So, I mentioned before that the First Family is putting in a garden (complete with bee hive!). And, in fact, they plant to make it an organic garden.

That choice has stirred up a whole pot of strange.  The first signal was that the MidAmerica CropLife Association sent a letter to the White House that implied that going organic was a bad signal. It was an amazingly long letter, and I’ll be very surprised if anyone read the whole thing.  (Some MACA of the members weren’t quite on the same page, and released the letter online.)

Then CropLife also started a letter writing campaign with even more out-there rhetoric:

“The garden is a great idea and the photo op of the First Lady and local elementary schoolchildren digging up the ground was precious, but did you realize that it will be an organic garden? ….What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world — crop protection products?”

You might be interested to know that CropLife’s former name was the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.

The “controversy” over the Whitehouse garden was covered by the Daily Show in this hilarious episode: The Whitehouse Garden of Death!
They introduce yet another corporate group that’s criticizing Ms. Obama: The American Council on Science and Health.  It took me less than a minute to discover that ACSH is full of crap–they are DDT apologists, in addition to some of the other crud they promote.  Here’s their report from Sourcewatch.

It’s not just the chemical industry players that are being wacky over the garden–Grist covered this story…using pictures of the Mafia!  Because nothing says “agrochemical industry” like wise guys with guns.   Some of the comments discussing this issue online pretty much make pesticide use out to be a death sentence with overblown rhetoric reminiscent of….the pesticide trade groups.

It’s a freakin’ garden, people. Get a grip.

There are elements of truth on both sides–and as usual, the media fails utterly to convey a complex message.  The data is, at best, mixed on what the results of a wholesale switch to “organic” farming would be.  Yields are lower in organics, for the most part. And just because only “natural” chemicals are used, that does not mean that they are always safer or less toxic than synthetic chemicals.

There are lots of benefits to eating locally grown food, and we all could benefit by eating healthier, less processed food.  It’s not a black/white, death/life dichotomy. Organic is not our savior, and Pesticides are not Satan.

There are situations where organic is appropriate and preferable, and some where careful, judicious use of synthetic pesticides in an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program is appropriate.  Both can be useful approaches.

But Nuance and Complexity don’t seem to have a place in public discourse anymore.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. I thought I should add, in case it’s not clear, I think it’s great the Obama’s have an organic garden, and mine is organic as well.

    (Although I occasionally use synthetic pesticides to nuke some poison ivy or Canada thistle.)

  2. The weird thing is that White House garden (and organic gardens generally) are not that much of a threat to the agrochemical industry’s main business.

  3. Exactly! That’s what’s so very silly about all this.

  4. Gah!!! How ridiculously silly this is.

    Of course she’s going to have an organic garden, it’s a home garden that her kids are working in. That’s the most reasonable way to do it. My garden is organic as well, because using pesticides and man-made fertilizers just don’t make sense for a small home garden.

  5. I grew up around DC and learned to garden there, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the bean beetles, squash borers, and the like show up. Flea beetles are pretty hard on arugula, but it is probably too hot already to grow that in DC.

    It’s a lot easier getting by without insecticides up here in the frozen north. I still use soapy water on aphids sometimes, but a few hours picking and squishing is usually enough to save a few currants or columbines from the sawflies and the like. On the other hand, glyphosphate and Canada thistle were made for each other, and it would be wrong to keep them apart.

  6. They’re setting a good example by growing a garden – period!

  7. I don’t have TV, so I missed all this. It’s almost just too funny! Heavens forbid anyone of importance should promote something healthy! Like you said: it’s a garden, folks, so get a grip!

  8. Hi, perhaps I have missed something about the post and in the comments (#2 and #3 especially), but I take it that the agrochemical people don’t see it that the White House garden or personal and home gardens are a threat to their market, but they see it that there is some implicit message that the Obamas are sending by having an organic garden to the effect that only organic gardens are healthy, produce the best produce, etc., etc. The agrochemical companies are worried (I think) that people will in some way extrapolate from the Obamas garden to large scale farming of the sort that is the main part of their market, and that the public will want more organics. I guess the agrocehemical industry is at odds with organic farming, which doesn’t use agrochemicals?

    PS I love this blog. I just found it the other day. I don’t know what I like more, the content and discussion and the topics discussed or the lively and engaging writing. Plus the architecture is certainly much better than most blogs. The type is small but somehow there is still a kind of open feel to the layout so that even with lots of words crammed in there, reading doesn’t get bogged down, and it’s easy to focus on the central column. But maybe a little wide? But if I squash my browser down the central column is narrower and reading is quicker.

  9. No, I think you’re right with your assessment of their fears, Adam. But I also think that is a very low probability event in a predominantly urban society, and also that the letter and campaign (particularly the “shudder” comment when organics are mentioned) just made agribusiness look bad. And stupid, frankly!

    Neither side (all organic, OMGchemicals!1!!; and agribusiness) seems to have a grip, and are focused on yelling louder than the other, rather than providing an actual discussion of what it would take to make local food happen in the US.

    And thanks so much for your kind words about the Bug Blog! *blush*

  10. One more comment on this topic of managing the perception of things you wouldn’t think mattered—a friend of mine in public health wrote an educational brochure about carcinogens, and gave several examples of common household products that contained carcinogens. One of them was cat litter. After a while she gets a letter asking her to remove cat litter from the list. She ignored this but then the letters kept coming, then the phone calls. It turns out the cat litter people keep an eye on this sort of thing in order to, I don’t know, protect the public image of cat litter? My friend did make some change, saying something like “many of these common products only contain small levels of the carcinogen” or something like that.

  11. Ha! I had a similar experience when I wrote that Campari has cochineal in it. Several folks got contacted by the company to say that they no longer used that dye. Amazing what effort can go into message control.

  12. Bug Girl,

    Your blog is a great resource – and my son loves it.
    I have a couple of dragonfly ‘nerdery’ t-shirts you may find interesting on my site with more bug stuff to come.

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