The Many Misconceptions About Genetic Engineering and Organic Agriculture

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By Ronit Ridberg

This is the second of three parts of an interview with plant geneticist Pamela Ronald and her husband, organic farmer Raoul Adamchak. They are co-authors of the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.

What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about GE crops, and organic agriculture?

Ronald: I think the biggest misconception about organic is that the organic certification label means that it’s sustainable. What it means is that it follows a particular set of rules, some that are science-based, some that are not. And there aren’t any criteria for water use or land-use for example, in organic agriculture. And those are all key components, especially since we have to grow more food on less land and with less water. Those are really key components of sustainability, not to mention some of the pesticides that organic growers use that are not sustainable.

“A lot of people didn’t know that everything we eat has been genetically manipulated in some way.” (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

And for genetically engineered crops, I think the biggest misconception – and this surprised me, but when we went out and started talking about the book, a lot of people didn’t know that everything we eat has been genetically manipulated in some way. That nothing we eat really has been gathered from the wild. It turns out a lot of people think that for example, organic farmers gather the seed and plant it in the garden, and the seeds that they gather are from the wilderness! And so when you tell people that everything we eat is essentially influenced by human hands (except maybe some wild blueberries or chanterelles), everything we eat has been manipulated. In fact very little that we eat would actually survive out in a natural ecosystem because it needs a farmer to take care of it.

I guess the other thing about genetic engineering that people don’t know, is that National Academy of Sciences for example has looked at the process of genetic engineering, and that the process itself presents similar risks to conventional breeding. So sometimes people don’t understand that genetic engineering is a process for introducing genes – they maybe think it’s a farming method. So we try to make clear in our book it’s really just a process of improving seed. And the seed can be useful or not useful, but whether or not it was developed through genetic engineering doesn’t really influence that.

Adamchak: That there are some genetically engineered plants that haven’t been developed by corporations is an important one. That there are also genetically engineered plants that have been developed by other countries, independent of the U.S. and independent of corporations – China and Brazil have their own varieties, they have developed their own crops.

Ronald: Last year a new report came out from the European Commission Joint Research Center that said that in just a few years, half the genetically engineered crops will be from national institutions for domestic consumption. So what that means, for example is the Chinese government is funding genetically engineered crops – they’re going to release genetically engineered rice next year, and that’s for their people. So that means that less than half will be released from corporations.  A lot of people are worried that corporations are going to use this to take over the food supply, but it’s much more diverse than that.

You both speak about the benefits of breeding pest and disease resistance into crops. Some have said  this is a band-aid approach, especially as related to pests because of pests’ adaptation and migration. Can you respond?

Adamchak: Breeding plants for disease, insect, virus, nematode, etc. resistance is not a “band-aid” approach. It has been a fundamental part of crop selection and plant breeding since agriculture first began.  I have had great success over the past 30 years planting varieties with resistance to diseases, viruses, and nematodes, and the same varieties are still going strong.  Interestingly enough, organic farming practices help to preserve the longevity of plant pest resistance. A crop rotation that includes non-host crops, reduces selection pressure on the pest, which reduces the development of resistant strains. Will the resistant varieties last forever? Very little in our world does. Can they last a long time? Definitely.

In addition, our knowledge of plant resistance genes is expanding rapidly.  In the 1990’s, Pam and her lab worked for years to identify and validate one disease resistance gene in rice.  Since the decoding of rice genome and advances in molecular biology, her lab has identified 2300 other genes with the potential to provide resistance to diseases or abiotic stresses.  I think that the use of resistance genes is going to become more widespread and more effective.  And the way to prolong the effectiveness of the resistance genes is to use farming practices that reduce selection pressure.

The National Research Council report that Pam mentioned noted the development of weeds that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.  This is unfortunate because glyphosate is an herbicide that has been very effective, and is of very low toxicity to humans and the environment.  The herbicides it replaced are much worse. Since the glyphosate was used in a corn/soybean rotation on both the corn and the soybeans, year after year, it is not surprising that some weeds developed resistance.  If that rotation had included crops that were not being sprayed with glyphosate, then it is very likely that resistance would have been postponed for many years.

Bottom line: Resistance varieties are of great value in maintaining yields and reducing pesticide use. Their use can be extended with farming practices that reduce selection pressure.

Stay tuned for the final part of this interview, when Ronald and Adamchak address consumers’ responses to genetic engineering. To learn more about innovative methods for dealing with weeds, pests and disease, see Innovation of the Week: For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead, New Cassava Varieties Save Zanzibar’s Food Security and Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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