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May 7, 2009

 

Deconstructing Dinner

 

A Primer on Pesticide Propaganda
The pesticide industry is on the defense in Canada, but how does the validity of their arguments shape up?

 

Jon Steinman

On April 22, the Province of Ontario implemented a ban on the "cosmetic" use of pesticides. "Cosmetic" refers to any non-essential uses on lawns and gardens.

With the pesticide industry having already taken a blow from municipal bans, a province-wide ban signals that higher levels of government are beginning to more seriously address the known and unknown risks of pesticide use. Industry trade association CropLife Canada is worried that Ontario's ban may open the door to further scrutiny of their biggest revenue generator, agriculture. This was the message from CropLife's President Lorne Hepworth in early December 2008 when he addressed the Grain Growers of Canada in Ottawa. "It's time for the government to get serious about the science," said Hepworth to the roomful of grain farmers.

His 'science' comment struck a chord for me, as it was in September 2007 when Hepworth and I engaged in a brief but feisty dialogue at CropLife's annual conference held in Saskatoon. The topic was the standard organic versus conventional debate. "From the data that I see," said Hepworth" you would have to bulldoze down acres and acres the size of countries to grow enough [food] to feed the people of the world if you were going to simply do it organically."

 

Certainly, CropLife must use some 'serious' 'data' to communicate such a message; after all, this is a topic of global concern affecting the lives of billions of people. Furthermore, there appears to be a growing acknowledgment that hunger today is not the result of lack of food produced on the planet, but instead the result of poverty and the inability of populations to acquire food.

 

Nevertheless, to spark the 'yield' debate with Lorne Hepworth, I introduced the well-referred to study - Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply, published only months earlier in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. The authors were mostly from the University of Michigan.

 

Compared were the current and prospective yields of organic and conventional models.

 

Researchers looked at 293 examples comparing alternative and conventional models from 91 previous studies. According to co-author M. Jahi Chappell, a PhD student in Ecology at the time, "researchers were able to demonstrate that current scientific knowledge does not support the idea that a switch to organic and sustainable agriculture would drastically lower food production and lead to hunger." Instead, and using conservative estimates, researchers discovered organic agriculture could provide almost as much, if not more food on average at a global level than is produced today. Using more realistic estimates, it was determined that alternative agricultural systems could increase global food production by almost 50%.

 

Upon introducing the study to Hepworth, my line of questioning was quickly cut off. It appeared he was well aware of the study. He suggested that I undertake, "a critical review of that piece of literature," because "their methodology was highly suspect from a scientific standpoint."

 

Seeing as though Hepworth was indeed familiar with the study, I immediately asked Hepworth if he had looked through it.

 

"Well, I haven't read the study," he responded, "but I saw some of the commentary afterwards. So I can't comment. But I can tell you, the conventional wisdom, the weight of scientific evidence, it's rare to find an organic system that will match yield and quality compared to conventional."

 

When an audio clip of this comment was sent to M. Jahi Chappell, he was perplexed with the statement.

 

"He's confusing two different things," says Chappell. "He says the 'conventional wisdom' and the 'weight of the evidence'. Well, the conventional wisdom certainly is that you can't provide sufficient food with organic agriculture, but what we did, was review the literature to find out what the scientific evidence actually said."

 

As was discovered, the 'evidence' seems to demonstrate that the conventional wisdom is wrong, which, as Chappell stresses, "happens sometimes... conventional wisdom becomes a thing in and of itself, living by itself outside of the actual evidence."

 

Perhaps most telling of the pesticide industry's position on the matter was Hepworth's reference to "the commentary" he had seen in response to the study. So what was this 'commentary'? Hepworth was referring to a September 2007 article authored by Alex Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues - a branch of the Hudson Institute - a think-tank headquartered in Washington D.C. The Hudson Institute has received funding from many of CropLife's member companies including CropLife itself. In other words, the Center is nothing more than a front group for industry. Not surprisingly, Avery suggested that the Univeristy of Michigan study was "the most brazen example of research misrepresentation in decades."

 

Chappell is familiar with Avery's comments. "[Avery] seemed to be misreading the original studies and misreading our study as well," says Chappel, "and the problems he raises aren't actually present."

 

As Canada's pesticide industry seems to rely on pretty questionable 'data' to communicate their messages to the Canadian public, a skeptical lens is indeed necessary by all Canadians, political leaders and media, as CropLife continues it's campaign to stop the growing interest of cosmetic pesticide bans across the country.

 

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/043009.htm).

 

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