Organic Agriculture and Genetic Engineering Work Together In Surprising Ways

By Ronit Ridberg

In the first post of this three-part interview, Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, authors of the book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, discuss why both organic agriculture and genetic engineering are important for the future of agriculture.

Names: Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak

Affiliations and Bios: Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, both of which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa. Ronald also serves as Vice President for the Feedstocks Division and Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute.

Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak discuss why both organic agriculture and genetic engineering are important for the future of agriculture. (Photo credit: Pico van Houtryve)

Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm.  Adamchak has been a member and president of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Board of Directors and inspected over one hundred organic farms for CCOF. He currently teaches organic production practices at UC-Davis, and manages the certified organic Market Garden at its Student Farm.

Both are co-authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.

Can you please offer a brief overview of why both organic agriculture and genetic engineering are important for the future of agriculture?

Ronald: The way I think about crop genetics is that there’s always a need for improved seed and there always has been. We have many ways to improve seeds from 12,000 years ago just domesticating, to primitive domestication, to the beginning of Mendel – so there was directed genetics and the development of hybrids, and then other types of inter-specific transfer like grafting and tissue culture and random mutagenesis. And now the latest aspect of crop genetic improvement is genetic engineering.

And so I think there’s no doubt that farmers love improved seed, and I can let my farmer-husband talk about that. But farmers are faced with changing environmental conditions, and now we have climate change. They’re faced with new pests and diseases, so there’s always a need for improved seed.

So for example, if you want to control disease, the most environmentally effective, and economically effective way to control disease is to have that resistance in the seed. So, for over 100 years, breeders have been developing disease-resistant varieties, and virtually everything we eat has genes for resistance in it. And so for me, genetic engineering is just another mode of improvement. And sometimes, it also opens up a huge, vast realm of possibilities for plant improvement. So it really depends on the situation – what’s going to be the best way to confront a particular problem. So plant genetic engineering is, as everybody says, no silver bullet, but it adds to the farmer’s repertoire of tools.

Adamchak: Probably the most important thing about organic agriculture is the ecological basis of it. When I look at our conventional farming system, there are a lot of pesticides being used that harm the environment, there’s an overuse of soluble synthetic fertilizers that contaminate waterways. In different parts of the world there’s soil erosion due to intensive farming practices that include monoculture and a clean tillage way of farming. And so organic agriculture offers some farming practices that can improve the environmental footprint of farming. They include crop rotation, the use of cover crops and compost and the enhancement and support of beneficial organisms that help suppress pests. So these critical aspects of organic agriculture need to be integrated into conventional agriculture if we want to have a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly system.

What is your response to the belief that organic agriculture can’t “feed the world”? How might a combination of organic and GE crops work together to provide enough food for our growing population?

Adamchak: If you take a problem-centered point of view, you look at what the problems are for the future, then you need to use the most appropriate tool to solve them. If the big problem in the future for example is soil erosion, then as I was saying there are lots of organic practices that help reduce soil erosion. If the big problem of the future is drought and flooding, and salty conditions due to the increase of the level of the oceans, then it might be that plant breeding solutions-including genetic engineering- might be the best solutions for those problems.

The other thing is, “feeding the world”? – I prefer a situation where countries have the capability for the most part to feed themselves. So the idea of US feeding Africa doesn’t seem like a sustainable or very practical solution. So when we say “feed the world”, I think it means giving people the capability of feeding themselves all around the world.

Where do you think focus in your respective fields will turn in the next 5-10 years?

Ronald: I think for plant genetics, for one thing most of the genetically engineered crops will not be released by corporations, that’s number one. And probably most of the genetically engineered crops will be grown in the less developed world.

One thing that’s sort of interesting is that in the year 2000, when the first plant genome was sequenced, it took 7 years, $70 million and 500 people. Whereas next year, the same project is expected to take 2-3 minutes and cost $99 – the numbers are really dramatic! From $70 million to $99, and from 7 years to 2-3 minutes.

What that means is that now we have lots of crops where the genomes have been sequenced, and not only do we have one variety but we’re starting to have many varieties sequenced –so we have this incredible access to genetic diversity, an incredible amount of knowledge on really important genes that can control resistance to disease, and to pests, and tolerance to environmental stresses. So all these genes can be used for the public good, and increasingly are being used for that.

Adamchak: I think that there’s been a lot of information about local and organic food, and about the environment that’s been put out there into our culture. And there’s an increasing knowledge and awareness of that. And especially given some of the health and diet-related problems in our society, it makes sense that there’s an increase in awareness of what healthy food is and how it’s grown. I guess I think that it’s a good thing that people are becoming more aware of what good food is, and I love the idea of supporting local farmers – because that would be a great asset for any region to have food being grown locally.

I guess what I worry about for the future in this country and in the rest of the world is also about the cost of food – organic food is expensive now, does it become more expensive, does it become more of an elite food or can the cost come down so it’s more widely affordable? And then in the developing world, there are some good reasons to incorporate organic practices into farming practices in those countries, but there may also be special plant breeding needs, special disease needs, special abiotic stress needs in those countries that we don’t have here. It could be challenging for organic farming practices to solve some of those special needs, like drought, flooding, salt tolerance, viruses, nematodes…

What do you think deserves more attention from donors and investors in the field of organic agriculture?

Adamchak: Well, organic agriculture probably benefits the most when disease and nematode and stress resistance is bred into the seed. Because there’s a much more limited selection of chemical controls that can be used to control those pests. So if you have nematodes in your soil as an organic farmer, as an example, and you don’t grow a nematode resistant variety, you’re not going to be very happy. You’re not going to have successful plants. So, more plant breeding helps organic growers a great deal.

Stay tuned to parts two and three of this interview, where Ronald and Adamchak address common misconceptions about their respective fields. To read more about the ways organic agriculture and plant breeding can be used to improve food security in Africa, see Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Chuck Benbrook, What Is an Appropriate Technology? And Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa.

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

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