Michiel versus Goliath: True Cost or Truly Lying?

This is a story of how a Dutch farmer stood up to the lies of a lobbying organisation … and won! See the French translation.

Have you ever had one of those days? Most people get up every morning, go to work and feel a certain satisfaction with how the day is filled. But what if you got home one evening and read a report about your profession by someone so ignorant and biased, spreading fear and lies about your work for their own opportunity. How would you react?

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Michiel and his team taking a selfie-break

Dutch farmer, Michiel van Andel, had one of those days. He got fed up with the claims made by a Dutch organic food industry lobby organisation, Bionext, that was involved in the “True Cost of Food” movement. The activists were claiming Michiel’s work as a conventional farmer was costing society billions while leading to irreversible health and environmental deterioration. He was sure their calculations were biased and wrote Bionext, presenting them with a series of studies showing where they were wrong.

Michiel wrote a detailed blog (in Dutch) showing where Bionext was not only lying, but also spreading fear and mistrust through the food chain. He asked them to correct some of their outrageous claims yet they held firm and dismissed Michiel. So after some reflection, he took Bionext to court  (the “Advertising Code Commission”) for false advertising. See his letter to the Commission (in Dutch). Despite pressure from the Bionext lawyers, Michiel had his hearing in the Netherlands on March 8.

What was Bionext claiming?

The True Cost of Food

Bionext is part of a revisionist lobby funded by pro-organic companies like EOSTA and Triodos Bank. This group also includes Nature and More, Soil and More, Hivos and EY – they published their report last year (2017) entitled True Cost Accounting for Food, Farming and Finance. Their argument is quite simple: When you buy organic, you are paying the true cost of food. When you buy cheaper, conventionally grown food, the far higher costs are paid by all of society in health and environmental destruction, eventually to be paid by our children. They have found sympathetic friends in the UN Environment Programme and the FAO (and even Prince Charles) who have given it their nominal stamp of approval.

So according to these organic campaigners, how much is Michiel’s conventional agricultural practices (allegedly) costing society and the planet? It seems to be quite a bit!

  • The report claims that the total added impact of conventional agriculture is costing 4.8 trillion USD per year (which the lobbyists argue our children will have to pay for). The metrics are a bit foggy, but they seem to be basing this on the added healthcare costs, water pollution, increased climate change, biodiversity and soil damage incurred by not farming organically. I have to say, this number is quite precise for a 48 page report with a good amount of cutesy pictures. They did not get into the difference of conservation agriculture conventional farming, use of organic pesticides or variations in global agricultural practices. Simply put, they did not come close to justifying this outrageous number.
  • Apparently, according to the True Cost report, eating conventionally-grown apples will lead to 27 extra sick days a year per hectare than if you ate organic. This is assumed from pesticide exposure. But a single cup of coffee has more carcinogens than the pesticide residues on an entire year’s consumption of fruit and vegetables. It gets more absurd if you consider that organic apple farmers can use azadirachtin, a natural pesticide that increases the risk of toxic encephalopathy and chromosomal abnormalities (not to mention its toxicity to pollinators). How could EY be so sure of their numbers? A recent study showed how organic apples grown in Belgium had a greater environmental-health impact than conventionally grown ones.
  • Ernst & Young then suggest if you buy organic grapes instead of “chemically grown grapes” (nice fear jab), you are saving 15,000 litres of water per 100m² per year, not to mention better health and less climate change. Two words: copper sulphate. The people who have done these True Cost calculations have obviously never visited a vineyard, seen the innovations conventional farmers apply or understand water management systems.
  • The True Cost of Food report frequently stated they lacked sufficient data. Correction: the data did not support what the activists wanted to say. For example, on farm worker safety, they state: “Occupational exposure to pesticides poses a significant health risk for farm workers and has been shown to be responsible for chemical-related injuries as well as short- and long-term illnesses. Due to lack of data regarding worker pesticide exposure we focus our assessment on the Worker Safety impact only.” Given how the most recent US Agricultural Health Study followed 89,000 farm workers over 25 years, with limited health effects from pesticide exposure, I have a hard time taking these cherry-pickers seriously!

Michiel’s analysis and research provided in his correspondence and blogs was spot on. That one farmer was able to provide more reliable data than Ernst & Young, the Triodos Bank and a host of other organisations suggests either that these high-priced consultants were not very intelligent or their intention was to deceive people (probably both).

What is also interesting to see here is that while Bionext was making these claims they were admitting on another site (in Dutch) they did not yet have a clear methodology for their price accounting. Translation: they were winging it!

Imagine how a farmer like Michiel must have felt seeing these calculations and the implied conclusion that his activity was leading society into some supposed hell in a handbasket. He was quite right to speak out, but as Michiel says: “I have neighbours and friends who farm organically. I respect them and I worry how they may react against me confronting Bionext.” In his first blog (in Dutch), Michiel argues:

I have no problem with organic farmers whatsoever. The big problem is with the aggressive and often lying marketing of a lot of organisations around organic farming. There are some good aspects in organic farming and farming as a whole can learn from them. But organic farming regulations strictly taken are not the way to sustainably feed the world.

What stunned him was that this True Cost campaign was launched several years ago and no one had ever taken the time to question the numbers. Where was the media scrutiny?

The True Cost of Organic Food

The most ridiculous claim these organic lobbyists insist on is while there are 4.8 trillion USD of hidden costs from conventional agriculture per year, there are no hidden costs from organic food (Bionext said exactly that in their correspondence with Michiel). The Risk-Monger begs to differ and has often shown how organic farming practices put an even greater burden on human health and the environment. Some basic points (see collective sources here):

  • Organic farming has lower overall yields (depending on crop, season, location, an average of 25% is a number that often comes up … before the need for organic farmers to fallow land is included). This puts greater strain on biodiversity as more meadows and forests would need to be transformed into farmland.
  • Studies have shown there are no health benefits to organic food consumption. To the contrary, as Bruce Ames has argued, the best means to prevent cancer is by consuming at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day. As the growth of organic food makes abundant, cheap fruit and veg harder to access, the poor in society are less likely to meet this cancer prevention health target.
  • Organic pesticides are also toxic and in some cases, like copper sulphate, more hazardous to human health. The Leuven University study cited above shows how organic apples have a higher environmental impact than conventional apples, due to pesticide load and lower yields.
  • To produce organic pesticides like pyrethrins, large tracks of land need to be diverted to grow flowers. Tens of thousands of hectares of farmland in Rwanda are dedicated to organic pyrethrin production. Rwanda is a net importer of food.

Somehow the True Cost of Food people felt these calculations were not necessary. They believe organic food is priced appropriately but given the obvious facts they are denying, I can only conclude these manipulators are bald-faced liars. Somehow nobody else but Michiel thought it was worth the time to call them out on this.

Risk-Monger rant time: What bothers me most about the organic lobby (and well portrayed here in the True Cost assumptions) is how these cosmopolitan zealots think only organic farmers care about the land, soil, labour and food quality. All farmers care about the inputs they use, the quality of their crops and the sustainability of their practices. The only thing these urban accountants have proven in publishing their dismal report is that they are completely ignorant to what farmers actually do during the day. If it takes a farmer like Michiel to bring an important message to them, I hope they will listen.

The Verdict

The court case on March 8 was a strange experience. The Bionext lawyer seemed more intent to talk about systemic differences between organic and conventional farming than to defend their calculations. When asked if there were any hidden costs to organic farming, the Bionext lawyer refused to respond. Instead he told a story about the dangers of pesticides… carefully beating around the bush every time the chair of the commission asked the same question about the hidden costs for organic food.

This week, Michiel got the verdict from the Dutch court. He won! Bionext was indeed guilty of false advertising and was told to cease running their True Cost campaign. See Michiel’s reaction (in Dutch).

Bionext
Bionext responds to the Advertising Commission decision. Translation: “Ethical rules don’t apply to us!”

At the moment, Bionext’s pages seem to still be promoting their fictions and other groups outside of the Netherlands are free to promote this activist agenda. In typical “the rules don’t apply to us” zealot fashion, Bionext announced after the ruling that the Advertising Commission did not know anything about true cost accounting. In true organic lobby arrogance, they are ignoring the Commission decision and are continuing to run their campaign of lies.

When will more people wake up to the moral deficiencies of the such organisations?

Today as more organic industry lobbyists are unopposed in their fear and fiction campaigns, it is up to the farmers to take a stand to keep the opportunists in check and take back the narrative about the safety and quality of conventional farming. I commend Michiel for his perseverance to stand up for what is right. If more farmers did the same, groups like Bionext would have to start telling the truth … and society would then benefit from the true understanding of food.

In a blog following his hearing, Michiel, shared this observation (which deserves to be the final word):

The whole concept of true pricing and true cost accounting is still in its infancy and in this case has been misused for marketing purposes. I am all for true pricing and cost transparency in the food chain. But that should be intended to establish an accountable true price. What Bionext has done is a farce. The way Bionext is using this tool should rather be called “fake cost accounting”.

Trust Michiel to say it straight! Thank you for standing up for what is true!

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Samuel says:

    “Bruce Ames has argued, the best means to prevent cancer is by consuming at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day”
    This statement may have been reasonable 20 years ago, but the more science look at this the less certain it is[1]. A more appropriate statement would be “there is some evidence that consuming more fruits and vegetables may have a limited impact on cancer prevention”. That said the statement aboce is well corroborated for Cardiovascular health.

    [1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3039795/

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      An Imperial College study last year upped the amount to 10 servings. I suppose it depends on which servings and which cancers – high fibre diets I would expect reduce colon cancer risks.

      Like

  2. Robert Saik says:

    Wow, this took courage – way to stand up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. cmungall says:

    On the subject of cherry-picking, you may want to look at some of your own claims

    > “azadirachtin, a natural pesticide that increases the risk of toxic encephalopathy and chromosomal abnormalities (not to mention its toxicity to pollinators)”.
    Do you have a citation for this claim? My understanding is that toxic encephalopathy is only a risk if directly ingested and doesn’t translate to any risk if applied properly as a pesticide (use as a traditional medicine is another matter). For genotoxicity, it’s possible to cherry-pick a few studies that seem to indicate this, but this doesn’t seem to be the consensus. As for risk to pollinators, the NPIC classifies the risk as negligible (http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/neemgen.html#wildlife). It would certainly be toxic to pollinators if ingested in sufficient quantity but is there any evidence of risk in field-realistic doses?

    I agree that the calculation about 27 days extra sick leave is absurd, but it doesn’t help to retaliate with unsubstantiated fearmongering about organic-approved pesticides.

    > “To produce organic pesticides like pyrethrins, large tracks of land need to be diverted to grow flowers. Tens of thousands of hectares of farmland in Rwanda are dedicated to organic pyrethrin production. Rwanda is a net importer of food”.

    This is factually correct, but what point are you making? The implication here is that Rwandans would be better off as subsistence farmers? I think 10k hectares would only be 1% of arable land. It seems like there might be broad benefit to economic livelihood with minimal environmental impact, no? There is some evidence that Rwandan farmers are unhappy with inequities in the current situation though, e.g. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/joac.12189 but many arguments apply to neoliberalization in agriculture and cash crops as a whole rather than pyrethrin flower growing in particular.

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    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks for your comment. On azadirachtin and encephalopathy, neem poisoning is apparently quite common in India. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3841499/ and https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12098-013-1327-x.
      On azadirachtin and bees, there is an EU study that showed that only 30% of bumble bees survived the recommended dose. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/bumblebee_survival_and_reproduction_impaired_by_pesticide_azadirachtin_even_at_recommended_levels_416na2_en.pdf. The UK Soil Association has banned it because of their data on what it does to bees: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/11679681/Soil-Association-approved-use-of-unauthorised-pesticide-on-organic-crops.html. But azadirachtin is not banned elsewhere.
      On Rwanda, I was just making a point that there are hidden costs to organic food as well (something the True Cost people and Bionext denied). This was about land use – when you could synthetically produce pyrethrum, why should you commit thousands of hectares to it. I did not get into the situation where the Rwandan military is controlling the land, forcing smallholders to be tenants and demanding a certain production return below survival rates (they could earn much more growing potatoes for their villages). That is another hidden cost I felt was unnecessary for the blog but seems to be a topic of discussion today on twitter.

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  4. George Nikolich says:

    Way to go Michiel; citizen farmer and critical thinker!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ronaldmackay says:

    Your articles are very much appreciated!

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Ronald but this one was Michiel’s work. Telling his story was the easy part.

      Like

  6. ronaldmackay says:

    My comment was broader than just this last article. Your grasp of the issues, your research and your writing offer an antidote to the emotional outpourings of the other side. Yours seems to be the lone voice in the wilderness. I appreciate hearing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is similar what we did on Friends of the Earth UK on fracking. They were criticised by Advertising Standards Authority https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/friends-of-the-earth-fck-it-up/

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Nicely done. It is interesting to note today that Bionext took their True Cost of Food video down and removed their tweets after a week of criticism. FoE admitted it immediately.

      Like

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