NYT’s Mark Bittman Trashes Organic and Defends GMOs – My Response

Written by Max Goldberg on May 8, 2014. Follow Max on Twitter: @livingmaxwell.
mark-bittman

(Courtesy of The New York Times)

While organic food continues to explode in popularity and is increasingly becoming the food that everyone wants to eat – even Walmart and Target are boosting their organic options - the support for organic continues to erode at its most important levels.

Our government is trying to decimate organic by chipping away at federal organic standards. Namely, the USDA has undermined the intent of the National Organic Program by altering the incredibly important Sunset Rule, which would make it much easier for specially-approved synthetic ingredients to stay in organic much longer than they should.

Our President said in 2007 that he would label GMOs but has yet to do anything about this. GMOs pose an existential threat to organic, and the most powerful way to get people to stop eating this FrankenFood is to have GMOs labeled on the outside of food products. If people knew that they were eating foods that have been genetically-engineered, they would start asking questions, might avoid them altogether, and would be more inclined to eat organic.

And now we have the popular and influential food columnist of The New York Times, Mark Bittman, who, shockingly, has come out against organic and in defense of GMOs.

In his article Leave Organic Out of This, Bittman concludes that sustainable agriculture and healthier eating are the most important struggles in food, both of which have real validity.

However, as he reaches this conclusion, he discredits the importance of organic and defends GMOs in the process, which makes the reasoning behind his column so bewildering and flawed.

Organic is all about sustainable agriculture, while GMOs are all about unsustainable agriculture.

GMOs have failed to deliver the massive increases in yields that were promised, have resulted in a huge jump in the use of super-toxic chemicals, and the chemicals sprayed on GMOs are sickening farm workers and ruining our water supply at a record pace. For example, 94% of our water supply now contains atrazine, a chemical that has been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, and cancer.

Conveniently, Bittman doesn’t mention the horrifying results from studies when animals were fed GMOs, the enormous problem of superweeds that have been caused by GMOs, and why 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide. (Hint: it isn’t because of organic farming.)

How in the world can he defend GMOs yet espouse sustainable agriculture??????

It is true that not everyone can afford organic. However, this is largely because our government has subsidized and prioritized GMOs while doing little to make organic accessible and affordable for the general population.

As a result of these failed policies, organic does not have a level playing field in the food equation. Until the government decides that the health of its citizens is actually important, don’t expect this playing field to get close to equal anytime soon.

While Bittman is correct by saying that sustainable agriculture and healthy eating are critical for our country, it is absolutely shameful and illogical why he would discredit organic and defend GMOs as he attempts to make his point.

As far as I’m concerned, organic advocates have lost a trusted voice in the media and never should his opinion be viewed in the same light again.

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9 Comments

  1. wow….i really hate to read this. wonder who paid Mark Bittman off? as knowledgeable about food and health as he has always seemed to me, this is out in left field!!

    Written by kerry surface on May 8, 2014 @ 4:30 pm
  2. I agree with Bittman article, it’s more truthful to the reality. Organic farming is utopic and a privilege. I enjoy your website because I can afford the lifestyle you are offering. Most of the products featured in this blog are way above reasonable prices.
    I do not understand this ferocious obstinacy against GMO. There is no proof regarding their alleged harmful characteristics; what we have with GMO is limitless potential for the future of the food industry, hopefully not ruled by Monsanto.
    I’m for labeling products so everybody can choose what they eat, but at the same time I wouldn’t create a “hidden” feeling that GMO is wrong and unhealthy.
    Healthy is affordable, organic is for us obsessed with qualitative and uber healthy ingredients (I buy organic in NY because it tastes better, coming from an Italian local food culture) . I respect your opinion but I think you are not looking at the big picture.
    PS. please when writing this interesting pieces could you avoid the unneeded repetition of question marks? Leave it to teenagers, you just lose credibility.

    Written by Luis on May 8, 2014 @ 4:39 pm
  3. Max please get facts straight and stop perpetuating this Indian suicide misinformation – it reflects badly on industry:
    Note in spewing her anti-GMO vitriol the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements’ (IFOAM – organisation supposedly leading organics globally) Board member and activist Vandana Shiva finds bending the truth to be acceptable repeated stating and I quote from The Guardian last year: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. It’s a genocide.” Reliable research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), published in Nature, however shows her accusations to be unsubstantiated. Examining Indian government records, academic articles and media reports about GMO Bt cotton and suicide in India, IFPRI’s findings, published in 2008, and updated in 2011, show that the total Indian suicides per year were at 100,000 in 1997 rising to about 120,000 in 2007. But the number of farmers’ suicides showed no spikes and were consistent at about 20,000 per year over the same period. Moreover these suicides were in no way all linked to failed Bt cotton crops.

    Meanwhile irresponsibly unmuzzled by IFOAM, Shiva keeps motor-mouthing the lie, most recently in The Guardian, oblivious that any reputation she has spirals. Her spoutings – so revered by the organic leadership ineptocracy – amounts to little more than desperation. However this understandably fits with IFOAM’s unimaginative, one-dimensional organic development strategy (shaped by the notion that if you want an audience then pick a fight) that distils down to organics’ growth can be achieved by demonizing GMOs. Of more concern is that, if left unchecked the sector runs the risk of being defined by aberrant and vociferous trash-talking whack-jobs like Shiva. Articulating compelling arguments that eventually persuade organics’ opponents is what’s needed not obscurantist conduct that takes organic into “Trust but Verify” territory. Rather its important to note that everything IFOAM and Shiva do and say, reflects back on the entire industry and as Warren Buffett notes: “ It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and 5 minutes to destroy it.”

    Max more importantly, what you fail to address is that the organic sector suffers from shockingly underwhelming leadership and the continuance of their non-performance is unacceptable. Guilty of neglectful oversight, gullibly abiding non-leaders as leaders and enabling incompetence, starry-eyed organic optimists (like yourself Max) need to shake off their unwarranted optimism and false hopes. This is organics’ survival moment.

    Right now, as GM shapes global agriculture by successfully co-opting the sustainable agriculture agenda, organics needs to urgently show how it can positively change agriculture’s future. But, if organics is ever to become this beacon for change and be widely adopted, then Who will do this? Who is going to set organics’ aspirations and direction? Who is going to get hold of the future and do this? Who is going to rebuild trust and reputation?

    Certainly not organics’ present ”Axis of Failure” leadership (namely IFOAM and its partner research organisation FiBL) plagued by endemic inertia and responsible for organics’ current stagnating nanodetect 0,87% share of global agriculture. Again in contrast to mainstream, and in particular GM research activities, organic research organizations, like FiBL, fail to make research quantifiable and actionable. FiBL’s powerless organic science is clearly incapable of reversing negative “anti-organic” biases in public policies and he media, and the single most significant reason for organics’ 0,87% share of Global Agriculture failure. The folks we need to convince – the 99% who have not considered organic – especially global agricultural policy makers and the media like Mark Bittman – hear all organics’ proselytizing and vitriolic, anti-GMO but they aren’t seriously going to put organic on their radar until they see a satisfactory science-based answer for how an entirely organic food system would manage to feed 10 billion people.

    With organics increasingly considered a tragicomedy this must change. This is about getting 21st-Century leadership installed; those who are fit to lead must take over from the unfit who now have to be deleted from organics’ future. Its time to choose: we can stay blind, or open our eyes to the consequences of denialism and ill-placed faith.

    Written by Ged Buffee on May 9, 2014 @ 1:03 am
  4. Bittman simply has not done his homework on the out-dated, disproven science Monsanto and their biotech allies have depended on. Like others at the NYT (Amy Harmon and the pro-Monsanto editors, for example), he has fallen into the Monsanto tank. On the other hand, it is hard to disagree that we should be demanding label information about the chemical content of food. How is it that agribusiness has forced chemically-raised food to be called “conventional” when organic has been the convention for millennia? Given that most of the food in the world is grown organically by small farmers, organic agriculture should not allow itself to be considered elitist for those that can “afford it.” The only reason chemical agriculture is cheap is because of the subsidies it gets and because it does not have to pay the external health and environmental destruction it causes. Once all the needed accountability is established, there would be no question about which system of agriculture we would pursue. The trouble is: farming organically requires knowledge, vision, and an end to the expediencies pursued routinely in the United States. Only myopia allows us to continue allowing a system that enriches chemical and biotech companies at the expense of the people and the environment. When the facts are fully studied, this will be made clear. Do not take my word for it: do the homework!

    Not only that, but investigate this assertion: when the facts are made clear, Monsanto’s destruction will make the BP-Halliburton Gulf Oil Spill look like a child’s sandbox accident. We do not know the true costs of Monsanto’s profligacy in the United States because we use an accounting system that hides them, and we have a short-sighted, self-serving political system that encourages them to be incurred.

    To comment on the other preceding comments, first, it impugns the Left to say Bittman is in left field. The Right has been far worse than the Left on this issue although neither has pursued truth, wisdom, and justice. Both have pursued agribusiness money for their own benefit. Because Bittman has fallen into the Monsanto tank, he is more in right field than he is in left field.

    Second, see the film “Bitter Seeds” to understand more about the impact of Monsanto’s system of cotton farming in India. The farm suicides started when they first introduced hybrid seeds and ended seed saving by cotton farmers in India. That was now almost 18 years ago, so the 20,000 annual number is not out of line with Shiva’s assertions. She uses the Indian government’s statistics. Here is the issue: Monsanto’s transgenic hybrid seeds need regular irrigation to fulfill their yield promise, but they are sold not just to farmers with the money to pay for irrigation; they are sold also to poor farmers who have to depend on the exigencies of rainfall. Then when the promised yields are not realized, farmers cannot pay the debt incurred from buying the high-priced seeds (with their inflated promise of higher yields). No one should dismiss a woman who has been on the ground with farmers in India and has a direct personal understanding about what is going on there. Monsanto’s system of agriculture in India is no more than a way to help eliminate smaller farmers and abet the increased concentration of control over the land in the hands of the elites that are allied with Monsanto. This includes elites in the currently governing Congress Party, and this issue could be a reason why they will not be governing for much longer. The final results of the election there are due in a few days.

    Written by Don Patterson on May 9, 2014 @ 11:16 am
  5. I’m not only disappointed with Bittman’s article, but also with your opening remarks Max.

    “Our government is trying to decimate organic by chipping away at federal organic standards. Namely, the USDA has undermined the intent of the National Organic Program by altering the incredibly important Sunset Rule, which would make it much easier for specially-approved synthetic ingredients to stay in organic much longer than they should.”

    I’m disappointed that you are perpetuating the undermining of the process cry being shared by some particular organizations, specifically at the recent NOSB meeting in Texas.

    The updates to the Sunset Process are not to maintain synthetic items on the National List of Allowed materials for a longer period of time, it’s to assist in streamlining a process of review that has gone completely into right field. Did you know that the Sunset Process also reviews the allowed non-synthetic items under the same process, for example yeast and enzymes? There are SO FEW synthetic materials on the National List, and they will be reviewed by the NOSB when their time comes, this will not be changed.

    Please stop spreading sensationalized disinformation.

    Some people outside of agriculture may not fully understand farming, and the immense difficulty of the task at hand to bring a marketable product to market. Farmers need tools, continuing to remove the very few tools that they have to work with under organic standards will continue to push farmers out of Organic and back into conventional agriculture, where even more materials/pesticides/herbicides/etc. will be used and leach into the environment. Organic aside, how would that improve the world we live in?

    Written by Aaron Turner on May 9, 2014 @ 8:19 pm
  6. Mark has *not* come out against organic and in defense of GMOs. You may have to re-read the article. I think he is simply trying to find a much needed balance between the two ends.

    Written by Paula on May 10, 2014 @ 9:57 am
  7. @Kerry – Yes, the whole organic community was shocked as well. It came out of nowhere and he will NEVER be viewed in the same way again.

    @Luis – If you believe in GMOs, you ought to have a look at the horrifying studies conducted on animals who were fed GMOs (link is above). In terms of prices for organic, there is a reason why they are more expensive (explanation is above, as well). The government subsides cheap, unhealthy food, so we have grown up to believe that food should be cheap. However, the truth is that good, nutritious food costs more than pesticide-laden, genetically-engineered, nutritionally-devoid food. Until we can get our government to create an equal playing field with organic and GM-food, it will continue to be more expensive.

    @Ged – I stand by my numbers and trust Vandana Shiva much more than I trust the figures from the Indian government, arguably one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

    I agree with you about leadership in the organic world but just as with everything, it comes down to money. Monsanto et al has a ton of it and can wield their tremendous power and influence over politicians. Organic is very fractured and has little money, in comparison.

    In terms of feeding the world, using pesticides and GM-seeds is not sustainable, according to several U.N. agencies and the World Bank. They brought together more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

    http://unctad.org/en/docs/ditcted200715_en.pdf

    What did they conclude? That our “reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises.”

    @Don – Thanks for your comment. I agree with you all of the way.

    @Aaron – The fact that you would find my post to be sensational and disappointing is an unfortunate commentary.

    All of the most important organic food, watchdog non-profit organizations (including Food Democracy Now!, Cornucopia Institute, Center for Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, Food & Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union) have come out AGAINST this Sunset Rule change.

    Not only do these organizations represent the best interest of organic consumers, but many of them represent farmers as well. Cornucopia Institute has a huge percentage of its members as farmers and if all of these farmers were in favor of the Sunset Rule change, then there would be no way that Cornucopia’s Executive Director, Mark Kastel, would be speaking out against this change.

    The fact is this. The Sunset Rule was put into place to provide a one-time exemption for specially-approved synthetics and non-organic materials. Once that 5 year time frame was up, they had to prove why they should stay in there, with a majority vote, or they would be gone.

    Now, the burden has completely shifted, and a majority of the 15 members of the NOSB, which is completely controlled by the USDA and Big Organic, must prove why a synthetic or non-organic material shouldn’t stay in there. This is completely against the original intent of the Sunset Rule. Furthermore, the way that the USDA changed the Sunset Rule was made without due process or public debate.

    As you say, this change to the Sunset Rule will streamline things. You are correct – it will streamline things for Big Organic who want their synthetics to stay in there forever and will make it much harder for organic integrity to get in its way.

    The arrest of Alexis Baden-Mayer of the Organic Consumers Association at the NOSB meeting in San Antonio and the tone of my post are disappointing to you. However, I don’t think you truly appreciate how deceived and infuriated organic consumers feel. Yet, it isn’t just organic consumers. It is also many, many organic farmers, politicians (Senator Leahy and Representative DeFazio) and former NOSB chairs who share our sense of betrayal.

    http://www.cornucopia.org/USDA/LeahyDeFazioSunset.pdf

    http://www.cornucopia.org/USDA/SecVilsackLetter_on_Usurpation_of_NOSB_Authority.pdf

    What proponents of this Sunset Rule change don’t seem to fully grasp is that the integrity of the organic seal is all we have and that we need to fight for it at all costs. If that erodes, what does our industry have left?

    In closing, it is important to point out one thing. Organic Trade Association, who, not surprisingly, is in favor of this Sunset Rule change, may be a non-profit but in no way is it anything close to a watchdog organization. It is a lobbying group, largely for Big Organic and the multinational food corporations who have a small stake in the organic sector. Sometimes the interests of OTA and organic consumers overlap. Other times, such as here, they don’t.

    @Paula – I am sorry but you are the one who may have to re-read this article. This article was a very clear attempt to discredit and smear organic, probably because Bittman was so annoyed about having to answer organic questions at cocktail parties. And…..he was completely defending GMOs. He didn’t say it once but twice that “GMOs are harmless.”

    Bittman’s argument is that sustainable agriculture and healthier eating are the most important struggles in food. And yet the title of his piece “Leave Organic Out of This”. I just don’t know how you can’t see that this was a deliberate decision to discredit organic. Unequivocally, organic is part of the solution while GMOs are not.

    Whether I disagree with you or not, all of your comments and feedback are always appreciated. Thank you.

    Written by Max Goldberg on May 11, 2014 @ 2:34 pm
  8. I think the whole of his argument hinges on the accusation of the “organic movement” as being anti-science. There are a lot of people who are very pro science, pro the-science-man-knows-better-than-random-stupid-nature, and who are part of the organic movement only because of the social justice aspect of it. I think at the bottom of it, all these arguments are based on very fundamental beliefs about the world. If you think the world has appeared from randomness and that we are the result of random mutations, then you will see science as the tool man has to overcome the meaninglessness and randomness of nature. If you think the world and man’s existence is purposeful, then you believe that nature has the blueprint and natural laws of the Creator or creative force and that we must take these into account if we want to live well. Basically, that’s what it all boils down to: where do we come from?

    Written by gc11530 on May 13, 2014 @ 2:04 pm
  9. Max –

    “the support for organic continues to erode at its most important levels.”

    ORGANIC brought it all on itself, all by itself, always seeming to be put upon by everything and everybody else: non-organic, GMOS, ‘natural’, ‘conventional’, local, GMA, money, reporters, ‘reports’, ‘scientific’ papers, ‘studies’, researchers, ‘Institutes’, ‘bought-offs’, PR people and flacks.

    The Organic Community’s infighting and inability to tell its own Story of HOPE, HEALTH and a GOOD LIFE AHEAD without the arguing, name-calling and perceived ‘righteousness’ leads to the never-ending criticisms.

    The Organic Community, as a whole, has been telling virtually the same old tired story like a broken record, always arguing the minutiae, always selling on the negative. The general public perceives the Organic Industry, and its Spokespeople, to always seem to be against something, always angry, anti-this, anti-that, never seem to just be HAPPY.

    The Organic Community comes off as arrogant, above-it-all, humorless, elitist, a stern dietician’s we-know-what’s-better-for-you stance. Always so serious, so burdensome. It’s tough sometimes, to even get a shopper in a health food store to smile back! They seem be carrying the weight of the World on their shoulders.

    “As far as I’m concerned, organic advocates have lost a trusted voice in the media and never should his opinion be viewed in the same light again.”

    Instead of considering that Organics’ historic narrative brought on Bittman’s riff, that “quote” sounds like one-more-time, Organic is right and the rest of the World is wrong!

    Instead of criticizing the messenger, perhaps we should try to understand WHY he may have taken that position. The responsibility lies with the Organic Community to change its tune rather than Mark Bittman to change his attitude!

    A little Live Más® from time-to-time wouldn’t hurt!

    Written by Dennis L. Weaver on May 13, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

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