Skip to main content

Why aren't we talking about organic GMOs? And, why can't we all get along?

You've heard the rants about Mitt Monsanto versus Organic Obama. You've read the arguments on both sides for "Yes" or "No" on labeling GMOs in California. You've read the research surrounding the wholesomeness of "organic" versus "conventional." There's the divisive talk, the reasoned talk, and the rat-shi# crazy talk.

What I want to ask is this: Why aren't there more people, beyond scientists and academics, talking about organically grown GMOs? These last few weeks have had me thinking a lot about how the terms used to describe our food -- "organic," "conventional," and genetically modified" -- which only serve to confuse and distract from greater issues at hand.

The greater issues (in a nutshell): Agricultural and food scientists are given a heavy task of feeding nine billion people by 2050. Most will agree that it will come with substantial costs. Soil quality will suffer, excess pesticide and herbicide use will destroy biodiversity, nutrient runoff will keep fueling the algal booms, or "dead zones," that suffocate life in our lakes and oceans. The world's phosphorus reserves will be depleted. If you add in climate change to the mix, you can count on destroyed crops and suffering farmers, especially in the developing world. Food production will be more expensive. Food will be more expensive. Small farmers and the poorest among us will suffer.

Organic is not the answer, but offers lessons

"Organic" farming defined as it is now is not the answer. Scientific American blogger Christie Wilcox (@nerdychristie) deserves high praise for shattering myths about organic foods and for challenging their use as being better for the environment. She also rightly challenges the notion that organic pesticides are healthier or that fewer pesticides overall in food are healthier for you. (I'll add that some pesticides are good for you including my favorite: caffeine!).

Huge limitations are that organic agriculture requires more land and more labor. Organic agriculture also excludes synthetic pesticides (natural ones are not as effective and not safer) and herbicides aren't permitted (despite that ones like glyphosate degrade rapidly in soil). Organic farming is, thus, more expensive and more devastating to the environment because of increased carbon emissions. And, although reports vary widely, yields of organic agriculture are also estimated to be only half in comparison to conventional agriculture.

Yet the ideals of organic agriculture are still good -- less use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers while protecting soil. There are also lessons to be learned from organic agriculture. For example, crop rotation can help prevent nutrient depletion in soil. And, the use of animal manure and decaying plants instead of commercial fertilizer helps improve water-holding capacity of soil. Better water-holding capacity diminishes runoff.

Bringing in biotech

Now, allow me to get back to my argument and questions -- What if we added biotechnology to the picture? Why not organically grown GMOs, legislation to support expanding "Certified Organic" to include GMOs, and investment and research into more sustainable GMOs? 

Finally, what if more of the public learned to appreciate the very scientists who are trying to make these developments possible? Too few people are familiar with (and too few companies have invested in) important research using recombinant DNA going on right now that could surely help reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. For example,  
  • There are the scientists researching varieties of wheat genetically engineered to emit a non-toxic pheromone, which could lead to less use of pesticide. 
  • There are the scientists who've engineered rice to have larger root systems that take up more nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil, which reduces nutrient runoff.  
  • There are the scientists whose research involves improving abilities of crops to capture more light (improving yields), withstand extreme weather changes, high salt concentrations, or have greater resistance to diseases.  
  • There are also the scientists whose research is in genetically engineered algae that can help displace use of corn ethanol and petroleum while sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
  • And, there are the scientists who actively promote this kind of research and thinking such as plant geneticists Pamela Ronald, of UC Davis, and Nina Fedoroff, of Penn State. 
Currently, public perception and debate hinders the discussion of organic GMOs. Most lay people that I talk to appear to be only familiar with stories of either poor behavior from GMO-corporations like Monsanto, or their Roundup Ready crops as a source of overuse of fertilizer and pesticide, the destruction of biodiversity through expanded use of monoculture crops, and the spread of pesticide-resistant weeds. (Unfortunately, they are also familiar with the bat-shit crazy Jeffrey Smith, Mercola, and Mike Adams). 

What about conventional ag and food technology?

Let's not leave out "conventional" agriculture. There are also solutions to gain from developments in conventional agriculture, too. Too few people know about the new developments because ideologies tend to trump the science and technology. Yet a couple of years ago, food scientists from a variety of disciplines produced a scientific review on behalf of the Institute of Food Technologists that offered these solutions: 

  • "No-till" agriculture - retains organic matter and stops soil erosion
  • Integrated pest management - using pesticide only where it's needed, decreasing amount
  • Precision agriculture - targeting fertilizer to seed, pesticide to plant
  • Drip irrigation - controlling water
  • New technologies for recovering nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater (like Bill Gates toilets) 
I'll also add in food technology. Despite the massive criticism received by food technologists ("Big Food") for fueling the obesity epidemic, it will be their task for providing additional food processing solutions to feed the world's nine billion.

For example, there are many improved technologies for preserving food and extending shelf life of these foods. The technologies we have now (besides cooking) are mechanical operations (extraction and separation of oils), thermal treatments (blanching, pasteurization, and canning), refrigeration, dehydration, fermentation, acidification, etc. New technologies like faster thermal methods (microwave and ohmic heating) and high-pressure processing could help feed people in the future.  

Controlled-environment agriculture looks promising, too; that is, the designing of high-tech greenhouses that can be produced almost anywhere, including Antarctica, and can produce up to 10 times more produce than conventional farms with only a tenth or less of the resources. Cost is the prohibitive factor there.

A Unified Approach

So, why the dividing lines? Excluding GMOs from the label of "Certified Organic" is based in ideology and not in science. Too many people have it in their minds that GMOs are "anti-organic." It doesn't have to be that way. Food labeling of GMOs does little to solve this problem, but only discourages investment into biotechnology and its commercialization. The "Certified Organic" labeling also distracts from focusing on the progress that biotechnology and other technologies offer for more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices.

Catastrophe has been avoided before. In the 1960s and '70s, population growth outpaced food production. Bringing science to agriculture turned the tables and improved plant breeding techniques, which increased yields of common crops like wheat. Thanks to scientists like Norman Borlaug (and Fritz Haber, for that matter), the Green Revolution saved millions, mainly in China and India.

It can happen again. The goals shared should be improving crop yields in harsh environments, reducing nutrient runoff, reducing use of pesticides and herbicides, and reducing food waste and pollution through a combination of the best that organic, GMOs, and conventional techniques have to offer. There simply needs to be a more unified approach to improving food production and reducing its impact on the environment.

Update 09-26-12: And, about that flawed rat study everyone's talking about, I believe plant scientist Peter Bickerton beautifully summarizes my own thoughts, over on the "Topical Poetry" blog, with this masterpiece. Enjoy!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Which Photographer Are You?

To apply Plato's recommendation: If you know where you fit, in the immense range of the universe of photography, you'll have simple sledding with regards to promoting your photos.

Why? Above all else, there's nobody very like you. You have a fortune of encounters: information, know-how, and interests. In addition, you are a gifted picture taker. At the point when you know your own qualities and select your business sectors as needs be, you'll see that photobuyers like to work with picture takers whose documents of stock photographs coordinate their format needs. As it were, you communicate in their language.

Know thyself. You are a significant asset to photograph editors, in the event that you get your work done and discover the photobuyers whose photograph needs coordinate the photographs you like to take.

'Administration' PHOTOGRAPHY:

Numerous newcomers to the field of stock photography at first set their objectives toward publicizing, PR, modern, design, an…

The Impact of Single Parent Families

There is a rising pattern in families the country over. The quantity of separation procedures started is mounting and it is auspicious to discuss the effect of families on the youngsters and the organization of the family itself. As a matter of course, the nonappearance of one parent in the family structure negatively affects the connection between the parent and the kid just as their individual associations with society in general. They need to manage partiality busy working or in the network. The lower financial persona that is credited to them to make them an objective of misuse and hardships which ought not be available at all in any case.

The image doesn't become more clear concerning the youngsters. A few investigations have called attention to both present moment and long haul impacts of child rearing. Kids who come up short on the supervision of a male parent for the most part are inclined to wrongdoing, illicit drug use and resistance. A little girl in the family is boun…

What Could Be

With the beginning of each new year, it seems like everyone on the planet is either talking about or embarking on some type of resolution. I will be the first one to say that this used to be me each and every year. In almost every case, I tried to commit to something health-related like getting to the gym more or eating better. However, as time has passed, I have reflected on this annual tradition and deemed it to be quite silly in the greater scheme of things. Why should it take the passing of each new year to commit to change on both a professional and personal level? As such, I have not made nor pursued any resolution in many years.

An article by Mary Ellen Tribby in the Huffington Post sums up quite nicely why New Year’s resolutions don’t work:
As a matter of fact according to a study by The University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 39% of people in their twenties achieve their resolution goals each year.
And the number keeps decreasing with age. By the time you a…