If you are a pesticide company wondering how you can sell a product without being caught in a cultural crossfire, I have good news. There is a template for marketing success you can use free of charge, courtesy of McLaughlin Gormley King Company (MGK) and Valent, which recently announced a sales partnership: Make a toxic chemical cocktail that meets National Organic Program standards and then have the product sold by a subsidiary to foster the perception that it’s a family-run organic companies and not part of the same multinational chemical conglomerate.
MGK of Minnesota is known for making pyrethrum, which they tell us is produced by a chrysanthemum that has been lovingly hand-picked by happy Africans and dries naturally in the sun before being wholesomely extracted for organic gardeners.
Yes, it is an insecticide, and a quite toxic one and that. It’s also organic.
What does organic mean? Lots of things to organic consumers but to organic farmers it just means that it can be sprayed liberally on crops and those crops will still be eligible for an ‘organic’ sticker, just like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spray is.
Yet consider this. While liberally spraying this new toxic chemical can be considered organic, if geneticists took the toxic genes that leads to pyrethrum–harmful to pests safe to humans–and precisely engineered them into a plant so no spraying is necessary, that GMO would suddenly become a Frankenplant just like with Bt. Yet, just as with Bt, it would be no different, and even more targeted and safer.
Confusing? Organic marketing departments are a lot more nuanced about biology than biologists, it seems.
If you read the labels on MGK and Valent organic products, they basically say people should wear Haz-Mat suits when applying them the non-GMO approved organic way. Yet most organic shoppers don’t believe organic food uses any pesticides at all, and if they do use pesticides, because they are organic they believe they can eat stuff with organic pesticides right off the vine without washing it. That is another benefit to the $36 billion organic marketing machine.
Why organic pesticides are safe but precisely developed synthetic ones are not can be pretty confusing so let me explain it for you the way organic food marketing is explained to me: The advantage of organic pesticides is that they are actually not chemicals. The parent of both Valent and MGK is Sumitomo Chemical Company but perhaps shoppers think that middle name must have been a clerical error when they incorporated. Sumitomo also owns a refinery and a pharmaceutical division but those might be organic also, because no one cares about being ethical and organic in America like executives at a Japanese chemical company.
On the left, what organic gardeners see. On the right, reality. Images from Wikipedia and Insecticides: Chemistries and Characteristics. Montage by Hank Campbell
Given their organic nature, you might wonder why Valent and MGK organic products carry warning labels and application guidelines that act as a legal document, saying that if you go beyond approved uses of the product, including rates, application methods, and mandatory safety equipment and protective clothing that they specify on the label, you can’t sue them if your endocrine glands get disrupted.
If it helps, just pretend that is simply lawyers being all corporation-y and that you should be fine if you fall into a vat of it, the way anti-pesticide toxicologists dunk critters in vats of non-organic pesticides to make sure they get enough exposure to be harmful.
I am not picking on the product, pyrethrum is low in acute toxicity to human and other vertebrate animals and it recently went through a thorough review by the US EPA during the re-registration process. But wait, that sounds like how atrazine has been evaluated. Syngenta, the company that makes atrazine, must be mystified that simply telling customers that a pesticide should be applied with common sense and that the EPA re-registered it is okay when that pesticide is called organic but not okay when its synthetically made and no more toxic. Pesticide Action Network will no doubt be relieved because they will no longer have to spend money sending anti-pesticide researchers on all-expenses-paid trips around the country telling high school students to boycott conventional food.
Maybe. Not everyone agrees just being organic is safe. The Journal of Pesticide Reform, (Vol. 22, No. 1) linked the chemicals in pyrethrum to tumors in animals, increased risk of leukemia, endocrine disruption and allergic reactions including heart attack and asthma. Hello, organic activists. That doesn’t sound so organic. But if it’s in a journal, it must be real, that is why Gilles-Eric Séralini is a champion of organic marketing even though scientists think he is a loon.
Maybe organic endocrine disruption and tumors are different than synthetic ones and you will be okay. Sure, pyrethrins are classified as “likely to be human carcinogens” by the EPA because they cause thyroid tumors in laboratory tests, and farmers who use pyrethrins have an increased risk of developing leukemia and pyrethrins are extremely toxic to bees, fish, and other aquatic animals but organic pesticide manufacturers have an easy solution for all that:
Don’t spray it on bees. Duh.
It says right in their marketing materials it is only safe for humans and other vertebrate animals, if they meant it was also safe for bees and fish and frogs they would have itemized those too.
So if you are not spraying it on bees and frogs, because it is organic maybe it can’t be getting into the environment and you have kept Gaia safe in a way that ordinary products can’t.
I hope this insight helps in your next national campaign, pesticide makers. You don’t even need to thank me, though Genetic Literacy Project takes donations if you are so inclined.
Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0 and an award-winning science writer who has appeared in numerous publications, from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 he was co-author of the bestselling book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell.