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Here's Why Nestle Chairman's Attacks On Organic Food Are Wrong

Responding to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe's critique of organic food—that it's too expensive and downright dangerous—author and educator Anna Lappé says that he's wrong, and scared of an organic future.

News flash: the chairman of the board of one of the largest food companies in the world—whose tripling in profits from 2009 to nearly $43 billion in 2010 was generated from selling mainly processed foods produced with inputs from industrial, chemical farms—is "skeptical" of organic food.

Don’t you think someone who made $10.7 million in 2010 from a company whose profit primarily depends on chemical agriculture might have a bias in the matter? Yes, it would be understandable to think Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, might. It also might be understandable to want to know what others, those without such a financial interest in the food status quo, think about the viability of non-industrial agriculture. But in the article, like other press that pooh-poohs organic farming, those who disagree—if they’re mentioned at all—are portrayed as marginal or unqualified to speak to the issue.

In the piece in question, the other side is represented by unnamed (and unquoted) "nutrition professors and some food scientists." No offense to those nutrition professors and food scientists, but what if the reader had had, instead, learned that the viability, efficiency, and safety of industrial agriculture is being questioned not only by professors and some food scientists but by countless agronomists, food security experts, economists, epidemiologists, and public health experts all around the world? What if instead of "nutrition professors and some food scientists," you heard about the numerous peer-reviewed and meta-studies that contradict Brabeck-Letmathe’s claims.

You’d be more informed, that’s for sure, and you might just begin to see the spin behind Brabeck-Letmathe’s messaging. He has three main talking points to defend fossil fuel-, chemical-, and water-intensive industrial agriculture. Brabeck-Letmathe raises each with strategic discipline: First, he claims that organic farming is a luxury; secondly, that it doesn’t produce food that’s any better for you; and finally (and much worse) that organic food can kill you.

This three-part spin-doctoring should start sounding familiar. I’ve been hearing it reported by uncritical media for more than a decade, dating all the way back to a 20/20 episode with John Stossel in 2000 and to the op-ed pages of one of Canada’s top newspapers, the Globe and Mail. In 2008, Brabeck-Letmathe told the paper, "We cannot feed the world on organic products." That same year he delivered the same line to the Financial Times. Today, he says: "There’s no way you can support life on earth if you go straight from farm to table."

Yet, numerous studies on the efficiency and future viability of industrial agriculture—especially in an increasingly resource-constrained and climate-unstable planet—keep proving the opposite is true: we cannot support life on earth unless we shift away from industrial agriculture systems.

Consider that in the United States alone, 27 percent of our nation’s farmland is dependent on fossil water from the Olglalla aquifer and we’re depleting that water at a rate so fast that in a few decades there could be none left.

Or, consider that chemical runoff from industrial farms throughout the Midwest, especially synthetic fertilizer, creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every year that kills off aquatic life on the ocean floor and can grow to the size of New Jersey.

Or, consider that one of the three macronutrients industrial farmers rely on for fertilizer, phosphorus—found in the phosphate-bearing rock mainly in Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States—is increasingly rare. Some experts suggest we’ve already passed peak phosphorus; we will find it increasingly difficult to mine for the stuff. And, every ton that we do secure produces five tons of radioactive waste. Today, the U.S. is home to more than one billion tons of this waste now stored in 70 locations, some towering as high as a 20-story building and some as large as 720 football fields.

Meanwhile, studies have found that ecological farming practices, of which organic agriculture is one, can significantly improve water usage efficiency and eliminate farmers’ dependence on petroleum-based chemicals and synthetic fertilizer ingredients, including phosphorus.

And what to make of Brabeck-Letmathe’s second talking point: "From a nutritional point of view studies show no nutritional difference from bio [or organic] to other foods."

We certainly need more studies assessing the nutritional differences between food items, but research is already turning up positive results for organic foods. We already know, for instance, that studies of children’s consumption of organic versus conventional foods found those eating organic foods had lower detectable pesticide metabolites. We also know that last year’s President’s Cancer Panel noted that many chemicals used on industrial farms are known or suspected carcinogenic or disrupt our hormone systems, mimicking testosterone or estrogen. The Panel’s recommendation? Stay away from foods raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. Without calling it by name, the panel was saying: Be safer, go organic.

Finally, Brabeck-Letmathe adds the zinger: Not only is organic food not more nutritious: "it’s more dangerous." Organic foods in Europe are "often fertilized with livestock manure," he says, "and people don’t always realize they need to wash it thoroughly."

More than 10 years ago, Dennis Avery, from the Hudson Institute-funded Center for Global Food Issues, made the same attack on 20/20. Avery warned then that organic produce is likely infested with "nasty strains of bacteria" because it is "fertilized with manure." A wide-eyed Barbara Walters asked, "I’ve been buying organic food. It is more expensive. But it isn’t dangerous?"

Yes, to the typical consumer—and Fast Company reader or 20/20 viewer—fertilizing crops with manure probably sounds gross. But Brabeck-Letmathe and Avery conveniently neglect to mention a few things: First, while some organic farmers do use manure as fertilizer, they must do so following strict guidelines so that potentially dangerous bacteria—the kind that has Brabeck-Letmathe so worried—are naturally eliminated. Plus, manure is not the only source of fertilizer for organic farmers. In fact, it’s not even the preferred source. Many organic farmers use no manure at all, preferring instead nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes that naturally pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it bioavailable in the soil. Often called green manure, the organic farmer integrates these fertility methods with many others.

The thing is: industrial farms also fertilize fields with manure, only without any regulation or oversight. And then, there’s sewage sludge. Industrial farmers can use it; organic ones cannot. (By the way, Avery’s misstatements on 20/20 were eventually retracted by producers online. But I wonder how many people saw the televised episode and how many read the retraction?)

With Brabeck-Letmathe trotting out this tripartite critique of organic food, he concludes by saying that the demand for organic food has hit a peak. "It will stay the same… I don’t think it will grow much more than it is."

Need I remind you who you’re listening to? The Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, a man who makes millions of dollars a year selling the world on Nestlé products, including everything from Cinnamon Toast Crunch to Butterfinger and Laffy Taffy and increasingly prepared and frozen foods. In other words, someone with a stake in ensuring that few of us turn to real, whole, organic foods or, even, cook for ourselves anymore. (As the U.S. Chairman and CEO of the company said recently, he was "feeling good about its focus on frozen foods" since, "cooking has become a lost art in the United States.")

Maybe what we hear is a note of Brabeck-Letmathe’s defensiveness? After all, the growth of the movement of food producers allied with consumers who are rejecting short-sighted industrial agriculture, choosing to cook real food, and connecting in direct relationship with farmers means one thing to Nestlé: Loss of market share.

And while Brabeck-Letmathe would like you to believe that demand for organic food is coming just from "elite, wealthier" consumers in the U.S. and E.U.—and, indeed, leveling off—he couldn’t be more wrong. The movement of eaters choosing organic foods and of food producers embracing agroecological practices is not just gaining ground in the U.S. and the E.U., but all around the world, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the plains of Central Brazil and the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. For a man like Brabeck-Letmathe, that must be scary stuff.

This post originally appeared on Civil Eats

Anna Lappé is an author and educator, known for her work as a sustainable food advocate. The co-author or author of three books (including Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It) and the contributing author to nine others, Lappé is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund.

[Image: Flickr user suzettesuzette]