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August 7, 2000


Response to DeGregori re Stossel


Ag BioView -- Its summer and everyone should be relaxing and mellow.
Tom's message covers a lot of ground and water, much too far under the
bridge for me to respond to intelligently. Just a few comments --

* ABC news has announced it will apologize for and correct its flawed
organics 20/20 piece this Friday during 20/20; l will have nothing more to
say re what ABC should do until I see what they say on Friday. But
obviously today's news reports confirm that ABC takes its responsibility
to correct the story seriously.

* As a matter of fact I have been spending much time with CDC data and
journals, and find them a very important source of information. More on
that front later -- but the general notion that organic food is dangerous
because organic farmers rely more on manure is conjecture and misses the
bigger set of questions we all need to focus on more.

* All farmers using manure have to do so carefully/properly to avoid
problems; there are sloppy organic farmers and sloppy conventional
farmers, both can pose hazards to consumers. But remember, in urging
comparative assessments of the sources of bacteria in/on food, there are
a lot more acres managed by sloppy conventional farmers than sloppy
organic farmers. Conventional farmers use something like 95% of all
manure used, and do so with no significant gov't oversight; on cert.
organic farms, which are NOT perfect and they know it, compost
preparation, manure applications etc are a key focus of fertility
management, as well as organic certification rules/inspections of organic
farmers, at least with most certifiers. I would welcome the results of a
fair, rigorous comparison of the microbiological contamination impacts of
the compost and manure management procedures of organic farmers in
contrast to those of nearby conventional farmers. "Feedstuffs" recently
ran a great article on beef management systems leading to E.coli 01:H57
(or whatever its signature is) in manure; the management factors that
heightened prevalence of the pathogen were related to stress, crowding,
high energy diets, etc; the factors reducing likelihood were range
feeding, lower-energy diets, low stress, access to clean air and water,
etc. Draw your own conclusions re what the implications are in
contrasting problems from beef from a feedlot in contrast to a range fed

* I am all for critically assessing the differences between animal and
crop production systems on health/disease/pathogens. We need to do more
so we can focus on prevention and reduce antibiotic and pesticide use.
This debate will serve a useful purpose if it stimulates gov't to finance
badly needed research. But beware of convincing conv. farmers that such
research will be "good" for them and "debunk" myths about organics. The
science might not break the way you apparently think and hope it will.

* On the pesticide front, again, any fair comparison based on data shows
that conv. produce is much more likely to contain residues (indeed, often
multiple residues) than organic food. There is no need to debate this
empirical issue. Sure more data would be good but it is virtually certain
it will show more or less what all the other data have shown to data.

* Residues in conventional produce are more likely to be broad spectrum
insecticides (some of which are tox problems) and fungicides; the residues
will also generally be at higher mean levels in conv. foods. People
familiar with the data agree with these basic conclusions; people
disagree, of course, over whether the presence of residues really
matters. That is a long-standing, important and complex debate in the
world of toxicology and risk assessment. Public policy muddles along,
bounded by the extremes of views on both sides. No one knows for sure
which side is right.

* If conv. and organic food were tested for sulfur and petroleum oils,
both would routinely be found to have residues, prior to washing. There
is scant data on other botanicals; I agree a (weak) case can be made for
spending additional resources in checking residues of these. In the end,
I doubt that there would be large differences; I would rather see the
money spent on testing farm community drinking water for antibiotic
resistant pathogens in areas with confinement hog/poultry operations.

* Re media elites and bias -- we just disagree, I do not think conv. ag
has been mercilessly beaten up by the media. I have never seen a news
program ala 20/20 make stuff up and put on a national program information
that was so blatantly dishonest and flat wrong. Recent biotech
controversies have been covered pretty thoroughly and fairly; potential
risks have been noted, evidence in support/against concerns covered.
Real uncertainties and scientific disagreements get covered as such.
Evidence in support of the "promise" of biotech is being treated with
about the same level of critical scrutiny as evidence of risks. The
"media" system is seeking balance; once in a while something throws it
out of balance for a time, but as more information accumulates, it tends
to correct itself faster.

Chuck Benbrook

Charles Benbrook CU FQPA site
Benbrook Consulting Services Ag BioTech InfoNet www.biotech-info.net
5085 Upper Pack River Road IPM site www.pmac.net
Sandpoint, Idaho 83864
208-263-5236 (Voice) 208-263-7342 (Fax)