Will Organic farmers embrace GM crops to help feed the world?

In an interview with The Times, Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development at Imperial College London and a former government adviser said that the ban on organic farmers using GM crops was based on an excessively rigid rejection of synthetic approaches to farming and a misconception that natural ways were safer and more environment- friendly than man-made ones.

I completely agree with Gordon Conway that it makes sense for farmers to use the most powerful tools available to make their production more sustainable. Still, I think it unlikely in the short term that organic farmers will embrace the concept.

It is not that feeding the world, health of the consumers or care of the land are unimportant issues, it is just that the organic "brand" is now making a lot of money for all in the industry (Farmers, food processors, large corporate retailers such as Whole Foods, etc) and so there is zero incentive to change certification rules.

Thanks to Jonathan Eisen for pointing out this article.

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What would be the compelling argument for developed world organic farmers to make use of existing GM crops (I am not speaking here of crops in development, but what's on the table now)? I ask this as a sincere question. For someone who already eschews roundup, for example, and who is getting good yields with an existing hybrid, what's the rationale for choosing a GM corn? Since "feeding the world" isn't really at issue for most organic farmers - ie, most organic grains are not among those exported for feeding programs, and are being sold at higher prices to consumers who can afford them, what's the argument in favor?


As the price of energy increases, the lower energy practices will become more viable. Which takes less energy to grow organic soybeans vs roundup ready soybeans.

Organic soybeans: 3 trips over the field with a disk to kill reduce weed numbers, 1 trip over the field to plant, up to 8 trips with a ripper to kill weeds between the rows. (These are practices that my organic farming friends use)

Roundup ready soybeans: 1 trip over the field to plant and 1 trip over the field with roundup post emergence.

The roundup ready soybeans can be grown using far less energy needs in terms of diesel use.

"Organic" produce is a luxury for enthusiasts in the developed world. It requires more energy to get smaller yields. But it commands a higher price.

It's not at all unusual for a farmer to do both kinds of farming at the same time in separate fields. Being an "organic" farming is a business decision not an ideological one.

By Abdul Alhazred (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Mike - Organic couldnt really utilize RR soybeans and remain organic even with the acceptance of GM tech - Roundup is a man-made chemical which violates other organic principles.

Sharon - dependant on situation I'd argue for the utilization of insect protected crops in organic farming - I'm pretty sure that Bt use is an accepted organic practice, so to me it makes sense that using it in planta rather than having to go out and apply it makes more sense.

Obviously if you dont have insect control issues at all (or at least not ones which would be countered by the various Bt solutions), then you essentially dont have any need to utilize the currently available GM techs in your operation.

As time progresses, and more traits hit the market (WUE, NUE, intrinsic yield, other disease resistances, improved/altered nutrient content) it will become more likely that a transgenic crop would make sense in an organic environment.

Abdul - being an organic farmer may, or may not be an ideological decision (I dont think you can paint all in the same light - some may do it simply for the profit, others for the profit and the ideology, and some just for the ideology - my guess is that the spectrum probably is shifted towards the profit motive at the moment, however it isnt particularly useful to paint all organic farmers with the same brush (I do however insist they all be painted at least biannually)) however purchasing organic generally is an ideological decision, and one that seriously needs to be updated.

Natural is pretty much always better than man made. You mess with nature and she will strike back. GM crops are not good for anyone, their seeds spread to organic farms and infect them with their disease.

There is no world hunger, just the incorrect use of resources. We can all grow food in our homes and backyards, instead of relying on corporate monsters to do it for us. Why build one condo after the other and dumps like Wal Mart? Build greenhouses and indoor farms instead.

The knowledge is growing, Monsanto will be destroyed.

Maybe when GM crops aren't covered by non-disclosure agreements that prevent adequate testing of actual performance.

Yea -

I assume then that your advice to everybody in agriculture is to do away with their man made hybrids and the perversions of nature which are their overused varieties and instead focus on utilizing, hmm, I don't know, wild grasses in place of wheat, teosinte in place of corn, and whatever the ancestoral Brassica species is/are in place of all the Brassica species currently utilized in agriculture. In fact, given that agriculture is itself a man made endeavor (although perhaps some ants, or termites may disagree - I'll count them as an anomalous) perhaps we should do away with that, while at the same time culling off all man made varieties of livestock - what we truly need is apparently a wholesale reversion to a hunter gatherer lifestyle. That's bound to support an increasing global population (although technically in 40-50 years time post switch to hunter gatherer lifestyle it would solve the problem, in pretty much the same way as murdering 95% of the human population would, although with more suffering)

I'm sure the millions who go hungry every day agree completely with your assertion that there is no world hunger, and that the millions more who have enough to eat, but not with the right nutritional balance, are happy to hear that all their nutritionally derived diseases and problems are non-existant due to it not being a quantity but a distribution issue. I imagine all subsistence farmers who live on the brink of starvation every time drought threatens, or heavy rains wipe out their crop are grateful that you point out that everyone can grow food in their homes or backyards.

Considering how utterly impossible it is for the world to come to any sort of solution to the problems of distribution of food supply (problems which are likely to be exascerbated by increasing costs of fuel, and increasing awareness that transporting things half way across the globe is not a great idea in terms of the environment) solutions which can be utilized on the ground, in the areas where they are required (like golden rice, like flood resistant rice, like water use efficient rice, Bt crops, improved protein cassava, improved micronutrient cassava) and which have a realistic chance of ever actually getting out of the heads of the crackpot idealists who propose them as a solution are infinitely preferable to logically reasonably sound (when focusing just on the issue of resource allocation, rather than natural>man made etc) but practically ridiculous (at least in the short to mid term) drivel such as that you just spouted.

*deep breath*

and in response to Jon...

I'd argue that GM crops have had adequet testing of actual performance, 15+ years of cultivation, numerous safty studies, obvious yield parity or benefits (otherwise farmers wouldnt use them), obvious benefits in terms of insect control (otherwise farmers wouldnt use them) - the 'adequate testing' arguement appears to be clutching at straws when it is clear that the arguement against current GM useage is largely based on the imagination of the anti-GM crowd - lacking any grounding whatsoever in reality.

Mike, I don't think there's ever going to be organic roundup - period. So I don't think that even if Roundup ready soybeans were certified organic, that you'd be able to use them in a certified program, at least with the Roundup. And what's the point otherwise.

Ewan, I think it depends, doesn't it? The decision to use Bt corn, for example, assumes a pest level in existence - that is, it assumes that you need Bt in every ear at a certain stable level every single season, rather than responding to pest problems that may or may not emerge, and assumes that Bt corn is cheaper than managing pest problems some other way. It also assumes that you are not seriously concerned about emerging pest resistence to Bt corn.

The rest is hypotheticals - if new GM crops actually turn out to improve yields, offer other useful traits at lower cost that can't be obtained elsewhere, etc... Like the "feed the world" bit, it is kind of irrelevant at this point (note, I am not claiming it will never be relevant, just that it isn't inevitable that it will be). Again, I simply can't figure out how making GM seeds certified organic, even if you ignore all the arguments about GM itself would, at present, benefit organic agriculture.


I should have said above that in my second paragraph, some of those facts may be true - ie, it might be better for a farmer with heavy pest pressure to grow Bt corn. But it might not - that is, it doesn't seem to be obvious across the board.

I'm just not clear on why one would want to focus energies on making GM acceptable in organic agriculture at present.


You are correct that currently glyphosate and genetic modifications are not organic. But the question is, what will happen in the future. As energy prices increase, energy intense practices such as current organic production will no longer be sustainable. Those practices which require the least amount of energy will become sustainable.

With current diesel prices and current organic food premiums, farmers can make more profit even with lower yields and higher input costs. But energy costs are likely to increase. Once that happens, the most sustainable practice must be one of the least energy intense practice.

And, of course, you really, really want to make sure that you don't classify something with possibly detrimental health effects as organic.

You know, because we've only started to test GM crops for things like this: http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

The "feed the world" pitch is pretty tired and disingenuous because it is being used to dismiss all of the many serious and yet to be fully understood issues surrounding GM seeds by implying that anyone skeptical of GM (or even curious) doesn't care about poor people.

Sharon - I understand that Bt may not be required every season in every farm, however given that in seasons with pest pressure, if you are reactive rather than proactive with pest control measures, I would assume a certain level of yield loss as a result - the decision facing the farmer is whether or not the crop 'insurance' is worth it or not (and I believe in corn it only ends up being worth it in 10-30% (cant find the figures right now) of cases) - therefore for a certain %age of organic farmers the utilization of Bt will make sense, if you are concerned about emerging pest resistance to Bt then utilizing stacked IR combined with refuge seems to be the way to go - there have been no confirmed cases of Bt resistance in the field as a result of transgenic Bt utilization under proper useage guidelines (I believe in the US there may have been 1 or 2 cases of Bt resistance as a result of utilization of Bt in a non-transgenic setting, at least I vaguely recall another blog on which that came up)

Having Bt in all ears/roots benefits farmers in the conventional system. Why wouldn't this apply to organic farmers also?

On the rest being hypotheticals, yes, they are, but the conversation needs to be had now, acceptance needs to either be built up, or rejected, otherwise when/if these hypotheticals come into play you're looking at a steady uphill battle rather than the capacity to utilize asap.

Also - drought resistance, while not yet commercial, is scheduled for a release within the next 2 years, which means it has been through about 8 years of efficacy testing, disease resistance transgenics are a reality today (virus resistance papaya for instance), improved nutrition transgenics are a reality (Golden rice, and GRII) - we're essentially talking about technology that is at the regulatory stage for these things, not at the development stage - while they may not all have utility on a particular organic farm they would I imagine have utility on some organic farms - the stance "well I can't use it so it shouldn't be certified organic" really doesn't make sense - if in principle you personally would be willing to adopt a GM technology which benefits you (assuming it is in line with the general concept of what organic is - which is generally what Pam argues about transgenics in terms of organic utilization) then you should also be willing to see transgenics which benefit some organic farmers to be available under the organic banner. Unless there is some other tangible reason for rejecting them.

In response to Ethan:-

If by "we've only started to test GM crops for things like this" you mean that we've only just started to do 2nd reanalysis using dubious statistics and making biologically irrelevant conclusions which are largely derided by the scientific community on data generated by monsanto years ago"

Then yes, you're right. Also when you take into account that no such testing has been done on any product made by the organic movement or on any input utilized by the organic movement.

Will organic farmers embrace GMO's to feed the world?

Market driven so yes.

Organic gardeners?

No probably not.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Also when you take into account that no such testing has been done on any product made by the organic movement or on any input utilized by the organic movement.

This is a scientifically preposterous argument. But you already know that.

"Natural is pretty much always better than man made."

Tell that to Haiti.

Why is it a scientifically preposterous argument?

Comercially available GMOs have gone through scientifically rigorous testing. Non-GMO hybrids have not. Non-GMO hybrids may be altered in the expression and or sequence of hundreds of genes - if there is a risk of danger from GMOs then scientifically there must also be some risk of danger from altered expression/sequence of genes endogenous to the species. Natural does not = safe. If you are of the opinion that it does then may I suggest randomly sampling wild mushrooms without knowledge of wild mushrooms, or eating some Casava without preparing it properly, or perhaps if you have a peanut allergy I can interest you in some planters nuts, or eating *insert perfectly naturally occuring toxic organism here*

The proposed health risks of GMOs border on the unscientific (clearly this has to be taken on a case to case basis, I'm pretty sure there are certain pathways you could mess with, or add, that would make anything pretty toxic) yet they are tested, whereas the risks of other crop species (fear of which also borders on the unscientific unless you have sound reason) are not tested.

The continued health risk retoric coming out of the anti-GMO camp is no longer unscientific, but anti-scientific - they're bad for us because we have decreed that they must be, therefore all the actual science done is wrong, despite the lack of evidence, or even logic, for assuming currently commercially available transgenics pose any real danger, and despite the clear real benefits they have, they should apparently be written off for a health risk which exists only in the minds of those fundamentally opposed to GM tech on ideological rather than logical grounds.

Y'all lose all credibility when you use an argument so blatantly biased as hybrids v transpecies GMOs as if they were somehow equivalent. Now what does work and is cost effective is MAS breedinng and that has proven effectiveness in drought tolerance and salt tolerance, far more promising than anything that has come out of the transpecies school of genetic manipulation, but since it's a far dicier prospect when it comes to patents and profits it doesn't get the money for the research and development it deserves.Start telling the truth about everything related to this issue and then we can have a real discussion, yeah?

Can you explain why credibility is lost rather than just stating that it is?

To what extent has marker assisted breeding proven effectiveness in drought tolerance? The upcoming drought transgenic from Monsanto offers ~10% increased yield under drought stress conditions (if I remember right).

I also disagree that marker assisted breeding is inherently 'dicier' when it comes to patents or profits, or that it receives less money than it deserves - varieites and hybrids are covered by laws restricing users from saving seeds, and last I heard the Monsanto research budget (which until recently has probably been the major source of funding for transgenic research) is split approximately 50:50 between biotech (transgenics) and breeding (Marker assisted breeding). So your call for truth rings a tad hollow. And I absolutely stand by the statement that changing hundreds if not thousands of genes without knowing what you are changing is inherently risky at about the same level as altering a single (or a handful of genes) which you have a pretty good idea what they are and what they are doing (and generally exactly where in the genome they've landed, on top of literally mountains of metabolic and physiological data) - although to clarify I absolutely do not think this risk, in either case, is remotely worth worrying about.

Dismissing the issue of persistent famines on the basis of the source of the argument seems pretty callous and effete.

I will grant that I may be oversensitive, having spent time with kids who were chronically malnourished.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'll back Ewan up on the transgenic vs MAS breeding. And I'll further it; the crown research institute I work with has a nice cisgenic apple with boosted vitamin content that has been tested and tasted and has come out with flying colours (or, flavours!). But they're not even bothing to put it through field trials as it would be too expensive and would never be allowed to be grown here anyway, since its classified under law as 'transgenic'. Since apple has such a long generation time, the next few decades will be spent MAS breeding the damn thing to get the same bloody result.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

I would like to learn more about the cisgenic apple. very interesting! Can you post some references when you have a chance?

Sharon, I agree that there are not a lot of useful new varieties currently available for organic farmers. there is Bt sweet corn. Do you grow corn? My husband grows organic sweet corn here in California and it is often infected with corn ear worm, especially at the end of the summer. We waste a lot of food because we cut off the tips of the corn.

One of the points we make in the book is that we hope organic growers will get involved in the conversation about GE crops and ask for what they need. Just as you are doing. Thanks for the comments

@ Pam Ronald

I'm sure you've already heard of it; Red Field, the red-fleshed apple being developed by Plant&Food Research (formerly HortResearch). Not only does it look funky, its loaded with anthocyanins (though I have just found out flavonoids arent considered vitamins anymore? Goodbye vitamin P!). It's especially excitting after Gonzali's paper on purple tomatoes and rat cancer rates. Every little bit helps, right?

P&F Research got the idea from some rather foul tasting red fleshed crab apples, figured out some of the genetics behind it and engineered some good tasting ones. Granny Smith, I think it was. They waited a couple of seasons to get permission from the NZ government to taste test them (having tested them to make sure there werent any nasty chemical changes) but our government officials are invertebrates when it comes to GE. So they cored them and flew them over to the USA. Apparently they taste just like Granny Smith, only ever so slightly less crunchy. So now they're busy using conventional breeding so our government will like it.

The only scientific liturature I know on it is:

Espley, R.V. et al. Multiple repeats of a promoter segment causes transcription factor autoregulation in red apples
(2009) Plant Cell, 21 (1), pp. 168-183.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

Honestly, I think in the end a mix of sustainable growing and GM crops is probably the only way to sustain us. We certainly can't expect to be relying on Green Revolution techniques when looking down the barrel of Peak Oil; without a massive restructuring of the parts of society touching the energy sector, there simply won't be any way to produce all the synthetics we need. (Personally, I am endlessly fascinated by the idea of Cuba's urban organoponic farms; I don't know how well it translates to other cultures -- adding, say, ten floors of greenhouses to the top of a skyscraper or something -- but I've heard them described as one solution to the peak oil-like problems presented by the loss of the USSR as a trading partner.

The real problem is the organic movement itself, and its inherent Luddism. There's plenty of people who are quite openminded about it, but there's a lot who can't seem to think past organic as being an end in itself and don't really understand what it means or what it's supposed to mean.

There are two issues here how to grow good safe food and what seeds to use. The Organic growing system is the most superiour for economics, safety and production overall.

In Asia and South America they have developed through necessity breeding natural crosses of rice and corn that are drought and saline tolerant. Organic when compared to other farming methods it comes out as a superior option when growing safe food in difficult conditions.

Why do we need GE seeds is it because the mutagenic methods of hybridisation has destroyed all the genetic stability for nutrients and natural resistance of plants so we need to engineer them back again?

All GE seeds carry the proprietary insecticide and herbicide tolerant and resistant toxicity genes, often stacked, in all their cells throughout the growing season, by adding a nutrient gene does not change the inherant toxicity that the foreign gene nad vector systems have.

In America, weed resistance to the engineered proprietary chemicals is a major probelm for farmers and the bollworm has also be found to have gained resistance to Bt. Pesticide use on GE plants over the last 5 years has now risen to exceed conventional growing systems.

GE plant exudates and detritis have been found to have adverse effects on the soil microsystems as well as organ and blood changes in animal feeding studies.

In 2009 3 Bt corn varieties failed to pollinate this affected 202 acres of land in South Africa - what will that do for the World hunger?

In India, over 1500 animals died after grazing Bt cotton fields, deaths like this are unknown in organically farmed fields.

So what does that mean about the long term safety of GE plants? We already have red apple varieties naturally why are we not using these is it because of patent advantage?

Conventional and Organic methods of farming with heritage seeds will allow us to feed the world safely and long term.

Claire - citations please.

On organic in 'difficult conditions' - it is amazing in this case that the 'green revolution' is a victory of plant breeding with conventional inputs rather than of organic farming methods with low inputs. It also remains amazing that the rest of the world lags so far behind the US in terms of yield in the main crop species, by ridiculous amounts.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "the mutagenic methods of hybridization" - this could require some clarification. While mutagenizing can be used to generate more genetic variation when producing hybrids, hybridization is not, in and of itself, a mutagenizing process - and to argue that plants have lost a stability for nutrients (whatever that means) or a natural resistance completely ignores:-

a) The ever increasing yield from the 1950's to the present day in all crop species improved using hybrids - kudos to plant breeders for six decades of unmitigated awesome.

b) The ever increasing variety of resistances etc bred into crop species (by any available method) by these same breeders over the past six decades.

I'm sure that it will come to news to Pam, and academics across the world, that all GE seeds carry proprietary HT and IR genes (often stacked!!) - as, and I may be wrong here, I'm pretty sure that the flooding resistant rice is HT and IR free, and equally that golden rice, and GRII are equally HT and IR free (I'm going to also go out on a limb and state that none of the GE virus resistant varieties available right now have proprietary (or otherwise) IR or HT genes). The fact that most commercially available GE seeds right now are HT and IR is merely a function of these being the only commercialized varieties available (predominantly due to the prohibitory expense of regulatory clearance, but also as we currently sit on the cusp of a massive influx of new, non-commercially generated, GE potential)

You are correct that the addition of a gene will not effect the inherant toxicity that the foreign gene and vector systems have - it is just a shame for your arguement that the inherent toxicity of these systems is essentially zero (unless of course you are some hyper evolved lepidopteran which would explain your general level of annoyance at a technology which has claimed millions of your species) unless of course you have a valid citation which disproves this (1...2...3... discredited "study" by Seralini for 10 points?)

On the weed resistance problem - please explain why farming would then be any different without roundup - even assuming all roundup users were suddenly inundated with roundup resistant weeds (which is not even remotely close to being the case) how would this be different to if the technology had never been used? Also, you're clearly blowing the problem out of proportion otherwise sales of RR crops would have tanked, whereas they haven't.

Pesticide use on GE plants categorically does not exceed that used in "conventional systems" - if you look at what matters, the environmental impact of the pesticides used, then there is a clear cut drop of over 30% in the EI of chemicals sprayed. However the anti-GM crowd has to stick to pounds of material used, because it may be the case that for herbicides more pounds of active ingredient are required. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you take the time to consider it. Using a handy medical analogy, lets assume that for pain I was taking 2000mgs of painkiller a day for a few weeks, and then, miraculously, was given 20mg a day to take by the doctor instead. Wouldn't that be better for me, in terms of the harm it potentially causes? By your weak arguement, yes, it would. However from experience I wouldnt recommend to anyone taking 20mg of a narcotic painkiller a day for a few weeks rather than acetominophen - it isn't pleasant, and toxicologically is far more likely to mess you up than 100x the weight of active ingredient - I was more than happy to have a 10000% increase in active ingredient for that particular problem (thankfully now reduced to 0g per day...)

The african corn pollination was nothing to do with Bt - it was an effect of the creation of the hybrids, which has been reported previously in non-GE hybrids - funnily however GE corn in South Africa has done wonders for production there, remains in demand, and gets stronger every year - sort of atypical for something which is bound to cut yield....

"Conventional" and Organic methods used with 'heritage' seeds would systematically consign billions to death by starvation, it would utterly disrupt the entire western economy also - likely leading to a downturn to make 2008-2010 look like a minor blip (assuming a spend per family on food increase back to ~30% of income) - in the long term this might work out, once the global population stabalizes back around the 1-2 billion mark, the short to mid term however would be pretty bleak.

And a final little pet peeve of mine. "conventional" these days IS GE - at least for the major crop species grown in the US - corn, canola, soy, cotton, sugar beets, and soon alfalfa - it is a model that works, it outperforms the old 'conventional', it is more environmentally sound that the old 'conventional' - it consists >80% of these markets.

I also disagree that marker assisted breeding is inherently 'dicier' when it comes to patents or profits, or that it receives less money than it deserves

In Italy they have no issue with growing organic foods.It is mandated by law that all the children be feed fresh cooked organic food.I am not a scientist,but before our technology nature always took care of itself.This technology is still too new,even if you say it is around for 15 years.Why does mansanto,the congresional cafteria's serve organic food.Did anyone ask what the people want or what the long term effects will have upon our children.Kisinger and the quoted,he who controls the food controls the world.God gave us enough resources that was our born given rights.I will remind you what they are,fresh clean air,clean water and all the pure foods avaliable to mankind.These were are birth rights.All of you need to stop playing god.Lets be pro active and use differnt ways for energy.Putting an end to polution is they real answer.when man wipes himself out mother earth will rebuild itself back,but who will be around to see it if we continue this path. Please wake up all of you,capalitism in this area needs to go away.