Saturday, April 18, 2009

Which Is It? GMO or Organic?

The organic community has soundly rejected the use of genetically modified crops, and current organic standards do not permit genetically modified crops to be marketed as organic, even if they are grown without harmful pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

The reasons include the fact that genetic modification can come with unknown risks to the environment and that genetic modification alters plants in ways that many people feel are more extreme or unnatural than alterations that are brought about through selective breeding. I would put this in terms of "purity," a concept like "natural" or "disgusting" which seems to relate entirely to the eye of the beholder.

In addition, genetically modified crops are tied to patents and commercialization which threatens the economic well-being and independence of subsistence farmers.

However, genetic modification also opens up opportunities which can contribute to long-term sustainable agriculture, according to the authors of Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. For instance, if a variety of rice were genetically modified to make it flood tolerant, then instead of using herbicides that might have negative health consequences, farmers could flood fields to kill weeds. There might also be the possibility of genetically modifying crops so that they are tolerant of marginal growing conditions, permitting them to be grown without the use of high levels of artificial fertilizers.

My inclination is to be open-minded and even enthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic engineering, and I would argue that skepticism about the technology should be based in empirical arguments. If it provides a solution that solves a real problem, then I don't think the argument from purity is strong enough to give us reason to put on the brakes. Likewise, from a biological standpoint, genetic engineering seems to be different in kind but not degree from conventional breeding (even when genes from vastly different species are intermingled). Therefore, it extends problems that we already have without introducing new problems.

However, the gravity of those problems should not be underestimated, and neither should their nature as social and legal, rather than technical, problems. The problem is not how to physically grow enough nutrients for poor populations, but how to introduce stability and universal access into their food system. This is a problem that genetic engineering of crops will probably exacerbate rather than solve, as long as our patent system discourages creativity and as long as markets control the options of poor farmers.


Organic Trade said...

Thank you for engaging in this important debate. As you point out, there are many unknowns surrounding the impact of genetic engineering. It is thus useful to examine what is known about organic practices as a starting point for comparison.

In thinking about organic practices and productivity, a common misperception is that organic yields are lower than that of their conventional counterparts, and that they cannot sustain the world's population. In fact, several studies have shown that organic production is on par with, and sometimes superior to, conventional production levels, and that it offers a compelling and sustainable alternative to conventional approaches toward addressing the world's hunger problems.

A United Nations report—Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa—released in October 2008 found organic farming offers African and other developing countries the most hope for feeding their people. Findings by the U.N. Environment Programme showed that organic practices raise yields, improve... (Read more of this comment) the soil, and boost the income of developing countries' small farmers. Similarly, the Long-term Agro-ecological Research (LTAR) initiative at Iowa State University's Neely-Kinyon Farm found yields equal or greater than conventional counterparts for organic corn, soybeans and oats. In 2007, for instance, the organic corn yielded more than the conventional with 209 bushels per acre compared to 188 bushes per acre for the conventional corn. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan found that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land in developing countries.

In light of such findings, as well as the many personal health and environmental benefits that organic agriculture has to offer, it is becoming clearer that organic offers a sustainable solution that addresses the world's hunger problems and the long-term health of the planet.

Alex Zorach said...

This is my conservative side speaking. I understand this argument but I disagree with the conclusion.

For thousands of years, humans have cultivated crops from seed, using natural selection to breed in beneficial characteristics. This practice is slower and more random than genetic modification, but it has surprise benefits as well (such as miracle mutations like the navel orange, or more recently, orange and purple cauliflower, which crop up totally unpredictably).

Any of these hypothetical qualities you mention--flood tolerance, tolerance of lower nutrient levels, drought tolerance, can all be bred into fruits over time.

There is also a very good reason that selective breeding actually minimizes, rather than risks, ecological damage. As you cultivate a crop over time, it adapts to the conditions in which it is grown--human agriculture--and moves farther away from its natural conditions. Such plants grow well around humans, but not so well in nature, and are unlikely to invade natural ecosystems.

Look at the apple--formerly a forest canopy tree in parts of Asia. Naturalized in many parts of the world, it is far from an ecological fares well in old orchards and on the edges of fields and in suburban yards, but cannot survive in a forest interior. The main invading cultivated plants, like Kudzu, became invasive because we painstakingly cultivated them to adapt to local conditions. By intelligent cultivation and selective practices, we can minimize the risk of ecological invasions.

With Genetic Modification, there are too many wildcards. It's an unknown risk. There are risks of ecological invasion with unknown consequences. There are risks of unknown allergic reaction. And possibly most dangerously, these changes happen suddenly, not gradually.

I also think it is a religious issue for me. I see genetic modification as an attempt to "play God". And regardless of the consequences or not (and I think the consequences are enough of a deterring on their own), I think it's something we just should not do.

Evelyn Brister said...

Alex, These sound like good arguments to me.
But I do think the "playing god" argument has many elements that should each be examined more carefully. Though it's not recent, the clearest, most concise examination of this argument that I've seen is in the book The Frankenstein Syndrome by Bernard Rollin, under the heading "Is genetic engineering intrinsically wrong?"

Chef Ev said...

I am currently reading "The One Straw Revolution" by Masanobu Fukuoka, who first published it in the 70's. He is a natural farmer who did not practice age old techniques of plowing or flooding his rice fields, and did not adopt our agribusness practices of pesticides. Instead by working with his acreage, he has been able to grow rice in Japan without flooding his fields or plowing his fields for 25 years and yields just as high as any other method. This comes much closer to selective breeding, but sometimes he lets a crop by hand, or picks others by hand; he does this because he has gained a knowledge of the workings of his farm. Things are getting worse and worse because of GMO-s, the Pope might endorse them and they are more rampant in the wild now.There is also correlation (not causation) between GMO-s and celiac disease (gluten intolerance); also, between Roundup and cancer, even though it "breaks down" in the soil. They are looking to GM the US's crop of wheat, because now would be a good time to introduce it to our docile American market.It ought to be labeled.