I think that there are many in the organic food movement who recognize that genetic engineering has a role to play in the future of food. But concerns about what it should be, and who should be making that decision, are valid. I am all for nonprofit groups and university researchers working to alleviate starvation in the third world. I trust their motivations and scientific integrity. I have no such faith in agribusiness.
Traditional small family farming, with natural fertilizers and crop rotation, should be the starting point for discussion, not viewed as some fringe agenda. Organic farmers are not wrong to want to hang on to the gains of thousands of years of agricultural learning, the benefits of biodiversity and foods’ naturally adaptive systems.
When a challenge arises that exceeds the limits of traditional farming, seeking solutions through genetics is appropriate.
But large-scale monoculture farming inhibits the ability of small farmers to choose their own methods or crops. Entire regions become dependent on Roundup, Monsanto’s pesticide for genetically engineered crops.
I am not afraid of technology, but I am distrustful of the motivations of Monsanto and its ilk.
This seems to be the crux of why many people oppose genetic engineering, They do not trust Monsanto. But the National Organic Program Standards do not prohibit farmers from growing Monsanto-purchased seed. They only prohibit seed that has been genetically engineered. So a small farmer that uses GE papaya to protect her crop from a devastating disease that cannot be controlled by any known method, developed in a university lab by a local Hawaiian using government funds (not for profit), cannot be certified organic.In contrast, a large grower that purchases Monsanto seed and plants a monoculture can be certified organic.
Are the NOP rules, which do not take into account issues of monoculture and large corporations or sustainability, already outdated? Here is what one reader had to say:
The US definition of what’s organic and what’s not grew out of the knowledge base of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s time to revisit and update the science, to create Organic 2.0, with an eye toward meeting the needs of the future rather than continuing the practices of the past.
Here is another letter about Monsanto and organic:
The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, a case that addresses the ecological and economic problems caused by genetic contamination of crops.
A decision favorable to Monsanto could lead to widespread contamination of organic alfalfa with engineered alfalfa, which could destroy the organic milk industry, which depends on alfalfa.
The point here is not that any environmental or human harm will occur, but that there could be economic damage because of fear of GE crops. It is well established that the GE alfalfa in question does not cause harm to human health, to the cows that eat it or the environment. In fact according to a 2009 report by the USDA, planting of GE alfalfa is expected to reduce the contamination of waterways with herbicides that are three times more toxic. The fear then is that it would affect consumers perception of the purity of what they are feeding their cows, which could possibly affect the organic milk industry. It is highly likely that cross -pollination of organic crops will occur at some low level because alfalfa is cross-pollinated by bees. Cross pollination does not affect management of organic crops because organic farmers do not use herbicides. Nor will it affect organic certification because the NOP allows small amounts of pesticide or pollen drift from neighboring farms. The court case is expected to be decided in early June. More on this case can be found here.
And then there were letters with heartfelt concern for farmers growing crops in very difficult environments:
The growing of corn by an African peasant farmer from corn seeds that he has kept from the harvest of the previous year gives him more food security than growing a genetically modified seed, which may give a high yield, but over whose availability he has no control.” .
This comment reflects the fact that many African farmers live far from seed distribution centers or cannot afford to buy new and improved seed. It also enforces a common misperception of GE seed- that it is somehow different from conventionally bred seed. The process of genetic engineering does not affect farmers ability to save the seed. Hybrid seed, which existed for decades before the advent of GE, cannot be saved because the progeny have less desirable traits than their parents. This is why in the west many farmers (organic and conventional) buy hybrid seed each year. One of the advantages of flood tolerant rice developed by scientists at The International Rice Research Institute, is that it is not a hybrid, the seed can be saved by farmers.
Genetically engineered or conventionally bred- it is just seed, with benefits and limitations wrapped into one package, completely dependent on the farmer to maximize its potential.