, perhaps providing some protection against “natural” toxins and predators including cancer: this was the conclusion from Trewavas, as discussed on our podcast, who cited a longitudinal study with a very large sample of farmers and foresters, ie those groups who come into contact with pesticides the most: they were found to have lower levels of some diseases than the general population.

Organic produce can also be harmful, as the tragic case of the Organic German Beansprouts incident showed last year; should we put warnings on organic food alerting shoppers to the risks of ecoli poisoning as a result of the use of animal manures? Another organic movement bugbear- food irradiation- could save lives and eradicate the risks of ecoli – but unfortunately this technology is also being campaigned against by those who think that deadly natural toxins are preferable to minute traces of any synthetic chemical.

Walker responded:

And of course no evidence of wider effects of pesticides on environment? Is organic-bashing really useful?

The excellent @gmopundit joined in:

#organic farming also needs more water. Matters a lot some countries

and Andrew Apel opined:

Organic bashing is useful because they peddle lies about conventional farmers.

Again, this issue of wider environmental impacts is different to toxic residues, and of course all forms of farming have a tremendous effect on the environment- there is no perfect, garden-of-Eden-type way of farming that ticks all the boxes; and the original point from Lynas- that organics require more land- still stands. While an individual organic farm may take greater care to leave habitat for wildlife, more land will be needed in total- including a lot of land for all those manure-producing animals that organics rely on- and that means less wilderness habitat.

The lower yields for organics are a serious issue that need to be engaged with by its supporters- maybe it would be a good idea to put this on a label to make more people aware of it; and all this reminded me of a tweet from @geneticmaize a few weeks ago, who said that she avoids buying organic food for this very reason (though she says she is not religious about it.) With world population heading towards 10billion, there is simply no option of switching wholesale to less productive methods. They need to become more productive, and the only way for this to happen is by technology.

Which brings us back to GE. Mark Lynas offered an olive branch on the twitter discussion:

We can end this now if you agree that GM chemical-free should be considered organic.

The irony is of course that there IS already a GMO-free label- “Organic”- but that, for organics to overcome its other limitations, it could embrace GE technology to make it more viable- as proposed by Pamela Ronald in Tomorrow’s Table.

Organic food currently provides a very small part of world food supply. There is still a place for it, and hopefully for many other kinds of farming, and organics plays an important research role. But at the end of the day it is just a label, a rather arbitrary list of criteria. What is really needed is a more integrated system that is not afraid to use technology.

Too much of the organic movement is however dominated by Biodynamics (which is where organics came from in the first place), homeopathy, astrology and general woo based on the naturalistic fallacy: in reality, Mother Nature wants to Eat You.

So shopper be aware. While there is nothing to fear from GMOs, your food may have been grown by moon-planting fairy-worshipping, anti-vaccine, quacks and whackos: is that what you want for your children?

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  1. Playing devil’s advocate for a second though, we already accept food labelling like Fairtrade, Kosher or vegan that allows people to make food choices according to their personal beliefs rather than because it may be harmful, for example by containing allergens. Would labelling that would allow people with a moral objection to GM food to avoid it be any different?

    But I do agree that from an environmental perspective labelling food gm (or indeed organic) doesn’t make a lot of sense. I do try to buy organic, because while conventional agriculture is less land intensive this is only possible because of the input of non-renewable mined phospates and nitrates made using huge amounts of energy, and I think expertise in organic farming is going to come in very useful when these inputs are no longer available. But I’m not worried about eating gm or consuming a few nanograms of synthetic pesticides and wish organic agriculture would adopt these yield-raising measures. Conversely there are a lot of people out there who buy organic because they’re concerned about eating pesticide residues but who probably don’t care much about the fertilisers used. In order for all of us to have a labelling system that met our needs we’d need every aspect discussed separately so people could pick what concerns them rather than blanket labelling: “No sythetic fertilisers used, integrated pest management approach to insect pests, may contain gmos, high water use” and I’d far rather see all agriculture move closer to environmental best practice than a labelling system basically just designed to make people feel good about themselves.

    I think I learned all I need to know about biodynamic agriculture from a discussion I overheard in a healthfood shop over whether biodynamic products could be considered vegan given that they were fertilised with herbs buried in a cow horn.

    • Hi Jules good points, I think you answered them yourself quite well! I think the “Organic” label suffers from same probs of all such labels (eg FSC wood products)- easily gets corrupted (Big Organic) and ironically isn’t “holistic” enough ie too ideological and doesnt cover all issues (eg “organic” is main system in developing world, but v unproductive; sometimes a little NPK could go a long way !) N fertiliser is made from Natural gas- there seems to be an abundance of this in the US at present, I dont see a problem of “running out” actually- ultimately CH4 can be synthesized from nuclear, or even solar/wind (electrolysis of water to get Hydrogen, extract CO2 from air (=double win!) and make methane.)

      I think I learned all I need to know about biodynamic agriculture from a discussion I overheard in a healthfood shop over whether biodynamic products could be considered vegan given that they were fertilized with herbs buried in a cow horn.

      yes indeed, and some would say that effectively BD is a form of animal sacrifice as a result…. worth reading up on the links between BD and Steiner and the Organic movement- I know of no organics organisation that does not also promote BD in some way or other and as a result also homeopathy etc.

  2. BogStandard

     /  August 27, 2012

    In my experience, and seemingly in that of many others given the number of times I’ve read it or heard it said, ‘organic’ food does taste a lot better..

    • Twominds

       /  November 24, 2012

      I eat both organic and conventional food. I find that sometimes the organic, sometimes the conventional crop tastes better. I guess that other variables have more effect on the quality and taste than whether or not it’s produced organic. The only exception is organically produced milk, there I find a consistent better quality over conventional milk.


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