A new food scandal is incubating…We learned a few days ago of the discovery of Fipronil and about fifteen non-approved products in eggs from the organic sector. The case, which was raised by the NGO Foodwatch, is from the Netherlands. As a reminder this substance is an anti-parasite used to control red lice in chicken farms. What interests us here is not the risk of Fipronil in particular, but the fact that it is the “organic” sector that is directly affected. This allows for questions which usually no one dares to raise.
What would happen if cases like this were to multiply? Would there be a risk of consumers starting to doubt the benefits of organic? These days, organic certification enjoys a reputation that puts it above all suspicion. Yet there is no shortage of questions about it. In “Panique dans l’Assiette”, which we have already discussed here, journalist Gill Rivière Weckstein asks “Is organic the answer?” He quotes a survey carried out by the Agence Bio [French Organic Agency]: 63% of consumers choose an organic certified product (in France the certification is “AB” from “Agriculture Biologique”) because “their purchase is driven by their desire to look after their health” But when he questions the specialist Denis Corpet, Professor of Hygiene and Human Nutrition at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, the Professor is categorical: “There is no proof that organic products are better for your health. Nor is there any evidence that conventional non-bio foods are bad for your health” And yet this specialist who led the INRA [French National Institute for Agricultural Research] “Food & Cancer” team is a former activist, once a fervent supporter of the organic cause: “When I began to study these products scientifically as a toxicologist, I found that from this point of view, there were no objective reasons to prefer organic food. There are other reasons, but they are not located in the relationship between food and health.” However, this opinion, far from being isolated, is shared by the scientific community, as Weckstein shows: “The last four studies published on this subject confirm that there are some differences in the composition of organic and non-organic foods (a little more polyphenols or vitamins in some organic vegetables), but that they are minimal and in any case have no measurable effect on people’s health (Dangour, 2009; Dangour 2010; Smith-Spangler, 2012; Baransky 2014).” So how can this phenomenon be explained? If people are persuaded to eat healthier by buying products labelled as organic, it is because they firmly believe that they are from “pesticide-free” agriculture. According to a Harris Interactive survey, one in two French people is unaware that organic agriculture uses pesticides (survey conducted in 2016 by Harris Interactive for Alerte Environnement). The journalist continues his presentation “However, in the list of pesticides used in organic agriculture, we find spinosad, azadirachtin (neem oil), pyrethrins, deltamethrin, Bacillus thuringiensis, codling moth granulosis virus, sulphur and of course the unavoidable copper” The journalist rams the point home by reminding us that eating organic can be a risky activity and cites as examples some health crises linked to organic food (an epidemic of infections resulting from contamination of organic beansprouts by the E. coli bacterium which caused no less than 53 deaths). According to Weckstein, this is not down to bad luck, but to the compulsory regulations of organic certification “It is well known that bacterial risk is directly related to the germination of seeds” and certain techniques that prevent it (use of chlorinated water) are prohibited..
Reading this indictment, we may well wonder why so-called “organic” agriculture continues to benefit from such prestige among consumers. All the more so as the journalist is not by any means the only one to express this kind of doubt. As Jean De Kervasdoué reminds us, the British Food Standards Agency and The Annals of Internal Medicine, after having demonstrated in an article published in The Economist that “the superiority of ‘organic’ products was questionable and that there was no difference between the nutritional qualities of organic foods and others”, added “that organic food would be bad for the environment because it uses the soil in a much less efficient way than traditional agriculture because of its low yields (…) Alan McHugen, botanist at the University of California at Riverside, argues that the whole industry is ‘99% marketing and public perception,’ It is based on an implicit reference to a mythical time when food and life in general were simple and healthy.”
It’s evident that the case for organic certification is far from won. And if for the moment it benefits from a free pass in public opinion, it could well end up losing its lustre as a result of a succession of health scandals. The critical spirit that consumers have eventually developed towards agro-industry may well extend to organic. We do not see what could prevent consumers from wanting ever healthier food without just paying lip service to health, especially since today they have a wide range of sources to research and compare. However, while marketing plays a fundamental role in the food sector, where purchase choice is often governed by irrationality, we can bet that the principles of realism will eventually reassert themselves. How long can the illusion be maintained in the consumer’s mind that an “organic” label on a product is enough to make them believe that it is above reproach? As the agronomist Henri Voron reminds us, “Organic farming itself can be the source of much general and subjective appreciation (…) a return to old agricultural methods, a rejection of ‘progress’, or ‘chemistry’, better tasting products, authenticity, preference for fewer food miles, direct sales rather than big supermarkets, respect for the soil, respect for ‘nature’, etc… All these subjective appreciations are perfectly legitimate in their place, but they completely bypass scientific reasoning. The domain of experience, of feeling, of society, is not the same as that of scientific knowledge, which is totally impartial and rigorous.” This author believes that makes it “difficult, if not impossible,”  to assess the benefits of organic farming.
So, we come to the heart of the problem: it is essential in the area of nutrition, even more than for any other subject, to know how to take a measured and reasoned approach. We understand the requirement for all points of view to maintain a critical spirit and, rather than be impressed by labels – whatever they may be – to trust in science. Consumer intuition is heading in the right direction. And agriculture must constantly reinvent itself to provide the substance to that intuition. Fortunately, we now know that new solutions exist that will make it possible to better manage the soil in future while obtaining the yields necessary to feed humanity in ever greater numbers, with good quality food. For example, our mind turns to the new fields of innovation in precision agriculture which, thanks to the use of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, permit better management of soil and crops. What if a real “organic” agriculture just hasn’t been invented yet?
 As Claude Huriet notes, “The report recently published by ANSES [French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety] did not make the headlines in any newspaper. Which is a shame!” It states: “The risk of health effects appears to be very low”, as confirmed by WHO. Further on, “the level of consumption of contaminated eggs that can be consumed every day without being exposed to a severe risk is less than two for a child under three years of age, and over ten, equivalent to 500g, in adults” in the Tribune
 Gil Rivière-Weckstein, “Panique dans l’Assiette,” [“Panic on the Plate”], Le Publieur, pp. 117-125
 Jean De Kervasdoué, “Ils croient que la nature est bonne” [“They believe nature is kind”] Robert Laffont, p.129-130
 Henri Voron, “L’impact environnemental de l’agriculture biologique” [The environmental impact of organic agriculture] in “Réponse à l’écologisme” [“In Response to Ecology”] l’Harmattan, pp 175-183