The notion of fake news is all the rage in politics these days, as lawmakers, pundits and others struggle to sift through what’s real and what’s not in the headlines. But fake news and its often-ugly consequences are nothing new in agriculture and food production.
Farmers and food processors have, for years, been dealing with false reports designed to scare consumers about the safety of ag production practices and foods. Most of those stem from environmental activist groups, which use trumped up facts and figures to gain attention, boost membership and raise donations. And sadly, there’s no sign it’s getting any better.
In the food and agriculture space, one of the most prolific producers of fake news is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group, which has a strong backing of big organic food suppliers, has for years attacked conventional agriculture using dubious studies that severely overstate health risks.
That was the case recently when the EWG’s put out its annual "dirty dozen" list. The list warns consumers to steer away from fruits and vegetables on the list and makes dire warnings about pesticides in conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables.
The group’s scare tactics generate lots of headlines and internet postings. But the EWG sidesteps the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others test for pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables and have found that levels are below tolerance levels and pose no safety concerns.
The EWG also puts out a list of fruits and vegetables it considers "clean." But interestingly, it cautions consumers to watch out for two items on its clean list — corn and papaya — because there’s a chance those items could be a product of biotechnology. The EWG then advises consumers to buy costly organics to avoid GMOs. The group certainly does not highlight the fact that the Food and Drug Administration, as well as all major medical groups, have said that biotech crops are perfectly safe for consumers.
It’s a frustrating situation. Sure, if consumers want to spend more of their hard-earned money to buy organic fruits and vegetables, that’s their choice. But it’s just not right to cast shadows on tested and perfectly safe conventionally-raised foods using false information to promote organics.
That’s a point where fake news causes real problems.