GMOs in Organics? Seriously?
Proponents of biotechnology have recently proposed integrating genetically modified organisms into organic agriculture. Spearheading this concept are Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California-Davis, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer at the UC-Davis’s certified organic farm. The two co-authored a book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, which argues that combining the best of both systems of agriculture—genetic engineering and organic techniques—offers the best solution to feeding the world in a sustainable way.
Tomorrow’s Table has been praised by GM crop supporters such as Bill Gates and even by Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Working with vs. Controlling Nature
However, several leading experts in organic agriculture dismiss the idea, saying the two approaches to producing food are fundamentally different. They say that genetically modified foods raise health and environmental concerns, narrow genetic diversity, reduce consumer choice, and don’t offer proven solutions to organic agriculture.
Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, calls the proposed marriage of GMOs and organics a “non-starter for a conversation.”
“Organic is always looking to nature for answers; it is a very thought out and studied way of learning from and mimicking nature, while genetic engineering takes the approach that nature is deficient in some way, so we have to fix it. That mindset is not compatible with organic,” Falck says.
Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable agriculture and long-time organic farmer, also sees a fundamental difference between organic and transgenic approaches. “Organic is based on ecological principles—synergies with biological systems. Genetic engineering is based on industrial principles, of using technology to empower a high-input agricultural system.”
Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s and past chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, sees the same fundamental difference. “Organic agriculture is based on the establishment of a harmonious relationship with the agricultural ecosystem by farming in harmony with nature. Genetic engineering is based on the exact opposite—an attempt to control nature at its most intimate level—the genetic code.”
Most organic experts point to health risks surrounding GM foods as a major reason why GMOs could never be integrated into organic agriculture.
Pamela Ronald has written that “there has not been a single case of illness associated with these (GM) crops.” This claim is often repeated by proponents of biotechnology but the reality is that no one knows if anyone has gotten sick eating GM foods because there is no monitoring to see if illnesses are linked to GM foods. “There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GM crops,” says Tim LaSalle, the former chief executive officer of the Rodale Institute.
Other experts agree. “Right now, we clearly don’t know enough about GMOs to integrate them into anything,” says David Vetter, president of Grain Place Foods and organic farmer of 35 years.
“GM crops are comprised of novel genetic constructs which have never been part of the human diet and may not be recognized by the intestinal system as digestible food, leading to the possible relationship between genetic engineering and a dramatic increase in food allergies, obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases,” Riddle says.
Organic experts see opposite impacts on the environment with the two approaches. “Organic agriculture is based on the fundamental principle of building and maintaining healthy soil, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems,” Riddle says. “To date, GM has led to an increase in the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, with associated increases in soil erosion and water contamination, while producing foods with lower nutritional content.”
“Organic farming is about health and concerns for environment and stewardship, and I don’t think that GM crops fit in that context of stewardship and concern about the land,” says Maury Johnson, president, Blue River Hybrids, an organic seed company
While organic farming aims to enhance genetic and biological diversity, GM crops are seen as reducing genetic diversity. “GM crops narrow and restrict our genetic base, which narrows and reduces options for our nutritional needs,” Vetter says.
Ronald and Adamchak point to the success of Bt cotton in reducing pesticide use as an example of how genetic engineering could benefit organic farmers. Kirschenmann says this “single tactic therapeutic intervention” creates unintended consequences. Pests eventually develop resistance as they’ve done to Bt cotton in India or other pests become a problem. The solution says Kirschenmann is an approach that encompasses at the entire farming system, not just focusing on one pest.
“Pipe Dream, Not Based on Reality”
Organic experts say GMOs offer no benefits to organic agriculture. The two main genetically modified crops either contain a built-in pesticide, Bt, or are herbicide tolerant. Dag Falck says neither application would benefit organic agriculture. “If we saw solutions, then maybe there is something organic could benefit from biotech,” Falck says. “But there is no GM application we could even remotely imagine being beneficial in organic. It’s a pipe dream and not based on reality.”
“To this point, biotech crops have not produced the yield advantages or biological resilience to multiple stressors. If we’re looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player,” LaSalle says.
Eliminate Consumer Choice
Allowing GMOs into organic foods would also reduce consumer choice. “If genetic engineering became part of organic it would deprive people who want non-GMO foods,” says Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists.
Organic consumers have already said they don’t want GMOs. A 1997 draft proposal to allow GMOs in the National Organic Program rules was removed after the US Department of Agriculture received more that 275,000 comments from people outraged by the possibility.
While there is strong consumer demand for organic foods, Riddle points out there is zero demand for GM foods. “Consumers aren’t demanding that foods be genetically engineered.”
“I’d rather rely on mother nature’s wisdom than man’s cleverness.” —Wendell Berry
David Vetter says this quote best captures his response to the idea of allowing GMOs in organics.
Any decision to allow GMOs in organics would not be decided by Pamela Ronald, Raoul Adamchak, Bill Gates, or the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “It resides with people in the organic community,” said Mellon speaking to an audience of organic farmers at the Organic Farming Conference. “It is your question to answer and not anyone else’s.”
Today, the answer remains—as it did in 1997 when 275,000 people told the USDA—a resounding “no.”
Ken is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.