The anti-science wing of the organic movement

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This article is written by Mischa Popoff, a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector and is the author of Is it Organic?

Reason is a tool, but it can never be the motive force of the crowd.

– Benito Mussolini

A mere handful of organic practitioners recognize the work done by luminaries such as Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) and Lady Eve Balfour (1899-1990). By always relying on testing and experiment, and always having their results subjected to peer review, Howard and Balfour, along with a handful of early organic scientists, provided a sound foundation for organic farmers to follow. Unfortunately, in spite of their distinctly scientific contributions, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) receives all the credit for giving rise to what would become the organic movement.

Carson’s approach by contrast was barely scientific; more of a call to arms for fledgling activists. As such, her 1962 New York Times best seller, Silent Spring, cast a dark shadow on Howard’s and Balfour’s much more enlightened approach. Their works are mentioned occasionally, in passing, more out of a sense of duty than in terms of recognizing anything significant about their impact. Carson, meanwhile, is quoted more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and takes the organic cake when it comes to feeding the crowd what it wants to hear rather than what it needs to hear in the anti-technological nightmare unfolding before our very eyes.

Vulnerable as Carson’s words were to exploitation, her ideas were twisted almost immediately after her death. She is not the first, but she is without a doubt the most famous author to warn that pesticides are potential “elixirs of death,” claiming there is “no ‘safe’ dose” and urging that much more care is required for their continued use. As a former bureaucrat at the United States Bureau of Fisheries and well underway into a new career as a full-time environmental author, she correctly pointed out that some pesticides biomagnify or bioaccumulate in the environment as one organism consumes the next and toxicity ascends the food chain. This led her to document the serious threat that overused pesticides pose to some birds, especially those at the top of the food chain, such as eagles and other raptors. Indeed, the title of her book alludes to a nightmarish world in which all the songbirds have been poisoned, thus making for a “silent spring.”

pesticide spraying
via flickr

To her credit though, Carson was cautious not to call for an outright ban on pesticides like DDT even though she had linked them to rampant cancer in humans, at least to her own satisfaction. Yet she unwittingly laid the groundwork for the distorting of her well-intended, cautionary words by relying too heavily on anecdotal rather than on scientific evidence of the harmful effects of DDT.

For example, Carson tells the tall tale of a woman who, she claims, developed cancer immediately after spraying her basement with DDT. She also predicted the impending extinction of the most common American bird, the robin, which she no doubt chose in order to appeal to a wider audience, much like the Environmental Working Group today always places apples near the top of its “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits to avoid due to minute trace amounts of pesticide residue. As veteran New York Times columnist John Tierney points out, it was “an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book.”

Her impetuosity went farther. She downplayed the effectiveness of DDT in the battle against the mosquito that transmits malaria in tropical zones, a disease which if it does not kill you leaves you with permanent and severe mental retardation. DDT is unmatched to this day in its effectiveness. By ignoring all that had been accomplished with DDT and other pesticides for the good of humankind, and by outrageously predicting a mass “biocide” with absolutely no proof, she singlehandedly gave rise to the more rabid activist element that we see leading the organic movement of today. Indeed, just as with global warming theory, it is conducive to the political side of the equation to include a dash of the apocalypse to unite the activist crowd in common effort. The enviro-activists cherry-picked from Silent Spring, ignoring the many parts where Carson was reasonable, and DDT was banned in 1972. And the disastrous consequences are felt to this day.

Pests that are capably controlled with pesticides in civilized nations routinely wipe out crops in poor nations. Compounding matters, the ban on humankind’s only effective means of controlling the mosquitoes that spread malaria (along with other deadly diseases) has resulted in upwards of one million deaths a year since 1972, mostly children under the age of five, mostly in the poorest 20 per cent of the world’s population. It is unconscionable that such aspects of the organic industry’s history are selectively ignored.

Fortunately for some, cooler heads are gradually prevailing. The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), for example, is once again using DDT to fight malaria, “citing South Africa’s successful anti-malaria programme as evidence that controlled indoor spraying of the insecticide is not only safe, but ‘one of the best tools we have’ against the killer disease.” Nevertheless, the WHO is being stymied by, guess who? … urban organic activists in cahoots with multi-billion-dollar corporations like Nike, H&M and Walmart that demand a cheap supply of “ethical” organic cotton. Together, these unlikely allies managed to ban DDT from Uganda even though its use had, for a while, cut malaria infections in half in 2008. Surely consumers should be informed of the inhumane impact the demand for such “ethical” products is having.

As for Carson’s take on the concept of biomagnification, it is for the most part accurate, but it is completely misunderstood. Organic activists would have you believe, contrary to what logic dictates, that the concentration of a contaminant increases in the entire environment over time instead of decreasing with dilution. However, this increase is only true if one focuses on a higher organism such as a predator, say an eagle. While an eagle is indeed part of the environment, and we should take steps to protect such a majestic creature, it is simply not true that contaminants bioaccumulate in the rest of the environment. Yet, anti-pesticide activists speak confidently of bioaccumulations of 20,000 times or more … in the whole environment! … leaving the public to believe they mean that an entire field bioaccumulates when a farmer sprays it, when really this is impossible.

spraying pesticides
via CIAT

Think about it … every chemical that is applied to crops, no matter how toxic it might be, originated from the environment. And, though it will upset organic activists to no end to hear it explained this way, spraying a crop according to the directions is nothing more than a way of returning that chemical to the environment. As the old saying goes, The solution to pollution is dilution.

An important but less well-known work published in 1962 was Dr. I. L. Baldwin’s “Chemicals and Pests,” a down-to-earth review of Silent Spring that appeared in the prestigious academic journal Science. It was, and is to this day, completely ignored by organic promoters. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, was in the midst of leading a committee at the National Academy of Sciences that was studying the effect of pesticides on wildlife. He cautioned those who might be seduced by Silent Spring, pointing out that Carson failed to take into account “the countless lives that have been saved because of the destruction of insect vectors of disease.” He also predicted that people in poor countries would suffer from hunger and disease without the pesticides that enabled wealthy nations to increase food production and control pestilence. He was dead right on both counts.

With that explained, we need, nonetheless, to be vigilant about civilization’s reliance on pesticides. Indeed, Baldwin reminds us, “Man’s use, misuse, and abuse of the products of science determine whether these valuable assets are also harmful.” This means there are no harmless chemicals, only the harmless use of chemicals, an assertion reminiscent of the words of the medieval natural philosopher held to be the father of toxicology and a medical revolutionary, Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, who said, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Such reasoning would be confirmed in the 1980s when, after exhaustive laboratory testing, Bruce Ames – inventor of the Ames test, which cheaply and quickly tests the cancer-causing properties (mutagenicity) of any compound – discovered that natural compounds are just as carcinogenic as synthetic compounds are. After all, as mentioned above, so-called synthetic compounds all originate from somewhere within the environment of planet Earth. It is not as though they are synthesized from nothing.

In fact, while environmentalists would have us believe we will someday find a cure for cancer in the abundantly diverse ecosystems of the rainforests, over 700 carcinogens have already been identified in the world’s rainforests! In addition, a whopping 99.99 per cent of our dietary carcinogens are natural, so yes, clearly, dosage matters.

But political radicals need clear directives, not confusing science. As Mussolini so infamously put it, reason can never motivate the crowd. Throngs of angry, often violent demonstrators feed off inspiration, not boring facts and figures. And so it came to pass that Rachel Carson single-handedly − and perhaps unwittingly to some extent − gave credence, if not rise, to the default notion in organic circles that anything synthetic is bad and everything natural is good. This is, after all, a concept that prior to 1962 others had written about in relative obscurity. The human race has suffered the consequences of this distinctly unscientific, broadly accepted and, let’s face it, mystically-inclined frame of reference ever since.

For the formerly youthful idealists who now play activist roles at the head of organic certification agencies or who work for supposedly environmentally ethical corporations like Nike, H&M and Walmart, the 1972 banning of DDT still marks the starting point of the modern certified organic movement. One cannot help but wonder what the world would look like today had they not so shamelessly banned DDT and placed such a stigma on the safe use of all agricultural crop-protection products. One thing is certain: Had Howard and Balfour carried the day instead of Carson and her non-scientific, activist ilk, there would be at least another 41 million people in the world today, about the same number of people Chairman Mao murdered in his Great Leap Forward.

51 thoughts on “The anti-science wing of the organic movement”

  1. While a good article, there is one whopper that has to be pointed out. Though all constituents of a chemical came from nature, many chemicals never existed before in nature. It’s much more accurate to say pesticides eventually breakdown in the environment, capping any accumulation that may occur. Some do so quickly while others do so slowly. The flip side of this is the claim of Organics that if it’s nature made, then its somehow better than something new and we can use the natural chemical since it’s already there.

    Nonetheless, the banning and undue limitations of DDT against mosquitoes and indoor infestations is really a crime against Humanity.

    • When was DDT banned against indoor pests? It fell out of use — after bedbugs became immune, largely — but EPA’s order covered outdoor use, on crops.

      Specifically, EPA did not ban DDT from Indoor Residual Spraying to fight malaria and other vector-borne illnesses.

      • DDT use was banned in the United States in 1972 except for emergency uses. I’m not sure bedbugs became immune to DDT as it took decades for them to reappear in any numbers in US cities.

        • Organic activists always try to attack the use of certain herbicides and insecticides based on the fact that organisms eventually develop resistance to them. But if we followed their thinking on this, we would never bother using herbicides and insecticides, or antibiotics for that matter, in the first place.

          The way to deal with resistance is to simply use a different herbicide, insecticide or antibiotic, and thereby wipe out all the resistant strains. But this simple solution is attacked by organic activists on the basis that we’re then using “a cocktail of toxic substances” to solve the problem. But we’re not. We’re merely using DIFFERENT substances.

          And guess what? Even “organic” herbicides, insecticides and homeopathic remedies will give rise to resistance. It’s unavoidable.

          • I can hardly belive what I an reading. This dumb article and the comments. They both go hand in hand. I suppose they would like for PTFE pesticide as well.

            There was an article about a man that used to work with making PTFE in the early pioneering days of it and I found it interesting. He definitely did not deny the chemicals persistence and dangers. Just like science does not ignore the fact that DDT is not safe.

            Just don’t force us to eat, drink or breathe any of the synthetic chemicals that you want to ingest. That is my message to any of these people. Stop telling us we should eat and drink GMOs and have foods that contain synthetic pesticides. The biotech industry cannot coexist with organic food. It has shown itself it cannot. It wants to destroy organic food. Why else spend billions a year in studies that only promote false science that is corrupt and manipulated. Why else use propaganda campaigns and spend hundreds of millions employing journalists, sponsoring studies, children’s educations, promotional products and martial to companies. The list is endless. There is definitely a war waging and the biotech industry are the agtesssors. Organic consumers do little to defend themselves and lack the money, resources, power or control of goverment of the world. Unlike the biotech industry cartels.

          • Nope. Not once. Why has the industry failed then.

            I suppose organic farmers and consumers prevented chemical giants from investing trillions of dollars in research and development of synthetic chemicals. NOPE!

            I suppose organic farmers and consumers stopped the industry and anyone using their chemicals from changing to use another one to kill off all insects? NOPE!

            THEN WHY. WHY DO WE STILL HAVE THESE PESTS YOU TALK OF? Maybe there would be little incentive or purpose for the industry to exist then. Just perhaps. Maybe….your mind can try to compute that for a moment.


            Money. Money. Money. Nothing else matters. They may speak kindly, softly and polite. Say nice things and act as though they care. Ask yourself this. If they care. Why not register as a charity and be non profit. Use the profit for more research and have staff earn reasonable real world average wages, including executives. Get rid of the shareholders because they (chemical and biotechnology giants) already have billions and billions to start this rolling. They won’t. All they care about is money!

      • You’re splitting hairs Ed. When America banned DDT in 1972 (in spite of Rachel Carson never suggesting it should be banned), the WTO soon followed suit, and between the two, all forms of financial aid were denied to any developing nation that tried to continue using it. Soon, the private sector fell into line as well, and DDT was henceforth effectively banned the world over.

        This whole argument about indoor/outdoor use is a huge red herring. In a misguided attempt to “save the environment,” companies like Walmart and Nike still refuse to accept “organic” cotton from any nation that tries to use DDT to save human lives. The irony, of course, is that organic cotton is way harder on the environment than GMO cotton.

        • Actually, the World health organization hasn’t completely banned DDT as they actually have encouraged its use as a way of saving lives from areas ravaged by rampant malaria. Of course, they only advocate using it on a limited basis and only in cases where malaria isof limited amount of DDT used in limited areas.

  2. Quite right Valentine. I quote Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus in this article, who said, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

  3. “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

    Except, with DDT, you can’t dilute it. It bioaccumulates, which means no dilution can ever be enough to stop it from killing those at the top of the food chain — the eagles, the pelicans, the osprey, the fish, the bats.

    Only by ignoring science almost completely can one make such a bizarre, unhealthy, crop- and farming-industry destroying claim.

    (See bioaccumulation chart here: )

    • You’re wrong Ed. DDT only bioaccumulates in certain organisms, not in the whole environment. If you had bothered to read my article the full-way through, you’d have seen where I address precisely this issue.

      Bioaccumulation is a completely misunderstood concept, and we can thank Rachel Carson for that.

    • hahah love it,,, Mischa, “”your wrong ed”” hilarious If you had bothered to read my article? Sorry I only got half way through too……….. hahahaha! I think ‘ll start posting Mischas theories everywhere, they are hilarious! Mischas a chemical scientist now! My god hes good.

        • For indoor residual spraying (IRS) and bed nets yes, but not for broadcast spraying and especially not as an agricultural pesticide which drives development of resistance in insects.

          It has taken a long time to get rid of the resistance that the insects developed from earlier misuse to the point where targeted IRS and bed nets are effective.

          • Sadly, when organic hippies banned DDT they did not distinguish between its use in agriculture and its use for mosquito control.

            Rachel Carson meanwhile only called for the more judicious use of DDT. She never called for it to be banned.

          • Actually, those “organic hippies” — most of them Harvard and Yale lawyers working for big pesticide corporations and holding undergrad degrees in chemistry — “banned” DDT they made careful distinctions between agricultural use and mosquito control.

            In the EPA order of June 1, 1972, use of DDT to fight malaria was specifically allowed, lifting the order against that use imposed by two previous trial courts, and meaning that DDT could be used against malaria by public health agencies anywhere in the U.S.A.

            The order ALSO lifted the ban on manufacturing DDT, so chemical companies wouldn’t get stuck with the bill. As a consequence, nearly 100% of the U.S. production of DDT was exported to Africa and Asia to fight malaria.

            EPA’s order multiplied the amount of DDT available to fight malaria, and other insect vector diseases.

            Was it too late? Well, to a great degree: Abuse of DDT by advocates (no present company included, I presume) had rendered DDT ineffective in many of the areas where it was most needed.

            Rachel Carson specifically called for an end to DDT abuse, to preserve it to fight diseases (contrary to claims above). Sadly, we learn that by the time her book was published, it was already too late.

            Nice of you to acknowledge Carson’s lack of guilt. Please steam on to get the rest of the facts.

          • Nope. That’s not true. Once DDT was banned for agricultural use in the United States, it was then banned on the world stage for ALL uses. And any Third World nation that dared to go ahead and use DDT was automatically cut off from aid.

            Nowadays this absurd ban on a perfectly safe pesticide is exacerbated by companies like WalMart and H & M who want certified-organic cotton for their high-end clothing lines. And any nation that uses DDT is prevented from selling certified-organic cotton even though certified-organic crops are grown right next to conventional crops here in the First World.

          • Mischa go back to school…………….. DDT is a perfectly safe pesticide?//// Are you really in this world? There are nutters in this world, but you, you are the prize.

          • Scientists, Mischa, scientists banned DDT……… Organic hippies?? In 1972????, you are truly delusional. It is poisonous, carcinogenic, it kills people, so what is your point? Kill all the Africans with DDT? wtf?

    • BS Mischa, quote statistics, references. How many died due to DDT poisoning? I had a friend who was a farmer, sprayed the stuff, dead at 30….. you absolutely disgust me.

  4. Anywone who disbelieves the damage caused by DDT is a moron, this article is so much crap. DDT WAS BANNED IN USA, AND POLIO WENT AWAY> DDT was poisoning the earth, not a damn theroy, PROVEN> Why call this the greener ideal? Run by damn Monsanto, how ridiculous! And I wonder if there is a Mischa here….. oh of course.


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