Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The State of Science Journalism Today

I can hear the voices of a hundred neglected tasks setting up a cheap, jangly tintinnabulation in my ears. My to-do list for this afternoon stretches to the horizon - and I live in a province where you can watch your dog run away from you for three days. So today will not be a feel-good post. I'm going to engage in some catharsis; in other words, I am going to irritably complain about the state of food reporting.

While I do have post-secondary education in the area of food, agriculture and social justice, it doesn't make me an expert on food issues; nor does my reading, my gardening practice, or what I like to think of as my common sense. But surely, some things are obvious to thinking people? I stumbled on this article, "Expert spills the beans on organic food: new article stews over the advertising myths of the corporate organics industry" by accident through an offhand Twitter link. It is absolutely appalling

Although it pained me to do so, because I taught English for several years, I overlooked the error in each of the first four sentences. I am more concerned with the lack of science knowledge demonstrated by the reporter - and, possibly, the cutbacks in media that allow a poor paraphrase of a press release to pass as journalism. Here are my quibbles with the article:

1) Claims to authority are unsubstantiated
The article, and its place of publication, are not listed. Google tells me that the author quoted works in a lab at the university mentioned; I could find no mention of a degree he may possess. I do not see how he can be called an expert. His publications, listed on his website, are primarily letters to newspaper editors.

2) Claims about organic food are misleading
While the article is not detailed enough to give specific examples of advertisements that make the claims that organic food is healthier, not grown with pesticides or antibiotics, and more natural, I can still argue against the author's oversimplistic refutation of these claims.
      a) He claims that "Every scientific organization that's in charge of food safety, that has looked for a health benefit in organic food, cannot find one." I wonder if he has looked at claims by organizations who are "in charge of" nutrition, rather than food safety. In truth, the evidence is inconclusive. It is clear, however, that organic food production is far healthier for growers, farmworkers, flora, and fauna. (Please note the credible sources I have linked to, as this is an essential part of science journalism.)
Organic insecticide used: thumb and forefinger.

     b) He claims "Organic foods do use antibiotics and toxic chemicals, they just aren't synthetically produced." This is true. However, there are strict regulations in place around the use of antibiotics: an organic dairy cow in the US, for example, can no longer be used for organic production when antibiotics are given. It is also true that organic growers can use some toxic chemicals, such as copper sulfate in orchards as a fungicide. The author does not say how widespread this use is, while implying that it is ubiquitous, and dangerous. But pesticides are not necessarily so. My brother set out dishes of beer for slugs - a potent and compostable insecticide. Many organic horticulturalists that I know use Bt, a biological insecticide that is non-toxic to humans and animals, biodegradable, kills only specific insects, and is non-toxic or only mildly toxic to beneficial insects.
     c) His last claim, that organic food is no more "natural" than say, genetically modified food because all agriculture is a human modification of the environment, is a simplification of the issue - I may post about it later. However, if he had said that the word "natural" as employed in advertising is meaningless because it has not been codified or standardized, I would have agreed.

Such is the state of science journalism today. I offer this complaint in the hopes that you, at least, will not let these facile arguments thwart your pursuit of the truth.

Yes, I sent a comment to the editor of this news source. No, I have not received a response.

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