Some organic farming advocates poised to embrace CRISPR and other New Breeding Techniques because of their sustainability benefits

klaas martens lakeview organics pedenmunk photographer
Organic farming advocate Klaas Martens

There is a new ongoing debate as to what plant breeding technologies constitute genetic modification. The transgenic GM crops introduced more than 20 years ago remain verboten for organic food production. If the pro-organic Cornucopia Institute and other organic food industry proponents have their way, all forms of gene editing and [New Breeding Techniques] would be classified as GM and join the list of practices prohibited for the production of food products eligible to be certified USDA Organic.

“We strongly oppose any efforts to revisit the issue of any type of genetic engineering in organic certification, and we will work to ensure that all genetic engineering remains an excluded method,” says Organic Farmers Association President David Colson. “Any suggestion that we should explore gene-editing or any other type of genetic engineering, would distract from the core issues the organic market is facing right now.”

On the other hand, some organic growers do see NBTs as a potential boon to their industry and are calling for revised rules that would allow growers to benefit from crop improvements created using gene editing. Klaas Martens, a prominent voice in the organic movement and a third-generation grain and livestock farmer, operates a 1,600-acre farm in New York’s Finger Lakes region. He also owns a feed and seed business. Martens says he would be receptive to using CRISPR gene editing technology to grow versions of naturally occurring crops that restore soil health.

“If it could be used in a way that enhances the natural system, and mimicked it, then I would want to use it,” Martens says. “But it would definitely have to be case by case.”

The farmers who are opposed to an absolute ban of biotechnology for organic production underscore the belief held by many that USDA Certified Organic crops can help farming become more sustainable as a rising global population demands more food.

“In my view, the use of genetic engineering technologies is the most powerful and honest ‘organic’ tool we have,” says Oliver Peoples, president and CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, an agricultural bioscience company focusing on the development of disruptive technologies to produce step-change improvements in crop yield for food and feed crops.

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