Pesticides and food: It’s not a black and white issue

Special 6-part series starting on

FIRST ARTICLE: Has pesticide use decreased over the last 40 years?

Viewpoint: Why organic farming activists oppose New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)

There was a brief moment in 2015 where organic farming researchers were having an open discussion on adopting certain innovative plant breeding techniques (commonly referred to as NPBTs or NBTs). Then, just as fast, the radical end of the organic lobby (from International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)) shut down the discussion with an emphatic rejection, calling them: “GMOs through the backdoor”.

With the label “New GM” or “GMO 2.0”, the activists (intentionally) failed to understand how the new technologies worked. Certain plant breeding techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, cisgenesis or site-specific mutagenesis are not necessarily adding any foreign DNA into the organism. This blanket activist rejection was a monumental misstep, dealing perhaps a fatal blow to the hopes that organic farmers would ever be able to compete with conventional agriculture.

Why on earth did they shoot their farmers in the foot?

eZealots to the front

The organic food lobby is a big tent, but the anti-industry, labeling faction has the strongest voice (and deepest pockets). A 2016 Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) report, Biotech lobby’s push for new GMOs to escape regulation”, encapsulated the madness of Radical Organic’s rejection of the innovative breeding techniques, putting it down to:

  • Big Biotech. They see the development of the new technologies as further big industry dominance on farmers and consumers. Organic is perceived as small and traditional so the idea of Big Biotech patents on organic farmers runs against their marketing grain. The activists seem to have missed the low cost of these new technologies and how African researchers are using them to solve serious problems on their own.
  • Non-transparent. Activists are afraid some plant innovations could be introduced without regulatory authorizations or may go easily undetected. The demand to have them treated in Europe as GMOs is to ensure new seed developments get lost in the tall grass of the endless EU approval minefield.
  • Non-natural. It does not matter if a newly-bred plant has the same DNA as traditional plants. Campaigners will reject what does not come from a “natural” seed, or bred through conventional (natural?) processes. Now this may sound absurd (frankly, it is), but the activist cult believes that anything man (science) does will eventually end badly.
Want to follow the latest news and policy debates over agricultural biotechnology and biomedicine? Subscribe to our free newsletter.

The activists’ strategy

The CEO report and the 2015 IFOAM NBT position paper were quite helpful in understanding the activist strategy. First, all innovative plant breeding technologies have been grouped together under the same label as NBTs, so if one breeding technique involves a foreign genetic modification, all are then categorized as “GMO 2.0”. Once that link is made, they then insist that the European Union considers all seed registrations based on innovative breeding technologies under the GMO regulatory regime, assessing them not on the basis of the product but the process. Add the tired but effective uncertainty communication campaigns and the activists can go home assured that the EU will be seed-technology-free for at least two more decades.

Related article:  Plagued by pest, African farmers may soon have access to insect-resistant GMO cowpeas—for free

The longer the EU lets them play this game, the easier the scaremongering campaigns will be. There are two curious elements added to the organic lobby strategy: consider these plant breeding innovations as an American threat (recycling the anti-TTIP rhetoric) while preparing the ground for lawsuits should the European Commission take a “pro-science” perspective.

cals psi x

My advice for plant researchers

Until now, the research community’s response and the NBT Platform’s advocacy have had little effect or clear strategy. I would advise the following:

  • Scrap the NBT label. The European Commission should not be pushed by NGOs to make a decision on whether the seven “new” techniques are GMO equivalents because, simply put, the seven are all distinct forms of plant breeding. Not grouping them in a single basket, some techniques then could work very well for organic seed development (whether the zealot fringe like it or not).
  • Engage the food chain. The downstream food manufacturers will need to be woken up and encouraged to (finally) participate in this debate. The potential benefits of these innovative forms of plant breeding to the food chain are enormous – food producers cannot continue to stay silent and let the fear-mongers dictate their food strategies.
  • Wake organic farmers up. Once again, the hardliners leading the organic industry lobby are taking farmers down the dead-end path of lower productivity and poorer quality seeds. Organic farmers need to clean out the radical gardeners from their movement.
  • Stress the wonders and benefits of advances in genetic research. We are curious and positive toward genome developments in healthcare and would be equally open to these same innovations on seed technologies provided the following elements were widely understood:
  • That the benefits are clear, welcomed and solve critical problems (particularly in developing countries)
  • That the technologies are cheap, accessible and much of the research is done in universities
  • That the researchers are individuals striving to discover, enhance and improve agriculture.

The window may not stay open much longer to tell these stories to an open and curious public.

Indeed, small organizations or academics breeding beneficial plants similar to traditional strains that reduce pesticides and improve agriculture is a story that activists in the organic lobby don’t want told to the general public.

Perhaps that is the main reason the activists are opposing the new plant breeding generation.

David Zaruk has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2000, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society questions to the use of the Precautionary Principle. Follow him on Twitter @zaruk.

This article was originally published at European Seed as “The Risk Corner: Why is the Organic Lobby against NBTs?” and has been republished here with permission.

47 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Why organic farming activists oppose New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)”

  1. Just remember, in your zeal to promote this very narrow use (only deletions and very few bp changes) of this valuable technology, that you don’t disparage older techniques that have demonstrated their value (how many references on this would you like?) or their 20+yr, in use and consumed, safety (I can give you even more references here) – all for the support of an ag practice (organic) that represents less than 1% of agriculture.

  2. It’s always about the money. Everything else is just a rhetorical smoke screen. Organic farming IS big business now, and genetic engineering threatens the income of the organic farming industry. So now we have paid shills working for the industry that still cries “shill” when Kevin Folta’s department at the University of Florida accepts entirely no strings attached funding from Monsanto.

  3. This articles generalized argument that gene editing is necessary to make farming more productive is bullshit.

    There are numerous farms, and farming models that outcompete industrial ag, organic or not. Properly scaled dynamic living systems blow the doors off industrial farming in terms of production consistently.

    This article misses the point entirely if optimization of production is the point. Sure, gene editing can solve somespecific case problems, but the real problem is growing monocultures that are in essence extractive processes. Compost much? Agroforestry? Dense cropping? Etc…

    Sadly scientists without sound philosophy or morals will always follow the money instead of doing broad, specific and critically informed research. There is too much faith in technological salvation when it is evidenced that setting the preconditions for living systems to optimize always works. Mother nature knows best and will always put technologized systems to shame as they are currently designed too linearly and too myopically. There’s simply no getting around that.

    In this case we see the gene editing argument presented, distracting from more pertinent and radical changes in how we organize farming. Democracy and diversity in the workplace and the ecosystem would be a great start.

      • As a fellow scientist (not politician) I use the word in it’s most properly defined manner, not how its abused in the political arena. So, the first, not second definition. Here’s an important lesson: Don’t get caught lowering your understanding of language to the standards found in garbage mass media. The best you’ll do is maintain the status quo.

        Furthermore it is clear you have no substantive response to my statement other than to passively name-call or associate to dodge a central issue just because I’m challenging the institutional status quo. It clearly either short circuits your ability to think critically, or shows you need to level your critical thinking up by learning more.

        You think people that are farming in the aforementioned ways (including myself) are the Pol Pots of farming? They produce the most nutrient dense food (and soil) that can be found most anywhere short of a freshly (and tragically) deforested Amazon tract. It is however threatening to big academia and big ag’s profits most surely and I’m more than ok with that ;)

        Your comment is so utterly useless… go get educated on what regenerative farming can accomplish (high yield quality product while performing carbon sequestration, effectively reversing climate change etc…) and then come back with some constructive commentary.

          • Since everyone here is asking for substance, I will provide some. Why don’t you bother to reply with substance rather than just do call-outs Jason?

          • How does one reply with substance to a post devoid of substance? There’s literally nothing to reply to.

            However, I do find it pretty amusing that you’re calling me out for having called you out about calling someone else out. Oh, the irony!

          • Hey amused one, look around for some yourself. In fact, look around this thread. I’ve just posted what qualifies to you as substance (maybe).

            Furthermore if only scientific literature qualifies as substance, you may want to start to consider the function of language and how it to use it as fuel for agency, instead of simply waiting for people to lay information on your lap. Oh the reality!

          • You’re ability to use an insane amount of words to say absolutely nothing is a sight to behold!

        • There is no need for lecturing and condescension. One thing I have learned from my seven decades of involvement in this endeavor is that farmers should be free to choose the techniques and tools that suit their needs. There is a big difference between running 2500 acres in illinois producing commodities for the global market and a truck farm in New Jersey growing organic produce for the metro markets and a small holder in Africa just struggling to bring in a paying crop. They should all be respected not lectured to and fearmongered.

          • While I agree that Agroecology needs more scientific rigor to convince certain scientists, you then are going to quote the pro DDT people?! Laughable.

          • I don’t know who the Risk Monger is and i’m not exactly sure why you are dragging DDT into this but the fact remains that DDT was a miraculous development which saved millions of lives from typhus and malaria. Yes it was prudent to take it ouf of widespread use but it does remain the most effective vector control for malaria.

        • If you want people to “get educated” on this topic feel free to provide links to studies backing up your claims about the yields that surpass conventional ag, the higher nutrient density of crops, reversing global warming through carbon sequestration, etc. Merely claiming all of those things are true and expecting us to believe it doesn’t make for a productive discussion.

    • I hear and see lots of handwaving about the advantages of “biodynamic farming” and “agroecology”, but very little data. Citations needed.

        • Rodale is an advocacy group. What else would they say? I daresay the introduction of Roundup herbicide and, most especially, the advent of RR crops some decades later had much more influence on the growth of conservation tillage and the resulting decrease in soil erosion and increase in carbon sequestration worldwide than any of these other practices.

          • Dare-cite?

            Any studies on industrial ag systems using roundup that build soil carbon? Are you meaning that the intro of said things contributed to building soil carbon directly or to a movement that sought to improve agricultural systems as a response to the hazardous systems that use RR crops and roundup?

            Don’t those systems typically use NPK fertilizers which are synthesized from extractive processes? I doubt they’re using compost/soil amendment techniques. Can you show me an example of what you’re talking about?

          • No citation, just my personal experience with direct drilling and no till. The stuff you are talking about just isn’t economic on a broad acres scale and thats just a fact of life.

        • Rodale was a nutcase. He ran a commune. He spent a lot of effort trying to get people to till their soil with a moldboard plow and fertilize it with their own dung. Rodale was a waste of skin & clean air.

        • Ha ha. Rodale is notorious for conducting studies that compare the best organic practices to the worst conventional practices (like no crop rotation). Then on top of that, they only count the years where crops were sold to give the average production values. They don’t figure in to annual average production the time that a field was just producing green manure. A real farmer has to eat every year.

    • “Properly scaled dynamic living systems blow the doors off industrial farming in terms of production consistently.”

      If you want to convince someone, show it, don’t say it.

    • So…are you a farmer? How much do you actually know about growing food? When is the last time you weeded an actual farm field? When is the last time you actually did any work whatsoever with regard to producing food? Until you do that, you have no point, and nothing to contribute to the public discussion about biotechnology as it pertains to food production.

Leave a Comment

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.

Send this to a friend