Gerber Goes Green
August 22, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BABY FOOD MAKER RECENTLY DECIDED, UNDER PRESSURE FROM GREENPEACE, TO GO TO ALL-ORGANIC CROPS. BUT WILL THAT DECISION LEAD TO SIMILAR ONES BY OTHER COMPANIES AND END UP CREATING MORE PROBLEMS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Gerber, a leading brand of American baby food, bowed to pressure from Greenpeace last week.
The company announced it will not only bar genetically modified crops from its products but will shift all the way to organic crops, grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
It is the Green movement's biggest win in the food industry. Making it even sweeter for Greenpeace is that Gerber is a subsidiary of the Swiss firm Novartis, one of the world's major producers of the pesticides and genetically engineered crops opposed by the European environmental group.
Gerber said its decision was not an admission of any dangers lurking in its baby food from pesticides or bioengineering.
The company undoubtedly did it to avoid bad publicity. Gerber probably had visions of Greenpeace demonstrators cordoning off its packing plants as "environmental crime scenes" or picketing its headquarters dressed up in diapers, with TV cameras rolling.
But the message the public gets is quite different. Greenpeace can now claim that Gerber's decision validates their anti-technology positions.
It's hard to say who deserves the most blame in this sordid saga.
Certainly, Gerber and Novartis are guilty of corporate cowardice. Scientific reality says the foods are safe.
Farmers and agribusiness have never offered consumers any rationale, beyond profit, for modern high-yield farm technologies. So consumers read about farm surpluses and see no reason to have anything "unnatural" in their food.
Greenpeace is certainly guilty of fear-mongering and corporate bullying.
Its oft-repeated claim that pesticide residues cause cancer looks flimsier with each new discovery about the actual links cancer has with heredity and longevity.
Cancer risks of nonsmokers have been declining since 1950, the very time widespread use of modern pesticides began. We've added 30 years to life spans in developing nations this century, eight of them coming in the pesticide era.
This doesn't leave much of a "terror quotient" for pesticides. Yet the media is still indulging its love for scare headlines. Reporters have probably gotten more front-page bylines from agricultural technology than anything else except nuclear weapons.
But it will be catastrophic if the Gerber announcement signals the "beginning of the end" for high-yield agriculture.
Gerber's shift to an organic policy could set off a cascade of events.
Other baby-food producers may strive to be as "safe" as Gerber. Homemakers may see the shift as an industry admission organic foods are safer for their families. Supermarkets would start making "organic-only" decisions similar to Gerber's.
The trend wouldn't last long, perhaps only a decade.
The immediate problem would be the shortage of organic nitrogen. In these days of chemical fertilizer, we've almost forgotten the term "worn-out farm," but nitrogen is the most important of the plant nutrients and the one mined from the soil most quickly as crops grow.
Organic farmers don't use chemical nitrogen taken from the air by industrial processes. Instead, they insist on getting it from organic materials, composting animal manure, sawdust and corn stalks.
But the world probably has less than one-fourth of the organic nitrogen to support current cropping, let alone tripling world food output to support the larger, more affluent population of 2040.
The only plant nutrient solution within the dictates of organic farming would be to grow lots more "green manure" crops such as clover and alfalfa. An organic mandate would force the world's farmers to start plowing several million square miles of wildlands to make room for the additional clover and alfalfa.
Eventually, even the media cheerleaders for the organic movement would be forced to report the enormity of the environmental losses. Then the whole organic mandate would be re-examined.
We would notice that the bacterial risk from using manure to grow food is greater than the health risk from chemical pesticides. Then we'd reopen the pesticide plants, rehire the scientists and start pursuing biotech breakthroughs for high-yield crops to save more room for wildlife.
We'd be back where we are right now, and wiser.
Except we'd have lost decades of research and missed countless chances to develop safe and sustainable crop yields. We'd have lost thousands of species that had lived in the forests that we'd bulldozed for our organic farming experiment.
So much for taking the easy way out.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.