A co-existence peace plan for GMOs and organics

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  • Organic farming’s low yields cannot possibly feed the world, and its costs are prohibitive for most of the planet’s consumers.
  • GMOs are “Frankenfoods” that are harmful to the environment, to farms and to the people who consume them.

These are two general lines of rhetorical attack made by proponents of genetic modification techniques and organic methods, respectively. The level of vitriol in this fight for market share, cupboard space and hearts and minds is quite high, making one wonder if it’s possible for both techniques to work together, in the same field and on the same farm.

It’s possible. It just doesn’t sound like it.

The GM advantage side

In 2010, the U.S. National Research Council issued the first comprehensive overview of how well genetic modification had improved agricultural output. The report cited a list of benefits, which included the ability of farmers to reduce overall pesticide use, and use less harmful chemicals. Since farms started adopting genetic engineering technologies around 1996, they also had experienced lower production costs, and higher yields compared to conventional farming. Today, nearly all corn soybean and cotton is genetically modified, and the techniques are seen as the most promising way to ensure that a growing population on earth can continue to be fed.

Those findings were echoed last year in a study crunching data from 147 prior research reports by two prominent German professors published in PLOS ONE—A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops. They concluded that crops using genetically modified seeds resulted in a decrease in pesticide use of 37 percent, a 22 percent bump in yields and a profit increase for farmers (partly because of lower input costs) of 68 percent.

At the same time, conventional and GE growers and supporters have often looked at organic farming as low-yielding and unable to feed a growing world population. They also warn against potential pathogen contamination from manure use, and some refer to supporters as religious followers.

The anti-GMO side

Backed financially and philosophically by the organic food industry, GM opponents look to organic farming as a viable alternative to genetic modification. Deriding GM as a product of “big ag,” opponents insist that organic farming practices preserve the soil, rely less on pesticides, and can yield higher prices for produce (but not higher yields of commodity crops). They often promote organic practices, including crop rotation, tilling, and cover crops as more ecological sustainable than conventional or GM-use farming.

To this group, GM-based agriculture remains an experiment–a potentially dangerous, untested idea. GM supporting scientists are seen as financially beholden to “Big Ag,” and Monsanto is held up as the epitome of dangerous ‘corporate control of our food system’. Further, some organic farmers deride conventional and GM farmers as lazy, dependent entirely on what extension agents advise them.

Intersecting fields

To many hard working and independent scientists and farmers, this caricature of a fight has ranged from exasperating to plain silly.

An international study of wheat farming practices interviewed a number of farmers who used both organic and conventional practices on their land. One farmer declared that he would like to combine organic and conventional techniques, but couldn’t under the National Organic Program:

I can’t do organic because they won’t let you do any chemical, which is a bunch of crap. They won’t even let you use Roundup…There is one commercial fertilizer that I would truly love to use on organic — mono ammonium phosphate — it is not organically certified, and on our high pH soils, it makes wonderful sense to use.

Phoenix, Arizona, organic farmer Janna Anderson grows ancient and heirloom grains on her relatively small plot, and is constantly looking for different grains and traits. She also is a strong supporter of genetic modification. In an interview with the Arizona farm bureau, Anderson justified her GM support (even though she doesn’t use these techniques herself):

Biotech crops become a big advantage to everyone including the consumer. GMOs can reduce airborne pesticides, water pollution from run-off, increase yields, and generate drought resistant plants for the future and so much more. Additionally, GMOs can be very cost effective way to go and can target very specific pests rather than killing everything it touches like an aerial spray. Additionally, some GMO corn products utilize genetic engineering to insert BT, which is actually a product that is allowed in Certified Organic growing techniques.

Could it work scientifically?

Yes, organic techniques and GM technology could co-exist, many scientists have said, even those scientists who oppose the behavior of anti-GMO, pro-organic activists. Commented Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food science at the University of Illinois and critic of the anti-GMO movement:

There is no inherent reason why the two can’t coexist for some crops. Weed control is the number one application of GM. In a sane world organic farmers would use GM herbicide tolerant crops and glyphosate. Since none of the rest of GM crops require any chemical additives the GM part of the equation becomes nothing more than choosing a seed which has nothing to do with the rest of the organic package of Do’s and Don’t’s. The two are totally compatible.

Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at University of California, Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, her organic farmer husband, believe that truly sustainable agriculture (that can also feed a world with 9 billion people in it) may only arise from the merger of organic and GM/conventional techniques. On one hand, enhancing soil fertility and crop diversity, efficient land and water use, and reduction in the use of toxic chemicals can come from organic practices. On the other hand, introducing traits that allow plants to use less water, can intrinsically resist pests, and don’t require carbon-releasing tilling practices would come from genetic modifications. Ronald and Adamchak’s book, Tomorrow’s Table, introduced the idea of these combined practices, and a 2011 paper by Ronald warned that neither side may alone feed the growing world:

… genetically improved seed is only part of the solution. Such seed must be integrated into ecologically based farming systems and evaluated in light of their environmental, economic, and social impacts—the three pillars of sustainable agriculture.

Other experts have noted that before anti-GMO activism gained traction, organic and GM lived a friendlier existence. “Organic and GMO farming had coexisted just fine since the first GMO crop was planted. There is nothing about a GMO crop that threatens an organic crop either scientifically or legally. This has always been the case,” said Mischa Popoff, and former USDA/NOP inspector who now is a columnist, author and expert with the Heartland Institute.

Forward thinking organic farmers, such as Rob Wallbridge, who has written numerous articles for the Genetic Literacy Project, have taken the high road, pushing for calmer voices, dialogue and mutual respect for all farmers. He stresses the sustainability vision of organic farming, but explicitly rejects the caricatures presented by fervent anti-GM activists of farmers who use GM seeds.

From a commercial farming perspective, the organic and GM-farming industries have been characterized as locked in the middle of a crisis phase, during which ideological conflict rules most arguments:

  • The first phase is the “breach,” or crisis phase, which follows some kind of change from an introduction of new technology (in this case, genetic modification). The breach triggers shifts in farming culture and sources of competition (say, conventional versus organic farming), and new arrivals in the field can dramatize the breaches that exist.
  • The second phase involves reconstitution, where plans for change are made that can restore normalcy to markets and the industry are made.
  • The third phase involves institutionalizing the new markets, including consolidation of agribusiness companies and solidification of supply lines.
  • Finally, the fourth phase is maintenance, when ideology simmers down and all remaining players are seen as legitimate.

The debate between organic, conventional and GM farming, today, remains stuck in the initial “crisis phase.” Time to move on to the next phase.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Dr.V.T.Sundaramurthy

    It is well known that the GM FOOD is not safe and under this situation why it should co exist with other.

    • RobertWager

      Really? Perhaps you can tell this forum where I and a great many science organizations got the science wrong then?

      https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/10/28/not-all-science-is-created-equal-the-genetically-engineered-crops-story/

    • Who was your thesis advisor for your doctorate? Rudolf Steiner or Jeremy Rifkin?

      • Wackes Seppi

        Vandan Shiva? The Foodbabe? The yogic flyers?

        • Maybe David “the womanizer” Suzuki from Canada?

    • gmoeater

      Oh good grief, “Dr.” What the heck kind of garbage do you read? And where do you get your profound arrogance about that statement, totally false, being “well known” ? Maybe to you in your own doctory-brilliance. Not to farmers, consumers, and crop scientists, however.

      • Urban organic activists don’t care what actual farmers think. Like Chairman Mao, they plan to “inform” farmers about what’s best for them when the time comes.

        • gmoeater

          He did a typical snark-and-run. Ignorant comment that he doesn’t care to back up. The good Doctor is a sham.

          • What??? you mean I can’t get dieting advice from Dr.V.T.Sundaramurthy?
            Now I have no idea what food to buy.

    • J. Randall Stewart

      I did not know this! How long before I will see this in my cattle?

      • 30 to 40 years… plus or minus a decade or two.

        Brace yourself for the impact! Or not.

    • Farmer Sue

      Oh, really. What kind of doctor are you? On what do you base your totally disproved speculations? Don’t throw out garbage statements without documenting your absurd statement. This is not the Food Boob site, brother.

  • Bruce Chassy says, “There is no inherent reason why the two can’t coexist for some crops.” He’s slightly wrong on that.

    There is no inherent reason why organics and GMOs can’t coexist for ALL crops. In other words, GMOs pose no threat whatsoever to organic crops. The two can be grown side by side in ALL instances.

    The only question is, which GMO crops would be acceptable for actual organic certification, as President Clinton suggested, and as Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak suggest.

    With respect, Bruce should take a few moments to read America’s standards for organic production sometime.

    • Alex Dubois

      Mischa, you know this statement is incorrect. If you grow heirloom and GMO corn within close proximity of each other the heirloom crop will be contaminated with the GMO genetics, which according to current law, would prohibit seed saving. Not to mention the herbicides/pesticides that are sprayed on the GMO crop have the potential to drift and damage/contaminate the organic cropland. The two systems are COMPLETELY incompatible.

      • Alex, there are farms in the US that grow GMO crops and organic crops on the same property. They use appropriate barriers and there are no issues. Conventional herbicides and pesticides don’t “damage” organic crops anymore than organic chemicals do; in fact many organic chemicals are less targeted and are more problematic. No organic farmer in the US is “punished” for accidental trace cross breeding (there is no such thing as contamination; that’s an ideological term and it’s not used by the USDA). There is a real problem when organic farms are next to conventional farms; some of the worms and other pest infestations that are not controlled well by organic chemicals do in fact “contaminate” GMO crops–that was raised in the recent Australian case, which the organic farmer lost. So the irony is the only real “threat” under US law is to the conventional farmer because of the lower quality pest control found in some organic farmers. But traditional farmer cooperation, which has existed for centuries, are appropriate work arounds. Your statement that there is no compatibility is an ideological one.

        • Bang on Jon!

          You’re like a sniper; an angel of death on this ideological battle field, because bad ideas deserve to die.

          Now if we could just get all the defenders of GMO farming to agree with you. Sadly, it is now corporate policy at Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and their industry groups to ignore the facts you have laid out.

      • Please provide evidence Alex.

      • Jason

        Alex, there is nothing preventing a farmer from saving seed even if some gmo pollen should find it’s way into non-GMO corn.

        What is illegal is the willful separation of the patented traits and the replanting of those traits with intent to use them without purchasing a license to do so. If a farmer just harvests his crop and replants some seed there is no issue what so ever.

        In truth, in terms of corn farming, seed saving is a non-issue. Corn has been hybridized for decades now. Farmers buy new, F1 hybrid seed very year regardless of whether it’s GMO or not because the performance of hybrid seed far exceeds what a farmer would get out of his open pollinated saved seed.

        Heirloom crops are things that gardeners use… not farmers.

        • Absolutely correct Jason.
          The only thing to add is that if a farmer chooses to save seed, it is HIS responsibility to ensure that genetic purity is preserved, not his neighbor’s.

  • An excellent article! Finally, someone else who realizes the only threat to GMO farming is the organic movement, a once-proud science-based Christian-farming movement which has abandoned its rational opposition to synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and replaced it with an irrational, politically self-serving opposition to the science of genetic engineering. And we subsidize this madness with our taxes.

    • Wackes Seppi

      Opposition to synthetic fertilizer and pesticides is not rational.

      • Sure it is. Show me a single person in the conventional farming sector who doesn’t want to reduce pesticide exposure and fertilizer run-off.

        By combining the philosophy of organic farming with the science of genetic engineering, we will someday eliminate the use of pesticides, and drastically reduce the need for off-farm fertilizer.

        • Warren Lauzon

          Philosophy does not feed plants. Crops require a certain amount of input to grow, and organic alone cannot supply that. There might be reductions, but I seriously doubt they will be eliminated.

          • As Sir Albert Howard (and others) demonstrated, proper composting provides the necessary fertility. Of course it is far more expensive than synthetic fertilizer.

            As for doubting the eventual elimination of pesticides, are you saying there are limits to scientific achievement?

          • Warren Lauzon

            The catch is “proper composting”, which is not all that easy to get enough raw materials for. As far as pesticides – there may be ways to eliminate pest problems, but no matter how you look at it it will be some form of pesticide. chemical or otherwise.

          • Who said being organic was easy? Not me. In fact, I predict that if we started actually enforcing the rules of organic production through routine field testing, the number of organic operations in America would be reduced by half… and 90% of all foreign imports would disappear overnight.

          • Wackes Seppi

            Proper composting is nothing else than recycling plant material which comes from somewhere. Unless you can derive enough nitrogen from an area devoted to enough nitrogen fixation (legumes) to sustain the system, the equation yields a negative result.

          • Precisely. Whish is why we know the majority of USDA-certified-organic farmers are cheating. Most are in countries like China. A true organic system would favor domestic organic farmers.

        • Mike Bendzela

          Surely you know the difference between “reducing pesticides exposure” and “opposition to synthetic pesticides,” but you conflate the two.

          I practice IPM and have greatly reduced pesticides used, but I still love my synthetic pesticides. They work, they’re safe when used properly, and they’re better than the alternative–watching fungi and insects eat my crops.

          The “philosophy” of organic farming is irrelevant, and genetic engineering will do fine without it.

          • I have nothing against synthetic pesticides or fertilizer. Unlike rabid, urban organic activists, I come from a farming background and am not interested in absolutes. I am not conflating anything; you’ve got me confused with the tax-subsidized alarmist crowd.

            What I am predicting is that the need for all off-farm inputs will someday be greatly reduced, and in some cases eliminated altogether, through the unfettered application of the science of genetic engineering.

        • Farmer Sue

          Absolutely! Farmers rely on their lands and water. And certainly don’t want to throw money away on pesticides if we don’t need to. I am hoping there is a way to combine organic with GE technology in the future. It would benefit everyone.

          • Bang on Sue!

            The problem is that the overwhelming majority of pro-GMO academics and executives are only pretending to support the principles of organic farming, and really have no idea whatsoever what organic really means.

        • Wackes Seppi

          Sorry, Mischa, your reply is a double fallacy.

          For sure, every conventional farmer would like to reduce “pesticide exposure” — a threat to his health — and “fertilizer run-off” — a financial loss.

          Every conventional farmer would also like to reduce production costs. All other things being equal, production without use of e.g. a pesticide will be more profitable than with.

          It is all about cost-benefit ratios, and I would add for both the farmer and society as a whole. Whilst reducing pesticide use is a goal that is achievable through GMO use, I would propose that energy used to produce nitrogen fertilizers is more profitably used than burning it to travel a few miles sitting in a two-tons pickup.

          • Right… a double fallacy.

            And what exactly is this about burning fossil fuel to travel a few miles sitting in a two-tons pickup?

            You lost me there.

          • Wackes Seppi

            Turning a given amount of fossile fuel into nitrogen fertilizer is economically, socially and morally more desirable than burning it in a car.

            Environmentalists are all up against nitrogen fertilizers and much less against use in transportation. Isn’t that odd?

  • Pamela Ronald is quite right that truly sustainable agriculture requires the merger of organic and GM/conventional techniques. But she and her husband seem unwilling to recognize that all of the enmity between these two philosophies originates with organic activists. Solve that, and we’ll finally be on our way to realizing her and her husband’s (and President Clinton’s) vision.

    Fail to solve that, and we will remain in this manufactured crisis phase forever, and new GMOs will all remain on the back burner.

    • hyperzombie

      “Pamela Ronald is quite right that truly sustainable agriculture requires the merger of organic and GM/conventional techniques.”

      Wow, sometimes your comments make total sense, and other times like this BS sentence are batsh!t cra cra. What would modern farmers learn for a farming method based on ideology like Organic?
      Next time we come out with a new vaxx should we consult and compromise with Christian Science and NaturalNews nutters? How about we consult the scientologists about the next big tunnel that we build?

      • To understand what I mean, you have to return to what being an organic farmer originally meant.

        Long before the first synthetic pesticide and GMO even existed, organic farming arose out the rejection of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer, i.e. the Haber-Bosch ammonia-synthesis process.

        At first it was pure mysticism (Rudolf Steiner). But later, British scientists came up with the firm scientific basis for true organic farming, what Sir Albert Howard coined the Indore Method of composting, i.e. mass inoculation for accelerated composting.

        There are still some conventional farmers who use compost. But they’re not managing their compost correctly. Neither, for that matter, are most organic farmers.

        And this is what organic farming has to offer conventional and GMO farming.

    • J. Randall Stewart

      It is only Organic that has particular non techniques.

      Conventional means using any technique available, including any technique also allowed by Organic.

      Example: For blight, I can spray copper on my potatoes any time I want, and I have used that when it was prudent. In addition to copper, I have many synthetic fungicide choices.

      An advantage of Organic production is that they may invent a new technique, and when they do, it can be used by any conventional farmer.

      Farmers should simply use the best method. Organic never was “un-merged” from conventional.

      • Wackes Seppi

        “An advantage of Organic production is that they may invent a new technique, and when they do, it can be used by any conventional farmer.”

        This argument is reversible (with a limitation)!

        An advantage of conventional production is that they may invent a new technique, and when they do, it can be used by any organic farmer… provided it is not banned by current or yet to come ideology..

      • You’re quite right that in its current form, the organic industry is really nothing more than a series of non-techniques… processes and substances which organic farmers CANNOT use under pain of de-certification. Chief among these is the dreaded GMO.

        But this is NOT what being organic is all about. Yes, the organic movement can be traced back to the rejection of the ammonia synthesis process, and yes, for years that’s all it was under the misguided leadership of Rudolf Steiner. But in the years immediately after WWII, British scientists finally provided us with the POSITIVE basis to being organic which I describe in the comment below.

        Sadly, very few organic farmers bother to employ proper composting techniques on their farms, and the leadership of the organic movement simply does not care, having turned the once-proud organic movement into nothing more than an anti-GMO movement, to the exclusion of all else.

        • gmoeater

          I’ve gotten my regular ole supermarket to bring in more non-organic vegs, and I tell the stackers that I choose non-organic because of the high amount of fecal contamination and recalls, with organic.

          • I agree with you 100%.

            But are you ready for some irony?

            Monsanto disagrees with you… vehemently. So do all farm bureaus, commodity groups and GMO organizations like BIO and CropLife.

            So now what?

  • gmoeater

    So now I would like to understand what their reasoning is …. is that presumption erroneous, about recalls and contamination? If it’s accurate, then what is the reasoning of the orgs you state, for not recognizing that contamination level? I am really curious! What do you think causes the disconnect, if there is one?

    • They’re cowards, concerned only with protecting their bottom line, with not a care for the science itself.

      Challenging the legitimacy of the current anti-GMO organic system is viewed as entering a minefield. So rather than provide any healthy criticism of the current state of the organic industry, pro-GMO execs instead support it in all of its fraudulent, tax-subsidized, anti-scientific glory.

      As I say, they’re cowards.

  • Wackes Seppi

    Please correct “Italian professors” into “German…”

  • gmoeater

    Dang. Well, there IS the fraud boob site …. I hope you love kale blended with b-s-craaaaaaazy.

    • Here’s the only rule you need to follow if you want to be a “foodie” and tell others what to eat:

      Take thousands of years of human evolutionary history, and discard it.

      If something tastes good, like BBQ’ed red meat for instance, it’s B-A-D, and the farmers who produce it need to be punished (bad farmer! bad!).

      If something tastes horrible, like a kale smoothie with wheat germ and yeast, it’s G-O-O-D and needs to be served in every school cafeteria across the land, even if kids won’t touch it.

  • 1weeman

    Gm Crops are dangerous. BT10 was mis sold to the world and had a modified protein and a gene conferring resistance to ampicillan to resist a corn borer pest. Now the medical profession is complaining about a high rise in antibiotic resistance. The US informed the EU in 2005 that bt10 was mis sold but did not mention the presence of the antibiotic resistance gene. Then we have HR933 and nobody with a brain would trust anything the pro GM lobby say.

    • Gertje Petersen

      I am not entirely sure what it is that you are saying, but it seems like there has been a miscommunication between whoever gave you that information and you, as well.
      The ampicillin resistance that was introduced had no role in the resistance (to the corn borer) itself, the protein conferring the resistance in bt plants is a protein that is lethal to insects that actually ingest the plant that contains it. – The ampicillin-resistance gene is simply used in the process to ‘find’ the cells that actually contain the right genetic material and since the resulting plants themselves are not treated with antibiotics, and would not have been sensitive to ampicillin to begin with, that resistance gene doesn’t really matter unless there is gene transfer between the bt10 plant and a pathogenic bacterium, which is extremely unlikely if not impossible, and in addition, for most pathogenic bacteria, too late, as they already carry this mutation (ampicillin is a rather ‘old’ antibiotic, pathogens have had a long time to adjust to it. If it is used to treat infections today, it is usually prescribed in combination with a beta-lactamase inhibitor, a substance that disables the resistant property of the bacterium).
      Please don’t misunderstand this, I am not part of the “pro GM lobby” (in fact, I grew up on an organic farm), I simply want to give you a better understanding of what you are talking about, since you seem to be passionate about it.

    • RobertWager

      Actually the antibiotic resistance gene is nptII for kanamycion/neomycin. this particular gene can be isolated from any square foot of soil on the planet. its as old as dirt itself and hardly represents any novel threat.

  • Good4U

    Good article! All that is necessary for this principle to work is to get the “organic” faction to adopt biotech. Something long overdue. I might consider eating “organic” stuff if they just drop the non-GMO label and the vitriol that goes with it.

  • Wackes Seppi
    • Andrew Porterfield

      Merci!

      • Wackes Seppi

        Pleasure!

  • Jim Gordon

    Dogs and cats living together???