Beware of the propagandists

A perplexing headline has been making the rounds on the web for a couple of days : “Media May be Hyping Benefits of Organic Food, Agriculture–News accounts of organic agriculture and organic food are more likely to be positive than negative”.

My first instinct was to double-check and make sure that our witty friends at “The Onion” were not at it again. They were not, unfortunately, and I wish they had.

Rather, the source of this piece of smear campaign, seemingly designed to confuse the general public, was a paper published this week in the “British Food Journal”. Its lead author was identified as Dr. Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at the University of Kansas. A self-professed “food scientist”, Doug Powell is the founder of the online repository of food-safety related information Bites.

Conducted with two colleagues (one of whom started as Powell’s student) at the University of Guelph in Canada, Powell’s alma mater, the study explored how topics of organic food and agriculture were discussed in five North America newspapers between 1999 and 2004 (you read this correctly). “Using the content analysis technique, the 618 articles collected were analyzed for topic, tone and theme regarding food safety, environmental concerns and human health. The prominent topics of the articles were genetic engineering, pesticides and organic farming”, the executive summary indicates.

The analysis found 41.4 percent of the articles had a neutral tone toward organic agriculture and food, 36.9 percent had a positive tone, 15.5 percent were mixed and 6.1 percent were negative.

“We concluded that articles about organic production in the selected time period were seldom negative,” the authors wrote.

It didn’t take me long to gather a few facts about Dr. Powell—you have to love the web. Predictably, the list of his research grantors and other financial backers reads like a Who’s Who of the agro-business industry (with a strong Canadian flavor ): Monsanto Canada, CropLife Canada, Casco Inc., Council for Biotechnology Information, National Pork Board, etc.

It’s no mystery that these chemical giants, GM food champions and food technology leaders rely on the consumer’s docility to meet their, or their members’, shareholders’ expectations—as the jargon goes. The revival in the public debate of organic farming pioneer Sir Albert Howard’s vision of Heaven on Earth (healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals) is certainly something to be concerned about when you build revenue on soil-destroying chemicals, genetically-altered plants and antibiotics-stuffed animals.

Britain is certainly a land of contrasts. The nation that gave birth to Sir Albert Howard and produced the Soil Association is also a staunch proponent of GMO crops in the European Union. How ironic that the “British Food Journal” should publish Dr. Powell’s team’s paper precisely at the time when the agribusiness industry is intensifying its pressure on Europe. Earlier this month, the European Commission in Bruxelles called on its members to approve its decision to end the 12-year moratorium on GMO seeds and allow individual states to devise their own policy. European consumers are by far the most anti-GMO bunch in the world. The campaign is on.

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