Counterpoint: Why Organic Farming Won’t Get Hitched with Genetic Engineering

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Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist and professor at the University of California, suggests a marriage between two agricultural practices that have long been on opposite spectrums: genetic engineering and organics (Read more about Ronald’s ideas in a recent Utne post). While Ronald’s arguments on their surface seem viable for addressing the global food crisis, she fails to flesh out the vast uncertainties of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the problems they’re already causing to the environment, health, and the future of organic farming. She does, at least, acknowledge these concerns, though labels them as unfounded fears that are “driven more by technological anxiety than by science.” Many scientific findings suggest otherwise, and it doesn’t take long to see that her ideas are as grandiose as they are unlikely.

Ronald uses the example that genetically engineered (GE) crops have resulted in lowered pesticide use, a reduction that has tangible benefits to both the earth and humans. It’s easy to be satisfied with lower pesticide use, but many more factors are considered in calculating and ensuring the health of the environment and the population. The Organic Trade Association lists reasons it is opposed to GE agriculture; one among many refers to a study showing that GE potatoes changed the bacterial communities in the soil. Just this July, U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced three bills that will help to regulate the use of GMOs because studies haven’t yet been done to gauge the long-term effects of GMOs on our health. One of the bills is the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, which would require proper labeling of GE food. People are starting to raise the roof about the issue, precisely because the risks of GMOs are too great to passively accept the lax regulations on them.

Along with health and environmental concerns, many organic farmers have the future of their business to worry about with the advent of GMOs infused with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Non-engineered Bt is one of the most useful natural pesticides allowed in organic agriculture, and many organic farmers use it along with other techniques to guard their crops from harmful bugs. As Bt-engineered crops increase, so does the concern among organic farmers that they will lose the ability to effectively use Bt because long-term pesticide use in concentrated areas can lead to the targeted pest building resistance. And it’s not just an unsupported concern. Already, weeds have smartened up and become resistant to some strains of herbicide-fortified GMOs, according to Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott in their new book Beyond Biotechnology (University Press of Kentucky, 2008). Increased resistance means that biotech companies will need to come up with new GMOs to combat the problem, leaving farmers ever more dependent on them for seed.

Ronald suggests that genetic engineering and organic farming join together in order to sustainably produce enough food to feed the world, but the very nature of organic farming rejects this idea. There are reasons people support organic food–the two most common being for health and environment. With very little research coming to conclusive results about the environmental and human health impacts of GMOs, Ronald has no authority to make such an egregious suggestion. Her ultimate goal in combining organics and genetic engineering is to increase agricultural production to address world food shortages, a noble plan, though lacking foresight. Holdredge and Talbott concisely counter her idea:

Feeding the world is not just a question of increasing yields. When we believe it is, we divert our attention from the much broader social, political, economic, and ecological issues influencing food production and hunger. If we continue to live under the illusion that we will find a technological solution to world hunger, and if we set our hopes on such solutions to channel our money and energy into their development, we can be pretty sure that world hunger will only grow.

Image by Jeff Kubina, licensed under Creative Commons.

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