Thinking Beyond Organic

There is little doubt that organic farmers have been instrumental in bringing the need for ecologically based agriculture to the public’s attention. That is a good start. We now need to move beyond organic (still only ca 2% of US agriculture) and embrace other tools and farming practices that can help shift current agricultural systems towards enhanced sustainability.

The need is dire.


1 billion people are malnourished, 300,000 people continue to die each year from pesticide-related poisonings, farming on ecologically sensitive land is expanding, the water needed to sustain farming dwindles and the world’s population is predicted to increase to over 9 billion people by 2050.

How can we feed the growing population in an ecologically balanced manner? Perhaps the famous environmentalist Rachel Carson said it best:

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing–entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists–all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic
controls.

In other words, we need the best biology to achieve a truly sustainable agriculture. This includes not only conventional tools for seed improvement such as pollination, tissue culture, mutagenesis, and grafting (mixing two species to create a new variety) but also, modern molecular tools such as marker assisted breeding and genetic engineering.

This is one of the points that Karl Haro Von Mogel, a geneticists, beekeeper and blogger, makes in his recent blog post. Because both genetic engineering and more conventional approaches to plant breeding lead to the creation of seed that carry new combinations of traits, it does not make sense to reject either one based on the reasoning that the processes are “unnatural”.

Every time a breeder makes a cross between two plants he or she is creating an organism that has never before existed. And every time a breeder crosses two plants, the genetic combination represented by the offspring has never before existed. And that’s how nature, how evolution works – by creating new combinations.

The question is not whether GE crops can be used in organic agriculture (they cannot as they are currently banned by the National Organic Program Standards), but rather -can GE crops be used to help shift our current agricultural systems towards enhanced sustainability?

Read his post and the recently released National Research Council report on “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the US” and let me know if you think the use of genetically engineered crops is compatible with goals of sustainable agriculture.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Smith
    April 13, 2011

    The virus and bacterial in the world have been are inserting foreign genetic material into other organisms as standard protocol and life has been bootstrapping genetic solutions from itself for a long time. http://www.paydayline.co.uk/

  2. #2 jimbob
    February 1, 2011

    Many other people are too and are actively seeking corrections. Initial corporate control of a technology is not unusual given the capital investments involved. http://www.floridarefinancemortgagerates.com The computing ability (or a small facsimile thereof) you are using to type this with was once only in the hands of large powerful corporations. It is now in everyone’s hands.

  3. #3 jimmy
    February 1, 2011

    The virus and bacterial world have been, and are now, “injecting” foreign genetic material into other organisms as standard protocol. Evidence is mounting that life has been bootstrapping genetic solutions from itself for a long, long time. Anything we could do would be far less than a drop in the bucket (not to mention that it has almost certainly been done in the wild at some point). Add to that the fact that transgenics are more intensively tested than any other agricultural product in history, and I put the risk at negligible. http://www.onlineforextradingstrategy.com

  4. #4 air max 2009
    September 9, 2010

    Mami está com dificuldade em se lembrar….pois eu sou muito bem compurtada….a não ser a ultima vez que fui levar a vacina, dei uma valente trinca no medico (até ficou a deitar sangue!!!9 bem feita…quem é que mandou picar-me duas vezes…a primeira passou a segunda levou…..a mami ralhou (que gata tão feia, mas ela acha que ele é que foi o culpado ,porque era custume só levar uma pica).

  5. #5 Pdiff
    May 11, 2010

    Thomas Hager:“but I am troubled about unforeseen effects of transgenes into crops from non-plant species.”

    Then close your eyes. The virus and bacterial world have been, and are now, “injecting” foreign genetic material into other organisms as standard protocol. Evidence is mounting that life has been bootstrapping genetic solutions from itself for a long, long time. Anything we could do would be far less than a drop in the bucket (not to mention that it has almost certainly been done in the wild at some point). Add to that the fact that transgenics are more intensively tested than any other agricultural product in history, and I put the risk at negligible.

    Thomas Hager:“I am very concerned about the patenting process in this field, corporate influence, and its economic and social effects on small farmers in less developed countries. And so on.)”

    Many other people are too and are actively seeking corrections. Initial corporate control of a technology is not unusual given the capital investments involved. The computing ability (or a small facsimile thereof) you are using to type this with was once only in the hands of large powerful corporations. It is now in everyone’s hands.

    With GM, the situation is changing as more governments and NGO’s move into the area. IP ideas from the computer and publishing worlds, such as open sourced material, are being explored as options. This is a political/social problem, not a technical or biological one.

  6. #6 Laura
    May 11, 2010

    The linked article was depressing. I am in favor of GE crops that not only reduce the need for pesticides and acreage, but also produce better-tasting produce with improved shelf-life. Whenever we can increase the yield from our existing farmland, we can avoid destroying pristine areas. Let’s make the most of the fields we already have with more fruitful and more hardy crops after they are adequately evaluated to avoid potential negative impact.
    On a personal note, I’m eternally grateful to what science has done for the tomato. Just a few decades ago, the tomatoes available at the grocery store tasted like card board. Of course, nothing can beat a home-grown tomato from your garden. But they are coming fairly close. Last night, I sliced up a store bought one that was absolutely delicious! Also, the can of Trader Joe’s corn (no salt/sugar added)was almost as crisp and sweet as fresh corn-on-the-cob. It’s a pleasure to see my kids actually enjoy their vegetables (yes, I know tomatoes are technically fruit, LOL).

  7. #7 Ellen Altena
    May 11, 2010

    I don’t think that GE crops be used to help shift our current agricultural systems towards enhanced sustainability, and if they will, it will still take a long time.

    Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading it.

    Ellen.

  8. #8 Mary
    May 10, 2010

    Oh, I totally prefer the idea of harmless-to-human proteins vs. chemical compounds. I very much like the idea of increasing the nutritional content of traditional foods that people rely on in the developing world. I could probably stand a little golden rice myself. I love the idea of helping plants fix their own nitrogen and reducing inputs. I like the idea of producing suitable medically therapeutic proteins and vaccines in plant cell culture. I would love to see the GE American Chestnut restore habitats.

    So yeah, I’m on board.

  9. #9 Thomas Hager
    May 10, 2010

    As a science writer who is very concerned about the sort of world my children will inherit, I have followed the issue closely (along with related and equally important issues such as fertilizer use and development, water use and pollution, etc.)

    I have a background in molecular and microbiology, and write about history. From that perspective, I feel that it is not a question of compatibility between genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture. It is, given the immediate need for vastly increased yields-per-acre, a necessity.

    It is time for a New Wave in organic farming, one based on today’s realities rather than those of the 1970s. I know, that sounds cold — I’m a child of the 1970s — but, well. . . .

    (That said, I do worry about a few things that fall under the heading “genetic engineering.” I have little problem with plant-to-plant crosses as long as they’re robustly safety tested, for instance, but I am troubled about unforeseen effects of transgenes into crops from non-plant species. I am very concerned about the patenting process in this field, corporate influence, and its economic and social effects on small farmers in less developed countries. And so on.)