A study published in Nature Neuroscience and reported in some British newspapers has caused the organic food movement some considerable distress. We well remember that when Arpad Pusztai announced the results of his flawed and non-peer reviewed study on the effects of genetically modified potatoes on rats, there was an immediate media frenzy of sensational scare-mongering about so-called Frankenstein foods, led in great part by the champions of 'natural' agricultural methods. Now, however, research reported in a highly prestigious scientific journal suggests that a pesticide recommended by the Soil Association for use on organic crops may have the potential to cause Parkinson's disease.
For many people this must come as a great surprise. Pesticides on organic food? Surely that cannot be right. The fact that organic foods are routinely sprayed with highly toxic, but still 'natural', chemicals is something which the green-leaning middle classes in Britain seem to have overlooked.
The evidence at the moment comes only from rat studies and the scientists involved urge caution in interpreting the results. There is no suggestion from Nature that organic food should be banned as a 'precautionary' step until more research is done. And no tabloid sub-editor has yet labelled products bearing the Soil Association's mark of approval as 'Parkinstein food'. Indeed, the papers have been very cautious about generating any real concern at all. And quite rightly so.
The BBC, for example, emphasised, in bold type, caveats such as 'Small numbers', Age factors' and 'Genetic susceptibility'. The Express carried the comment from a spokesman at the Soil Association that rotenone was on the list of approved pesticides but it is used "very rarely" in the UK. The Guardian similarly referred, uncritically, to a MAFF spokeswoman who said that "it is too early to say what the implications of this study might be." The Guardian's science correspondent, James Meek, did however observe that the findings will "shake some of the most ardent opponents of the use of synthetic pesticides in farming."
The contrast between such 'responsible' coverage of a potential food scare and the continuing opprobrium heaped on anyone who dares to see merit in GM or, even worse, questions the merits of organic food, is very striking. Only three days earlier the Guardian, for example, carried a full-page diatribe directed at Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency. Sir John had made the mistake of saying publicly that people are "not getting value for money if they think they are buying extra nutritional value or extra safety" when they choose organic products. The usual 'protectors' of consumer interest in the form of Tim Lobstein at the Food Commission and Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University, were given yet another opportunity to pour scorn on Krebs, dismissing him as "coming like a baby to an intensely political subject." The article was by Joanna Blythman, author of a book called 'How to Avoid GM Food' and also Patron of the Soil Association. The Guardian, however, in its now familiar way, omitted to tell us that.
Joanna Blythman is also very much opposed to the use of 'artificial' pesticides on food crops, comparing them to nerve gases. We wonder if her concern will now extend to rotenone. We also wonder if the Guardian will want to 'correct' what now appears to be quite misleading coverage of this aspect of the food issues debate. We doubt it.