Ten bad reasons why GE is incompatible with Organic

This is part II of a three-part series on Orgenic Backlash. How is the organic sector handling the argument in favor of integrating of genetically engineered crops into organic agricultural systems?

Previously, I showed how Jim Riddle’s 10 reasons why genetic engineering is incompatible with organic agriculture apply equally well to plant breeding. But many plant breeding techniques are allowed in organic agriculture. So how can these characteristics apply to both breeding and genetic engineering while one is compatible and the other is not? The answer lies in a tangled web of invalid logic and unsound argumentation. It requires not only misrepresenting genetic engineering, it also misrepresents organic agriculture. Let’s go through point by point. (You might need a cup of coffee or a stiff drink)

1. Basic science. Humans have a complex digestive system, populated with flora, fauna, and enzymes that have evolved over millennia to recognize and break down foods found in nature to make nutrients available to feed the human body. GMO crops and foods are comprised of novel genetic constructs which have never before 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, which have all dramatically increased correlated to the introduction of GMO crops and foods.

Riddle starts off with a convoluted argument here. I have seen this articulated elsewhere and each time I read it it raises the hair on my back where my prehensile tail should be. This is a mangling of evolutionary biology as well as a misrepresentation of organic agriculture. Most of the foods we eat have not ‘evolved with us’, some of them have only been widespread in the human diet for hundreds of years, some less. And thousands of years is still too short of a time span for us to have evolved resistance to everything harmful in what we eat, nor is there a cohesive way to define foods that are perfectly safe and digestible for us as a result of such evolution. Additionally, the only recent human dietary evolution I am aware of is lactose tolerance past childhood, and not everyone has it (I don’t). This came about when a recent mutation gave dairy-dependent populations a competitive advantage over their lactose-intolerant forebears. Even if we evolved tolerances to different foods, they would probably only be in specific populations, too.

So because genetic engineering can introduce a novel protein that we have not eaten before, so too can plant breeding. Case in point: Organic Kiwifruit. This is a recent introduction into our diet, and it has been known to cause allergic reactions. Yet, this is not cause to exclude it on the principle that it brings novel substances into the human diet. Therefore, the presence of novel substances is not a reason to differentiate between what is or is not compatible with organic agriculture. Finally, there is no evidence that GE crops are the cause of any rise in allergies. As for the claim about diabetes and obesity – this is simply grasping at straws.

2. Ecological impact. Organic agriculture is based on the fundamental principle of building and maintaining healthy soil, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems. Since the introduction of GMOs, there has been a dramatic decline in the populations of Monarch butterflies, black swallowtails, lacewings, and caddisflies, and there may be a relationship between genetic engineering and colony collapse in honeybees. GMO crops, including toxic Bt corn residues, have been shown to persist in soils and negatively impact soil ecosystems. Genetically modified rBST (recombinant bovine somatrotropin, injected to enhance a cow’s milk output) has documented negative impacts on the health and well being of dairy cattle, which is a direct contradiction to organic livestock requirements.

As with the allergy claim above, Riddle is confusing correlation with causation when talking about impacts on insects. Even so, the monarch butterfly claim is easily addressed by an authoritative resource published by the USDA. The caddisfly claim is probably based on a flawed paper (debunked here by Anastasia) that did not use proper controls. As for the lacewings, I have not heard this claim before so I had to look it up. It took all of one minute. But the one that I object to more personally as a beekeeper who follows the news is his claim that GE crops may be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Here he has not been paying attention to the research that has come out about CCD and is repeating cultural mythology that even Wikipedia debunked years ago. These are the kinds of claims that distract researchers from the real problems that need investigating and delay their solutions.

The fact is, you can use genetic engineering to improve the ecological impact of farming, just as you can with breeding. Some alterations may make the ecological impact worse, while some may make them better. But throwing a blanket of misinformation over the entire technology and generalizing in that fashion does not do anyone justice. Even if the only example of a GE crop was one that harmed the environment, it would not mean that all GE applications will do so. Moreover, organic agriculture is not a guarantee that the ecological impact is superior. Excessive tillage and erosion can and does occur. There are cases where organic farms are worse than their conventional counterparts. Should tractors be banned from organics?

Finally, if rBST would not mesh with organic livestock requirements, then don’t allow rBST. But because something like herbicide tolerant soybeans would obviously not work with organics, that doesn’t mean that Bt corn or cotton can’t.

3. Control vs harmony. 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, creating organisms that have never previously existed in nature.

Let’s not beat around the bush beans. Organic agriculture is an attempt to control nature through trying to set up a more harmonious relationship with the agricultural ecosystem. Since when is plowing the soil with a tractor, spreading composted manure, and spraying crops with Bt-toxin producing bacteria not trying to control nature? Organic agriculture is best described as a more biological approach to farming as opposed to the more “chemical” approach that it was a response to. In that sense, genetic engineering can fit in perfectly. And it can be used to foster a more harmonious relationship with the natural world. Traits such as drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, and disease and pest resistance are examples where genetic engineering can (and in some cases has already) benefit farming through reducing their ecological impact. Spreading less manure (or getting more out of it, watering less, and having to employ fewer inputs to control pests and diseases can help organic agriculture do just what it has set out to do. If you say, “well, you can work on those traits with breeding,” then you have already admitted that trying to control the genetics of a plant is compatible with organic agriculture.

Every time a breeder makes a cross between two plants he or she is creating an organism that has never before existed. And every time a breeder crosses two plants, the genetic combination represented by the offspring has never before existed. And that’s how nature, how evolution works – by creating new combinations. If the absence of new combinations was a criterion for organic, then there would be no plant on this planet or breeding method compatible with organic systems.

4. Unpredictable consequences. Organic ag is based on a precautionary approach – know the ecological and human health consequences, as best possible, before allowing the use of a practice or input in organic production. Since introduction, genetic modification of agricultural crops has been shown to have numerous unpredicted consequences, at the macro level, and at the genetic level. Altered genetic sequences have now been shown to be unstable, producing unpredicted and unknown outcomes.

It is very interesting that Riddle includes unpredictable consequences in his list of things that organic agriculture does not have. In some respects such as requiring manure to be composted if it is to be spread on crops that are anywhere near harvesting, there is a measure of precaution in organic agriculture. But in the area of the genetics of plants, the organic rules are in fact contradictory on this note. Let me start by asking you, what is the most disruptive thing you can do to modify the genetics of a plant – the one that has the highest risk of unintended consequences? And is it allowed in organic agriculture?

The answer is not “genetic engineering, and no” – it is “mutagenesis, and yes.” Using radiation or chemicals, you can create random mutations all over the genome of a plant. Then you look at thousands of plants that have gone through this process and pick out some that have interesting traits that you can use. Finally, this trait is bred into the crop that you grow. But along with your desired trait there are many other unknown changes that have occurred in the genome and there is no way of knowing where they are except by sequencing the whole thing. Several studies have compared mutagenesis to genetic engineering in its potential to cause unintended consequences, and GE has always come out looking good. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences compared the risks of unintended consequences between different methods, and concluded that yes, mutagenesis is the worst offender. Mind you, the risks of all the methods they surveyed are low, but if you are going to start drawing lines about acceptable risks, clearly the reason why mutagenesis was ‘grandfathered’ into organic ag and genetic engineering was excluded has nothing to do with relative risks.

We have eaten many foods made from crops that have been modified by mutagenesis, and to no ill effect. The same with genetic engineering. What is interesting is that regular old plant breeding has had its fair share of unintended consequences. That’s why I brought up the potatoes and celery because the old traditional way has caused more harm than the newer methods.

5. Transparency. Organic is based on full disclosure, traceability, information sharing, seed saving and public engagement. Commercial genetic engineering is based on secrecy, absence of labeling, and proprietary genetic patents for corporate profits. The “substantial equivalence” regulatory framework has allowed the GMO industry to move forward without the benefit of rigorous, transparent scientific inquiry. The absence of labels has allowed genetically modified products into the U.S. food supply without the public’s knowledge or engagement., and without the ability to track public health benefits.

While there is nothing in the Organic rules that mandates transparency at every level, Riddle is making a philosophical point here. And that is that ideally, organic agriculture involves making it easy for consumers (producers, farmers, etc) to know everything about the food that they are eating. Currently in the U.S., labels are not required for foods produced involving genetic engineering when it does not change the nutritional or culinary aspects of the food. It is also not prohibited, either. The FDA even has suggestions for how producers can voluntarily label their products as being ‘produced through biotechnology’ and such. Therefore, you can have complete transparency of foods that are genetically engineered and grown in an organic system.

Let’s imagine that today, the Rodale Institute came into a bunch of money and decided that they wanted to start up a genetic engineering project. They could do it completely open-source, tell everyone what they are doing and how they are doing it, and send the resulting plants to independent labs for additional testing. Riddle is not separating the technology from his views of the current regulatory structure. Perhaps he means to say that the regulations that current crops have gone through does not meet his criteria for what would be necessary, but you could, if need be, add additional requirements for GE crops that will be allowed into the organic system. It is simply not true that there have been no independent tests of GE crops, nor that they are virtually unregulated, either. Just take a brief look at this list to get an idea how much scrutiny goes into these crops.

Plant breeding is almost completely unregulated, and harmful mistakes have been made through just rubbing flowers together and growing what came of those crosses. We have no idea what the breeding history is of any of the produce in the supermarket, whether conventional or organic, so where is the transparency on plant breeding here? Polls have shown that a sizable number of people, (40%) believe it or not, want to know if the plant they eat are hybrids!

I would like to know whether any of the organic produce that comes from California has been hand-weeded (by latin-American laborers) – a backbreaking practice banned from conventional ag – but the Organic sector fought for an exemption. No conventional or organic produce must be labeled with what pesticides it has been sprayed with (And there are organic pesticides.) I daresay full transparency is not a characteristic of any agricultural system we have today.

6. Accountability. Organic farmers must comply with NOP requirements and establish buffer zones to protect organic crops from contamination and from contact with prohibited substances, including genetically engineered seeds and pollen. Genetically engineered crops do not respect property lines and cause harm to organic and non-GMO producers through “genetic trespass,” with no required containment or accountability.

Organic food is a premium market. Before genetic engineering came along, it set itself against conventional agriculture that was largely dependent upon artificial inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. Organic did not want to to have anything to do with that. But like gene flow through pollen, pesticides and fertilizers also have “spillover” effects. Organic agriculture promises its customers that they will make an extra effort to keep these substances from coming in contact with their crops. It would make no sense for a small percentage of organic farming operations to demand that the other 98-99% of farms stop using anything that could ‘contaminate’ their crops and lower their value in a premium market. But that’s not exactly what Riddle is arguing here. Actually, he is arguing something quite bizarre.

This is the formal argument:

A. Organic standards do not permit GE crops

B. GE crops can ‘contaminate’ organic farms through pollen drift, potentially causing harm because they are not permitted.

C. Therefore, GE crops will not work if allowed into the organic standards.

Do you see what the argument is? It is a circular argument. GE crops shouldn’t be allowed in organics because… GE crops aren’t allowed in organics. Note that his objection to gene flow only works while GE is prohibited from organic agriculture. If the standards were changed today, it would no longer be an objection. And as a circular argument, it is also invalid.

Finally, although Riddle does not state that GE is a “prohibited substance,” his wording implies that GE is a prohibited substance in the organic standards – whereas it is actually an “excluded method.” Testing is required only for prohibited substances, too. While there are no maximum thresholds for GE traits in organic fields, without any requirement to keep all genes out or test for them it doesn’t follow that organic farmers are being harmed economically by a low-level presence (LLP) of transgenes. Since Riddle is the Organic Outreach Coordinator for UM, it would be important not to gloss over the distinctions in the NOP requirements, and instead ensure that everyone understands exactly what the NOP requirements are. For an excellent discussion of these distinctions, I suggest reading If your Farm is Organic, must it be GMO Free?

7. Unnecessary. It is well established that healthy soils produce healthy crops, healthy animals, and healthy people. Research and development should focus on agricultural methods, including organic, which recycle nutrients to build soil health, producing abundant yields of nutrient dense foods, while protecting environmental resources. To date, recombinant genetic modification has contributed to the development of herbicide-resistant weeds and 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. Technologies, such as genetic engineering, which foster moncropping are not compatible with organic systems, where soil-building crop rotations are required.

Healthy crops involve an interplay between the soil, the weather, the genetic potential of plants, pathogens and pests, and the human health aspect involves a further interaction with human physiology, food preferences and how much time you leave yourself to cook. So while organic agriculture often criticizes conventional agriculture for being too “reductionistic,” here Riddle is reducing our health to merely the health of the soil. While some nutrients are elevated (and a few depressed) in some organically grown crops, largely there is little difference between conventional and organic foods. While research should continue on how growing methods can affect nutrient levels (particularly a plant’s response to stress), there is a huge amount that can be gained through altering the genetic potential of the foods that we grow. This can be accomplished through breeding for nutrient content and bioavailability, and where there is little genetic variation for such traits (or pressing need such as beta-carotene and iron-enriched staples in developing countries) this can also be done with genetic engineering. Take a look at my post about enhancing calcium content in carrots and lettuce for an example.

As for soil erosion, herbicide tolerance in GE crops has contributed positively to the adoption of “no-till” agriculture. While organic no-till research is ongoing (I have seen some such plots myself and they do not look pretty to the eyes or by the numbers), soil erosion has been lessened through reducing the need to plow up and disturb the soil. While many anti-GE people argue that it has not, even Charles Benbrook from the Organic Center has told me (in a recorded interview, not yet posted) that he accepts that it has. He also penned that Bt corn and Bt cotton have reduced insecticide applications considerably.

There is nothing about genetic engineering that says that you need to mono-crop on your farm. Furthermore, there is nothing about genetic engineering that prevents a farmer from planting a cover crop after harvest. This is a complete misunderstanding of what genetic engineering is – it is a tool for modifying the genetics of an organism – it is not an agricultural system or a philosophy on how things are to be grown. Just like you can breed a crop for a particular agricultural system (low input, for example) so, too, can you engineer a crop that is appropriate for such a system.

To come back to the issue of Riddle’s “Healthy Soil” reductionism, if it was all due to healthy soil then there would be no need for plant breeding just as he believes there is no need for genetic engineering. Finally, there is no evidence that genetic engineering has lowered the nutritional content of foods – another piece of cultural mythology espoused.

8. Genetic diversity. Organic farmers are required to maintain or improve the biological and genetic diversity of their operations. Genetic modification has the exact opposite effect by narrowing the gene pool and is focused on mono-cropping GMO varieties.

Technically, when you insert a transgene into a plant, you are increasing genetic diversity. To my knowledge, there are no prima facie requirements in organic agriculture to increase the genetic diversity of their crops within a species. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in organics toward open-pollinated (OP) varieties that contain a mixture of alleles for different genes. You can create OP varieties from a mixture of genetic stocks, and there is nothing about genetic engineering that dictates that you cannot include transgenes in an OP variety. If you were to do that with genes still covered by Monsanto patents you might run into a legal problem with breeding your own Bt sweet corn variety, however when those patents run out (first one will run out in 2014) there is nothing preventing you from doing that. But aside from GE traits that are currently commercialized, traits that benefit OP varieties could be developed through genetic engineering, or traits that benefit any variety can be incorporated into an OP variety.

Not all genetic variation is good. As I pointed out with breeding, the point of artificial selection is to eliminate bad traits. You do not want variability in important traits like how well the plant grows or whether it tolerates various stresses that impact the plant. You do want genetic variation in other genes that may give your population a degree of robustness. Imagine a bag of grass seed that you buy from the grocery store. Many of you may not know this, but these bags of grass seed may have a diverse mix of different species (usually 3) that thrive in different conditions (wet/dry, sun/shade) so that no matter how varied your yard is, you still get a full lawn. Sometimes they can have grass seeds from the same species that simply have genetic diversity for these traits. But some kinds of diversity you don’t want might be grass that grows to different heights or different shades of green. You definitely do not want genetic diversity of that kind.

Organic growers may want to go for this kind of robustness in OP varieties simply because they don’t have the insect, pest, and disease controls available to conventional growers, but there is no such requirement in organic rules. You can have a farm that grows a single genetically identical hybrid variety of corn and call it organic. Many probably do.

GE crops, as I learn more about how the system works, are not genetically uniform across the country or the world. GE traits are licensed out to different seed producing companies, and depending on the details of those license agreements they may be combining those GE traits with the genetics of corn, soybeans, or cotton that is adapted to different regions or contain other useful traits. It has been claimed that GE crops reduce genetic diversity – but to my knowledge there has been no peer reviewed scientific paper that supports this claim. So Jim Riddle’s description of genetic engineering’s effect on genetic diversity is at the least false on its face and at the most a mere hypothesis.

So on this argument we have seen that not only were the premises false, the logic was unsound. Because if increasing genetic diversity was required in organic agriculture, then any plant breeding that reduces that diversity would be incompatible with the system. (BTW, a recent paper examining the genetic diversity of 8 crop species over the last century has revealed that the regional genetic diversity has not gone down, so breeders, you’re doing it right!)

9. Not profitable. According to the 2008 Organic Production Survey conducted by the USDA National Ag Statistics Service, organic farmers netted more than $20,000 per farm over expenses, compared to conventional farmers. Use of GMO varieties has lowered the net profit per acre for conventional producers, forcing them to farm more land in order to stay in business.

This is often a claim made by opponents of genetic engineering, who suggest that farmers that grow them lose money. One or two studies may be cited in support of this claim, ignoring many other studies that say the opposite. The truth is, whether or not you make more or less money growing (current) GE crops will depend on the unique situations that your farm presents. If you have lots of weed pressure, herbicide tolerant crops will probably make you more money. If not, you won’t get anything for the higher price of the seed. If corn borers and rootworm beetles are running rampant in your area, “stacked” GE corn would help you reduce your pesticide costs and raise your yields (even The Organic Center and the UCS agree on that). But if you don’t have those problems you might be wasting your money.

You don’t need to know all these things to understand that farmers are making money planting GE crops – the mere fact that the adoption levels are so high and are stable means that farmers are benefiting from them and a large part of that is probably due to profit. For those who are unsatisfied with shooting from the hip like that (as I am), the National Academy of Sciences just release a huge report on the impacts of GE crops, and one of the areas they examined was profitability. What did they conclude?

Many adopters of genetically engineered crops have experienced either lower costs of production or higher yields, and sometimes both.

Read the report, it’s over 200 pages of science goodness. So it seems that farmers can make more money if they carefully choose GE crops that benefit them.

Finally, Riddle’s claim that GE crops has lowered the profitability of farms rests on poor logic. Because organic farms may make more money than conventional farm as a whole does not mean that the use of genetic engineering by conventional farms is the cause for that disparity. That is not even a valid claim.

10. No consumer demand. Consumers are not calling for organic foods to be genetically engineered. In fact, over 275,000 people said “no GMOs in organic,” in response to the first proposed organic rule in 1997. “Organic” is the only federally regulated food label, which prohibits the use of genetic engineering. By genetically engineering organic foods, consumer choice would be eliminated, in the absence of mandatory labeling of all GMO foods.

Given the fact that many leaders in the organic community use fear of genetic engineering to try to get more people to buy organic, it would come as no surprise that there isn’t much support for GE among organic consumers. But if you polled consumers about whether they wanted their produce to have their genetics altered through breeding and hybridization, how many would stand up and say ‘Yes!’? If you instead asked consumers whether they wanted their produce to taste better, be healthier, more colorful, cheaper, have fewer pesticide residues, etc, you might find more support.

Indeed, there are many things that consumers are looking for that genetic engineering can help provide. For instance, there are several examples of traits that enhance healthful aspects of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, rice, and soybeans. The first health-oriented (and thus consumer-oriented) crop will soon be commercialized in the US, a soybean that produces Omega-3 fats in its oil. We may soon find a cultural collision occurring among the more health-oriented consumers.  As Organic agriculture continues to claim health benefits, a portion of their market is probably buying it because they think they will be getting more nutrients. There will be people forced to make a decision between a perception of health benefits from organic production and demonstrated health benefits from future GE crops. They may look at an Omega-3 soy product and wonder why it cannot also be organic?

When Anastasia and I met with Michael Pollan back in January, this is one of the things we talked about. And Michael said that he believes that such consumer-oriented traits are going to shift public opinion to accept GE crops. When consumers are more confident in the benefits of such traits, will organic agriculture begin allowing the certification of GE crops grown organically to meet that demand? Will Jim Riddle change his position based upon mere demand?

And does that mean that there must be demand for organic pesticides from consumers before they are approved?

Conclusion

Jim Riddle’s article for the Rodale Institute has gotten some attention, and put forward some arguments why he thinks that genetic engineering is not compatible with organic agriculture. I have demonstrated that not a single one of these ten arguments is adequate for justifying why some genetically engineered traits could not be included in an organic system, and indeed, that these reasons as given can also be used as reasons to exclude even basic plant breeding from organic agriculture. I have shown that most of these arguments are based upon misleading or factually incorrect premises, and/or invalid logic.

Debunking Jim Riddle’s arguments is one thing, but he could always decide to make different ones. Indeed, I invited him to be a part of the discussion in the first post, which he declined to do, but he did say this:

When I said “organisms that have never previously existed in nature” and “novel genetic constructs,” I was referring to corn with bacteria genes and all other transgenic organisms that could otherwise never exist, without listing every such example. I did discuss the unintended impacts of Bt corn, which are the result of inserting the gene for Bt toxicity into every cell of the corn plant, which is something that has not and could not occur through natural or traditional breeding.

My entire article focused on why transgenic organisms are not compatible with organic production, so I see no need to outline my concerns further.

So now we get to the real argument. I’m sure that you could detect it as an undercurrent in many of the ten arguments that he gave. Many of them depended entirely upon this argument, and by not bringing this objection to the forefront it is preventing us from actually getting to the real arguments, and we spend all our time talking about mere cursory arguments. Allow me to venture a guess as to the real reason why the organic sector is against genetic engineering in agriculture, but it comes as no surprise why it did not ‘officially’ make Riddle’s list, because it is a silly argument. Are you ready? Here it is:

Genetic Engineering just isn’t “Natural!”

And of course, neither are tractors, plows, computers, refrigerators, or anything else that humans make that are perfectly fine to use on organic farms, or with organic food. Naturalness is not a property of matter, it is a description of the process by which is was generated, that exists only in degrees, not absolutes. As proponents of organic agriculture rightly argue that humans are a part of the natural world and should not consider ourselves independent of nature, to claim that what human beings do is unnatural depends on excluding human beings from nature. You could say that it is only natural that humans do genetic engineering, as we seek to improve our lives with science and technology. Indeed, gene transfer happens between species in nature as well – it is called Horizontal Gene Transfer – apparently Nature has no respect for the “natural” integrity of species boundaries.

Jim Riddle spent his entire article that was supposed to be about why transgenic organisms are incompatible with Organic Agriculture not even talking about why specifically transgenic organisms are incompatible. Why specifically are new proteins introduced by transformation not allowed, while introducing many unknown proteins through wide crosses are allowed? So we are left still without a rational reason why they shouldn’t be allowed. And it took evaluating ten bad reasons to get to it. I think Jim Riddle does need to outline his reasons further, don’t you?

We need your help, Jim

Granted, Jim Riddle’s article is written for the Rodale Institute, and does not represent the opinion of the University of Minnesota, but his position as the UM’s Organic Outreach Coordinator is important to bring up. He has chosen to educate the public about organic agriculture as a career, and while trying to defend this important agricultural system from a perceived threat, has made several misrepresentations of that very agricultural system. In the discussion over genetic engineering in agriculture and the potential of integrating it into organic growing systems, we desperately need the help of those who are knowledgeable about organic to faithfully represent this form of agriculture.

And we need people who have such know-how to freely admit that there are ways that genetic engineering and organic can work together to improve agriculture, even if it goes against current regulations or personal misgivings. If there is a rational justification for excluding genetic engineering from organic agriculture in principle, then we need to see the real arguments and not invalid post-hoc justifications.

Stay tuned for part III in which I will discuss the enormous error that every response to the idea of GE/Organic has made and what critics need to respond to… or ultimately agree.

Also, thanks to Anastasia Bodnar for taking a look at this post before I hit “publish!”

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Karl is a Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. In addition to his research on the genetics of sweet corn, he is also completing a minor in science communication and is working on several media projects about plant breeding. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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47 comments to Ten bad reasons why GE is incompatible with Organic

  • The notion that “we desperately need the help of those who are knowledgeable about organic to faithfully represent this form of agriculture” is a fine sentiment, but a non-starter.

    The notion that engineered crops might be accepted in organic agriculture is equally impossible. The reasons are simple: the fundamental premise of organic marketing is that all other forms of agriculture are bad, and the more bad things you can say about agriculture in general, the greater the perceived value of the organic ‘brand’ in particular.

    It is of course unfortunate that many in the organic movement feel so strongly about this form of agriculture that telling lies is not only permissible, but even mandatory.

    Check out “Accelerated Aging Strikes Again”, Maria Rodale, Huffington Post, May 12, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maria-rodale/accelerated-aging-strikes_b_573245.html where she says that “studies are finding that genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are now found in almost all our processed foods including nonorganic corn and soy, cause accelerated aging.”

    But US consumers have been eating foods made from GM crops for the last dozen years, and during that entire period, life expectancy continued to rise.

    The real reason why organic farming is incompatible? Because organic farmers, and their advocates, want it that way.

    • In some respects, Organic agriculture is wedded to being anti-GMO, it is often used in advertising, and organic farmers are used as plaintiffs to go after the deregulation of beets and alfalfa. But in Hawaii, there are organic Papaya farmers that surround their organic plots with GE papaya ringspot virus resistant trees to protect them from the virus. There are other organic farmers that want to grow GE crops, one even in Marin County, California! (Where it is illegal to grow them at all.)

    • “The real reason why organic farming is incompatible? Because ‘Big O’, and their advocates, want it that way.”

      There, fixed that. :-)

  • Riddle wrote:

    …Bt corn, which are the result of inserting the gene for Bt toxicity into every cell of the corn plant, which is something that has not and could not occur through natural or traditional breeding

    Has not – true.  Could not – how can he possibly say that?  Plants have evolved many natural defenses to insects, so why couldn’t they evolve Bt defenses – especially if breeders tried to develop it?  You are right in your analysis – Riddle thinks “natural” is some magic property that is intrinsically good.  Tell that to people with extreme allergies to nuts.

  • Karl,

    You mention something I’ve been trying to track down for years — the claim that “in Hawaii, there are organic Papaya farmers that surround their organic plots with GE papaya ringspot virus resistant trees to protect them from the virus.” Sounds plausible, but I’ve never been able to find a citation.

    There’s also the claim that conventional farmers with organic farms nearby apply more than the average amount of herbicide, because the organic farms are reservoirs of noxious weeds. Or “arable weeds”, as the Brits call them. Again, quite plausible–but I have yet to track this one down, either.

    Do you have any recommended reading on these points? I’d be very grateful.

    • You have spurred me to look up the papaya farmers who have tried the approach that I have oft mentioned. I have sent an email to the person from whom we got this information originally, and I’ll let you know if I find anything. The second point is also interesting, as organics suggest that GE pollen ‘spillover’ will affect their crops, so too can weed spillover.
      Heck, can a farmer purposefully grow a field full of just weeds because they feel like it, even though it will harm other farmers?

      • Karl,

        One very realistic response to conventional farmers having to spray more herbicide in response to local ‘weed refuges’ established by Certified organic farmers would be the requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement for organic farms.

        In addition to contributing to the spread of noxious weeds, as defined by state governments, their excessive use of tillage for weed control contributes substantially to the loss of topsoil.

        Furthermore, their use of Bt sprays (instead of Bt crops) is unregulated, has no refuge requirements, and the dynamics of Bt sprays is almost ideally designed to promote the emergence of Bt-tolerant insects. I would further point out that Bt sprays are imposed on all insects on a given field, such as Monarch larvae, whereas Bt crops only affect insects which actually attack the crop itself.

        Interestingly, the organic industry is currently protesting against pending US legislation which would require various basic food safety measures. Growing food, especially vegetables intended to be consumed ‘fresh’, or uncooked (raw) in soil fertilized with cattle feces would add a layer of scrutiny which seems to be unwelcome. One need only to look at requirements to join a farmers’ market to see how dangerous this issue is: Organic farmers are required to show proof of insurance for food-borne disease before they are allowed to peddle their wares.

        Makes sense, when you consider that E.coli can invade the root systems of plants and thrive in plant tissue — you can’t wash off the E.coli when it’s *inside*.

        It’s difficult to address these issues when organic farming and food is ‘politically correct’, but insistence on a safe, abundant food supply would indicate that many appropriate measures have been overlooked for the sake of political expedience.

        • In defense of organics, they do have composting requirements for manure that is spread on fresh vegetable crops within a certain number of days of harvest. However, there are some holes in that safeguard, such as no requirement to test the compost to see if it is free of pathogens, which can survive, especially if it does not get hot enough. Conventional farmers can also spread manure without having that requirement as far as I know. But they would be less likely to do so on average since fertilizers are available. I think all vendors at the farmer’s market have to have insurance, maybe some markets are different.

          BTW, I wholly endorse clicking on Eric’s name to go to a great little parody site about organic ag – sounds kind of like the claims made against GMOs. OMG they put rotting animal sewage on the plants!

          You are right to point out that the ‘nuisance’ of weeds could instead be used against organic farmers just as they are trying to use it against GE crops. Must incorporate into an essay I am writing… :)

    • Oh, I saw that weed piece in a recent paper:

      http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-05/uol-ofs050510.php

      The research also threw up some unforeseen negative impacts. Conventional farms in ‘hotspots’ tended to use higher levels of herbicides than those in ‘coldspots’ to counteract the seeds coming across from their more weed-tolerant neighbours.

      • MaryM,

        I read that paper and I have to wonder about it. The authors’ references are completely gone awry, you have to look at Table 1 for the supporting data. Makes you wonder about peer-review when they don’t look at whether the footnotes match the claims.

        And, since the paper didn’t actually focus on the issue of organic farmers spreading weeds, I am not impressed.

        I’d recommend reading the findings of Britain’s farm-scale field trials, but the results were so enthusiastic about how weeds ‘improve biodiversity’ that those results can’t hardly be considered as a realistic study of — drum roll — producing food.

        It’s an open secret that farmers in the UK and the EU are essentially public gardeners. They gobble up 60% of all tax revenues for subsidies.

        • @Eric: I’m not sure I’m following your criticisms. Where were the references awry? I just went through it again and am not sure what you are seeing.

          And Table 1 is kinda where you put data. The legend says: “Summary statistics describing field, farm and landscape measures of 192 crop and grass fields on 32 organic and conventional farms surveyed over 2 years.” This seems reasonable to me.

          Maybe some of your concerns are covered in the supplemental data? http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123417154/suppinfo

          I’d be happy to take a look at the data you want if you could specify that.

          • Mary,

            When making the claim that conventional farmers use more herbicides when in proximity with organic “hot spots” they refer to Table 3 and to a supplementary document, neither of which provide any data which would support the claim. The relevant data is, instead, in Table 1, which they did *not* cite in support of the claim.

        • Pdiff

          “The best model was a five-way interaction model between landscape-scale management, farm management, location-within-field, nitrogen fertilization and soil content of clay. “

          :-O … blink …. blink ….

          … now, what did I do with that kitchen sink …

          • lol

            Finding the right model can be very difficult. 5 way interaction, though? Couldn’t that be better handled by multiple 2 way interactions?

            • Finding an appropriate model can be difficult. If the data truly supports a beastly 5-way interaction and you approach it with a smaller model or set of models, you are assuming some level of interaction(s) are not present. That may be reasonable or not, depending on the data. My problem with higher level interactions is with parsimony and , quite simply, interpretation. How the heck do you succinctly describe a 5-way interaction? Statistics is supposed to summarize and distill information, not expound.

              This is getting into a gray area of opinion. Personally, I would not be comfortable with this approach. I believe they are pushing this data too hard. Essentially, to my eye, they really have 32 data points. I probably would do something more along the lines of what you are suggesting, and break the data into subsets to see if we could discern what’s happening in the pieces. Only after a good understanding there would I consider moving on to more encompassing models, if at all.

              There are other model related items in the article that bother me as well, but this probably is not a venue for that. I also don’t really want to belittle this data set or the obvious amount of effort the seems to have gone into it. It appears to be unique in it’s comprehensiveness in time, scale and detail.

              • pdiff,

                I agree. In physics, it’s called the ‘three-body problem’. The upshot is that in a system with numerous moving parts, such as a number of planets in a galaxy, precisely computing the orbit of any one planet is impossible. Unless you can compute all orbits everywhere, at the same time, which is impossible by any reasonable standard.

                Indeed, there are some who have suggested that planetary motion is best described with chaos theory and “strange attractors”, rather with than Newtonian or Einsteinian models.

                As a pundit once said, “All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others.”

  • Robert

    Thanks, Part II is much more enlightening.

  • maxpayne

    To summarize your article, we already have a lot of bad stuff so let’s just pile on another load and look the other way. Surely you jest. Organic is more like open source software while GMO is more like closed source software. If GMO really means freedom and health, then why would a government in a democratic nation such as India go through so much trouble passing restrictions against protesting GMO? Two words for GMO, HORSE FEATHERS !

    PS: Here is the link to what I referred to in India.

    http://www.groundreport.com/Health_and_Science/GMO-seeds-to-kill/2921692

    • Hi Max, that’s not a good summary of my post, it doesn’t seem that you read it very closely. Granted it it long, but I did address the issue of open-source. You are making the same mistake that Riddle did – confusing the technology with the intellectual property (IP) structures. You can have open-source genetic engineering just like computer code. But the absence of IP is not a requirement in organic agriculture, otherwise Plant Variety Protected (PVP) conventionally-bred seeds would not be allowed.

    • pdiff

      Huh? I thought Organophiles considered Horse Feathers to be a good thing.

      I think most proponents of GM here would agree that having a corporate entity coerce government officials (democratic or not) is a bad thing. Likewise, I find the strong arm, and dishonest coercion of GreenPeace in these cases to be just as despicable. Why not just base decisions on the evidence?

      More to the point, and as Karl said, this is an IP issue, not a GM issue. There are ways around IP that we’ve talked about before elsewhere on this site.

  • Maxpayne,

    It’s hard to credit an abjectly biased article that begins with the false claim that eggplants originated in India. But, be that as it may, organic is hardly “open source”.

    First off, the organic producer has to pay to get certification. So, that’s like having a patent on organic farming.

    Second, non-GM seeds are still subject to ownership rights which are vested in the seed-breeder. The vast majority of lawsuits arising from the “ownership of seeds” arises from PVP, laws enacted to preserve a plant breeder’s rights. If you want to compare that to software, PVP means you can replicate the seed on the farm for personal use, but if you start selling copies (bootlegging/brown-bagging), you’re going to court, and paying a fine.

    If you want to second-guess me, go to http://www.seedquest.com/news.php and search for all the seed settlement cases. Monsanto vs. Schmeiser is famous, but that’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the (conventional) seed breeders getting ripped off.

    Oh, and as for India, why should anyone be amazed at a law against libel and slander? As I see it, the only people protesting against the law are those who libel and slander for their livelihood. That is to say, NGOs.

    Those who feel hobbled by a requirement to be truthful need urgently to resolve some personal issues.

    • Without doing further research, I wouldn’t say that it is false that India was not an origin of eggplants, however I do know that there is a secondary origin of domestication and diversity in China.

      India does not give the same importance to free speech that the US does, so it is not surprising that they might think that laws against saying false things about GE crops are ok. I think that people should be able to say falsehoods about facts of nature as a right, and let their falsehoods be brought to light in public discourse and not in the courts. That will require a culture change in India and it is interesting that people are blaming these proposed laws on genetic engineering and not the endemic political culture of that nation.

      • Karl,

        Without going into depth about whether freedom of speech is a ‘right’, the notion of what constitutes a right (philosophers haven’t settled the question), one thing is quite apparent: those who abuse their rights should not be surprised to see them curtailed.

        India is currently plagued by European-funded activist groups which abuse ‘free speech’ to the very limits of fiction. GM eggplants will, according to the NGOs, inflict everything from homosexuality to impotence.

        It makes a great deal of sense for Europe to peddle such nonsense among developing nations in order to secure low-cost access to non-GM food, since Europe is paying annually in excess of $30 million in premiums for such stuff.

        Putting a muzzle on foreign operatives, and on those cozened by spurious claims, would in India’s situation be a great step forward — towards independence, rather than succumbing to a new, and uniquely cruel, colonialism.

  • Andre

    1. For the sake of accuracy, it is not “Europe”, as such, which peddles the nonsense, but a bunch of influential activists. Since food safety is a topical issue (particularly against the background of several “scandals” such as the mad cow disease), politicians are fairly sensitive and many yield to pressure. And since they yield to pressure, the activists score a point which is immediately reinvested, and the vicious circle starts again. Add to this that the media are extremely quick to jump on any negative “information”, as does the blogosphere, and almost absent when the “information” is torn into pieces.

    2. Concerning brinjal, I recommend perusing the Minister’s decision as well as the excellent primer and the written contributions to the “debate” . You can safely assume that Indian activists do not need the support of foreigners; and, in this particular case, they got support from, in particular, Gilles-Éric Séralini and also the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    3. This may appear to leads us away from the subject of the post. This is not so. Same principle at work: the principle attributed to the infamous Goebbels that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” (or Hitler’s “make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it”).

    4. Reason No. 1 assumes several things, and thus sets out several lies:

    a. A “complex digestive system”: it is not to the point described described by the technophobics. It is much more than assumed, since, contrary to assertion, it is perfectly capable of breaking down many kinds of food, including heretofore unknown ones, and more specifically the novel proteins that may come with a GMO. By the way, if I am not mistaken, the fauna that we may harbour in our stomachs and guts is of the kind that makes us sick.

    b. An evolution over millennia to “recognize and break down foods found in nature…”: Here, the assumption is – I assume! — that we would need millennia to adjust to the new things coming up (at least to those which “may not be recognized by the intestinal system”). The point has been discussed: the evolution is fairly marginal. Furthermore, the point is disproved not only by the recent additions to our diets such as kiwifruit, but also by the novel (processed) foods, the food additives, and medicines. And, by the way, kiwifruit happens to be allergenic not because it is a recent addition to our diet but because it contains allergens.

    c. The existence of a “human diet”: this is again misleading at best given the variety of diets. Ironically, the promoters of organic farming are closely linked to the promoters of food, e.g. quinoa, which occidental stomachs have never met either in history or in childhood, and one would be hard-pressed to cite one call for the kind of caution that is demanded for GMOs.

    d. “GMO crops and foods are comprised of novel genetic constructs which have never before been part of the human diet…”: the issue of the digestion of DNA has already been discussed. As for the proteins, our digestive system will break them down into peptides, exactly like the proteins that it has already encountered. Furthermore, the phrase at issue is a sweeping statement that is untrue. Golden Rice is likely to be a counter-example. The FDA also stated in 1994 (16 years ago…) that Flavr Savr had the essential characteristics of non-modified tomatoes.

    e. “…Leading to the possible relationship between genetic engineering and a dramatic increase in food allergies, obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases, which have all dramatically increased correlated to the introduction of GMO crops and foods”: note the convoluted phrasing! A possible relationship becomes a correlation. Beyond the correlation/causation issue, there is the fact that most GMO crops produced on a large scale are non-food, and that the processing of soybean and oilseed rape for human consumption eliminates whatever may be GM (tofu is likely not GMO). In other terms, the “dramatic increase in food allergies, obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases” is neither related nor correlated to GMOs. On the contrary, GMOs have the potential of solving some food-related diseases. What the organic farming pundits are thus saying is that people affected by such diseases will not be served by organic farmers!

    4. Reason No. 2 builds on the sweeping statement that “organic agriculture is based on the fundamental principle of building and maintaining healthy soil, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems, which implies that conventional agriculture presumably, and GMOs certainly, do not. This is at best an article of faith, and certainly not the full truth. Over and above the scientific studies which have shown that the reality of organic farming does not match the claim (one is mentioned in the earlier comments), the fact is that organic farming also uses mineral fertilisers and pesticides some of which are more problematic in terms of human and animal health, and environment than the chemical ones.

    I may add here that Europe is also experiencing bee colony collapse despite not growing GMOs.

    5. That’s all for the moment.

  • Eric Baumholder

    Andre,

    I agree with everything you said, with applause. But, I must take exception to part of your point #1: the notion that “it is not “Europe”, as such, which peddles the nonsense, but a bunch of influential activists.”

    Europe, as such, peddles nonsense because its governments are the primary funders of European activist groups. Because of EC and Dutch funds, the Friends of the Earth are now on a budget of over 700 million euros — and the group is now the largest anti-biotech activist group in the world, with over 5,000 subsidiary groups worldwide.

    Most of what Greenpeace International takes to the bank is a tax on gambling in the Netherlands.

    José Bové, famous for leading the Confederacion Paysanne into the destruction of field trials, farm crops, and a McDonald’s — his group is funded by diversions of funds from European governments.

    These are but a few examples. Europe, *per se*, funds these groups, and expects these groups to deliver on their goal to spread anti-biotech sentiment throughout Europe, and around the globe. And with that, the expected monetary benefits of trade protectionism.

    • Andre

      I’ll concede on this up to the last paragraph, and from the second sentence (I can of course also concede that I agree with myself!).

      If you scratch deeper, you will see that other activist groupings, with other main agendas, are also being funded by, essentially, ministries for external relations and cooperation and ministries for environment (I write “main agendas” because, at the end of the day, these groupings end up involving themselves in all subjects which attract media attention and donations). These ministries are or, include, largely uncontrolled fiefdoms, sometimes working openly, nationally and internationally, against ‘mainstream’ government and even public interest.

      I do not think that there are ulterior motives within the central governments and administrations for the financing of these groupings, but lack of judgement – or call it irresponsibility – which actually makes it worse.

      By the way, what is your source for the FoE financing?

      FoE International (agreed, it’s Int. only) announced a budget of some 3 million for 2009 (very much up to date, isn’t it…). FoE Europe (agreed, it’s EU only) announced a budget of some 2.8 million for 2009 (very much up to date, isn’t it… bis repetita placent). For an interesting breakdown, go here

      Although this carries us away from the topic of this blog, I cannot resist quoting from the latter document:

      “Following the guidelines of the EU Civil Society Contact Group and the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the EU, Friends of the Earth Europe has calculated that it spent an estimated 696,000€ (33% of our total budget) in 2008 on activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions.”

      These activities reportedly involved 15 (yes, fifteen) persons having spent 20 percent or more of their working time on those activities, 5 having spent less than 20 percent, and five others not paid by FoEE.

      By comparison, the same FoE Europe found that the biggest spenders in “lobbying” (mind the difference with “ activities carried out with the objective of influencing…”) in Brussels were Telefonica (1.5 million), BASF (1.2) and Deutsche Telekom (1.2).

      According to the European Register , the European Seed Association reported a total of 600,000 to 650,000 € for “the full cost of the running of the organisation”, EuropaBio 750000 to 800000, and the (in)famous company whose name starts with an M between 250,000 and 300,000 €.

  • Andre,

    Part of the information can be found in “Friends of the EU: The costs of a taxpayer-funded green lobby”, Caroline Boin and Andrea Marchesetti, International Policy Network, March 8, 2010
    http://www.policynetwork.net/sites/default/files/Friends_of_the_EU.pdf
    (pdf, 23 pp.)

    This tidbit from p. 8: “Similarly, in 2008 Friends of the Earth Europe received EUR7,790,020 from DG Environment – or about 52% of their annual income that year.” If you add up all the other EC DG Environment grants in the table on that page, you get a rather vast sum.

    And that’s only DG Environment money. After that, add in what the Netherlands foreign ministry throws into the pot, and the Dutch Postcode Lottery Tax paid to Greenpeace, and you’re talking very large numbers indeed.

    It’s worth noting that sums paid to lobby in the EU is not the entire lobbying budget. There’s also funds to lobby governments in developing nations. And, no matter what the location, they’re also lobbying indirectly by “media outreach” and “citizen outreach” activities. In the end, their only product is lobbying.

    (Well, there’s also green extortion, but that’s a fundraising activity.)

    • Andre

      Eric,

      Many thanks for the reference. I have a very high opinion of the IPN, whose publications on health and medicines (particularly counterfeit medicines) I have been following with great interest. And I did not pay enough attention to their March Newsletter.

      Your original figure of 700 million euros for FoE seems wrong to me, even if you add up all its national groups. The IPN quote is:

      “Similarly, in 2008 Friends of the Earth Europe received €790,020 from DG Environment – or about 52% of their annual income that year.”

      When I made my cut-and-paste into OpenOffice, the € sign became a 7! I think this also happened to you.

      Whatever the precise figure is, our thoughts are on the same track. By the way, the IPN study concludes with: “The funding of environmental NGOs by the EU must stop forthwith”.

      You may wish to look up the pages on NGOs from the DG Environment website.

      The IPN website carries an article from the Sunday Telegraph on its study (“Eu cash ‘carousel’ for green lobbyists”).

      It also carries an opinion, “Unprincipled ‘Precaution’,” that is now behind a pay-wall on the Wall Street Journal and is built upon the Indian Bt brinjal moratorium decision.

  • Matthew

    Boy this is a great article and thread, and I look forward to commenting in greater detail at a later date. However, one thing I had to get out (and then I am crawling back under my workload):

    Karl writes, “Organic agriculture is best described as a more biological approach to farming as opposed to the more ‘chemical’ approach that it was a response to. In that sense, genetic engineering can fit in perfectly.”

    Yeah, and no. You are correct that “best described as a more biological approach to farming”, but, that is what makes it a poor, not a perfect, fit for GE.
    GE is NOT a biological process.

    I could list a dozen different references for what defines a “biological process”, but I will list one – the one that applies to international patents (after all, if a patent application isn’t the perfect place for defining terms in our market driven world of science, what is?).

    This from TRIPS [“Multilateral Trade Negotiations on Agriculture: A Resource Manual IV. Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) - Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement Relevant to Agriculture (Part II),”]

    “Within natural sciences a ‘biological process’ would be any biological activity carried out by any living organism be it at the molecular, cellular or organism level…
    …The Technical Board of the European Patent Office (TBEPC) gives a negative definition of what does not constitute an ‘essentially biological process’, i.e. a process for production of plants comprising at least one essential technical step which cannot be carried out without human intervention and which has a decisive impact on the final result. In this sense the term ‘essentially biological’ is being taken to be understood as a process which is performed without the application of any external technical skills by humans. The decisive criterion therefore becomes human intervention. However, a ‘biological process’ by definition excludes manipulation; i.e. as soon as human technology interferes with an independent natural process, it deletes its biological nature to make it artificial. Human intervention as a criterion therefore seems to fail in the distinction between an ‘essentially biological process’ and a ‘biological process’.

    So, under these terms, TRIP member states have to exclude biological, or “essentially biological” processes from patentability. Whereas “non-biological processes” – such as genetic engineering – must be able to receive patent protection. Sorry, but according to the lawyers of the world, GE isn’t a biological process.

    • Ewan Ross

      Matthew – by that whole definition all of agriculture falls outside the realm of being a biological process, and therefore genetic engineering still apparently fits.

      Unless you claim that plant breeders and farmers do not posess technical skills which interfere with independant natural processes – which I don’t think anyone would.

      Legalese is all well and good, but in this case it excludes all human activity, so organic is just as non-biological as GE, and indeed chemical heavy intensive agriculture. Which IMO makes it a pretty worthless standard to judge the biologicalness or chemicalness of a certain ag practice (I’d say in this context that essentially a more bio less chemical approach simply implies the use some biological activity rather than application of chemicals that do the same thing – and I’d hope nobody would argue that the end results of GE have biological drivers rather than chemical)

    • Hi Matthew, thanks for joining the discussion, I hope you will stick around and chat about this subject some more with us.

      Wait, you are relying on the lawyers to define what is natural and artificial? :) You do make a good point in that patents have been applied to human-created inventions, i.e. artificial entities, but not ‘natural’ things, i.e. laws of nature. But a new crop variety is a mixture of both, neither wholly natural nor wholly artificial. I suppose you mean that utility patents apply to artificial things only, because once you get into plant patents (1930 and onwards) you are talking about non-GE, patented plants. As per one of our previous discussions about utility patents that apply to non-GE traits on the Organic Seed Alliance blog, apparently there are a bunch of lawyers that you disagree with about whether conventionally bred plants are patentable. If (utility) patentable is synonymous with artificial enough to disqualify it from organic agriculture, then any utility-patented conventional crop should also be excluded. That is, if you think the lawyers are the best people to decide what is natural and what is not! (Also, the patent rules as you mention seem to be very Lockean – whereas I’m more of a utilitarian as I read more of the arguments for an against them.)

      Artificial Selection – as defined is an artificial process, done by humans to speed up the process of natural selection so that we can enjoy improved crops in our lifetimes. Sure, you could allow wheat to evolve resistance to Ug99 on its own, but we would be long in the waiting. Artificial selection, the stuff that plant breeders do every day, is an intervention that, if my future degree (fingers crossed) is worth anything, requires technical expertise, and should have a decisive impact on the result. In my opinion, the natural-artificial distinction is a forced dichotomy that doesn’t rescue us from the dilemma of figuring out what processes are ‘biological enough’ to be considered organic. How does chemical or radiation mutagenesis qualify as organic under the natural-artificial scale? And what about how genetic engineering is accomplished with natural enzymes and DNA from organisms that are stitched together and transformed by… a natural organism! It took technical knowledge to string it together to get a desired result, as horizontal gene transfer happens all the time in evolution – the difference is in the likelihood of that particular transfer, just like the likelihood of coming up with the right combination of genes to make the perfect (plant patentable!) apple. Golden Rice doesn’t seem too bizarre in the light of golden aphids!

  • Matthew

    I’ve been outed! I didn’t include my full name, or organization or web site. Foul I say. I demand to know who Ewan, Andre and pdiff work for. Breaking the rules of blogging etiquette there Karl in that the only “required” field is name, and I could have used a false name and anonymous email. Poor social media form there old chap, tsk tsk. What if I would have outed the Seminis breeder who posted on my blog? Not cool. I challenge you to a duel at the next MOSES conference. Dance-off. Jeffery Smith gets to be the judge. Either that or boxing.

    I have a deadline for DOJ and a grant report and crops in the field (how does a corn breeder have so much time to do this blogging Karl?) so no time to respond in full, but I promise that I will respond not only to this one issue of biological process but to the post as a whole.

    It’s not my definition of bio process, Ewan, it’s the one we all live under. TRIPS trumps any definition you can give. Didn’t say I liked it (I have severe disagreement with TRIPS), just wanted to point out that the terms Karl used are legal definitions in IP protection for breeding, and that if biotech companies want it one way (“it’s novel and this is why it’s patentable” than they can’t have it the other way “it’s the same as classical breeding and should be treated the same for regulatory purpose – but not in patents”).

    And, hmmm, I kind of like the idea of not allowing UP crops in organic. Or UP for any process in organic, but then I’m an open-source socialist and I don’t expect the diverse organic community to back a “no UP” practice standard. I don’t even expect the organic community to agree on the GE issue. I certainly have a very different take than Jim, or Raoul, and I would love to see more breeding tools that work (all for MAS). I just don’t see anything yet from the biotech realm. That calcium carrot and lettuce is a joke:

    http://seedstory.wordpress.com/2008/01/17/genetically-engineered-super-carrot-higher-in-press-release-fluff-and-poor-journalism-than-your-average-carrot/

    http://seedstory.wordpress.com/2008/01/28/supercarrot-addendum/

    And drought tolerance for corn is being done classically (and less expensively), not to mention the release date gets pushed back every year (hmmm, does it work?): http://dtma.cimmyt.org/index.php/background
    ” These drought tolerant maize varieties produce about 20-50% higher yields than other maize varieties under drought.”

    I just think it’s all a lot of smoke and mirrors. Show me the goods.

    By the way, do you people know any organic corn growers? They don’t spray Bt as you suggest (and some of this was in the previous “10 reasons” post) with planes and regular wide application. Organic corn grain farmers rarely spray for root pests bc they don’t have them like you do in conventional systems. In a long rotation with ample rest between crops pest cycles are broken. Therefore the answer is time, not spraying. What farmer could grow organic corn and afford to spray year after year? – they’d lose money and not grow corn.

    I’ll try and check back in next week. Maybe under a different pseudonym. And maybe I better bring a few PhDs with me. Y’all are some big guns for a little farm boy from Nebraska who never made it through a statistics class.

    - Samuel Clemens

    • But do you concede that under the TRIPS organic would also not be considered biological, making the whole point moot? Legalese is far too black/white whereas the real world tends to be shades of gray – the arguement then revolves around just what shade of gray is acceptable, and what shade of gray GE is, I guess.

      In the interests of full disclosure – I work for Monsanto (and my views are representative only of my views, and not theirs, yadda yadda etc etc(I need to macro this to attach to any comment I make that discloses my employer… gets boring typing it out)

  • Matthew

    I meant “duel” – sigh. Not only did I never finish statistics, I didn’t pay attention in English.
    Nonetheless, consider it a glove in the face.

  • Sorry if you wanted to remain anonymous, I thought we were continuing our conversation.

    I get asked that question about time from my fellow grad students – I have three shifts: Research, cooking dinner, and blogging, one after the other. :)

    The calcified carrot of a proof-of-concept, which the critics of it have not understood in their responses. The researchers were up-front that this would not solve calcium deficiency on its own, but if you had many vegetables with higher levels of calcium then it would make a difference. I’m no nutritionist (and neither is Frank Morton whose article you linked to), but the cruciferous vegetables have a problem with high levels of oxalate which impedes absorption. Indeed, as Morton suggests that heavy metals will be a problem because of the ion transporter used (as it comes from a relative of Brassicas), then the same thing should be a problem for the cruciferous vegetables that Morton suggests we should eat instead. He actually undermines his own argument.

    Show me the goods: there are many traits that exist in the literature that have not been commercialized, and we’re working on a page to bring them to light. There’s more than just Bt and herbicide tolerance, and far more than just golden rice (which has shown complete success in an actual nutritional rice-eating study). The release date for Golden Rice has been pushed back as well, often due to regulatory reasons such as getting biosafety protocols in place in the receiving countries.

    I have also seen transgenic drought-tolerant tomatoes first-hand. I don’t think we should dichotomize the approaches used – breeding and engineering work together, as could growing practices as well. I’d like to see endogenous genes bred in by MAS, with useful transgenes added when appropriate as well. But then again, I’m a starry-eyed techno-utopian I guess.

    I’m not up on the stats of organic corn growing practices, but even if Bt wasn’t sprayed on corn that doesn’t help the counter-argument because it is sprayed on other organic crops. I have also seen Bt bacteria injected into developing corn ears as an organic approach to controling insects in the ears – that requires the technical intervention of a human being, too. I do know one organic corn grower, a small-scale CSA farmer, I could ask them what sprays they use… although the last time I remember bringing it up there was a bit of uncomfortableness. I know they don’t market their stuff as “spray free.”

    Uh oh, if its a fight at MOSES 2011 you want, then its a fight you’ll get. We would probably look like amateurs trying to dance off, especially in the presence of a judge who is very good at spin. (Had to say that) How about podiums at ten paces!?

  • Andre

    Matthew,

    My current Board of Governors are my wife, my daughter and my grandson… I retired after a career, as an agronomist, essentially in intellectual property.

    This gives me some credentials to reply to your comments.

    Firstly, I can only agree with you that one cannot plead that GE is not “essentially biological” when seeking a patent and that it is when seeking a market. Please note, however, that the second assertion has not been made by the GMO industry, but within the framework of this post.

    This has a counterpart for the supporters of organic farming: a ban on GMOs in organic agriculture, for whatever reason, should be paralleled by a ban on other plant types that meet the same reason.

    As regards the TRIPs Agreement, Article 27.3.b is a “may” article. It reads:

    “3. Members may also exclude from patentability:

    (a) diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical methods for the treatment of humans or animals;

    (b) plants and animals other than micro-organisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals other than non-biological and microbiological processes. However, Members shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof. The provisions of this subparagraph shall be reviewed four years after the date of entry into force of the WTO Agreement.”

    The exclusion of essentially biological processes… is thus not an obligation on WTO members (the US, for instance, does not exclude anything in this area; Europe does). Nor is the case law of the Boards of Appeals of the European Patent Organisation binding upon WTO members. Actually, that case law (and the EPO’s administrative practice) is not even binding on the members of the EPO.

    To add just one little complication to all this: there is a general principle of law, which the EPO applies in patentability matters, that exceptions must be interpreted narrowly. The current interpretation of “essentially biological” is very much determined by this principle.

    And to pick up on Ewan, the issue is not so much “what shade of grey GE is”. GE produces varieties that are not fundamentally different from the conventionally bred ones (I admit, this will be challenged…) and the issue is whether those who define the standards for organic production are willing to accept that certain GE varieties (obviously not the herbicide-tolerant ones) can be used in organic farming for the benefit of farmers and consumers.

  • Allan F.

    Wow, this blog commentary is a great example of social discourse evolution. It started out with further elaboration of a Part I post regarding the writing of a Univ. of MN staff member with Extension Service responsibilities, and then it evolved (devolved) away from addressing the original issue based on scientific inquiry to parsing of definitions under the law. Yet, it kept my attention until I could no longer hold back and express the whole problem that I perceived in addressing Mr. Riddle’s 10 points. So here I am practicing artificial selection just to see if I can move the discussion back to the subject of the blog post. (Or the whole thing just goes extinct.)
    One of the commenters to Part 1 (and perhaps only one) pointed distinctly to the main problem with Riddle’s points (probably point 1 and 2 is where the following comment is of most relevance). Basically, the premise of the points are false. Thus, to address Mr. Riddle as if his premise is true and then argue against it will lead to some blind alleys that are not exactly science-based inquiry.
    Nevertheless, I think some of the blog post comments have alluded to the problems with point 1. I’m amazed that the Univ. of MN did not vet its “scientific” voices in the Extension Service for a knowledge of Introductory Biology: Cells & Genetics. We spend at least a week and a half worth of lectures describing basic biochemical principles so that science students can at least have a half-ass chance to understand the rest of what they are going to be exposed to during the semester. Furthermore, it seems that Mr. Riddle missed the Prokaryotes lecture where he would have learned that there is approximately a 10:1 ratio of Bacteria and Archaea cells in his body to Homo sapiens cells. Given the wide range of habitats the ancestors of our single celled brethren have lived in and endured, I’m not so sure changing (or adding) one or two alleles at a time in our crops makes much of a difference. (Okay, I’m sure it doesn’t make a difference.) [By the way, I presume that everyone realizes that molecular biology techniques have advanced sufficiently to figure out with a lot of certainty where these ‘new’ genetic constructs end up in the plant genome.]
    My real surprise was in reading how commenters responded to Point 2. Karl did begin to point out some of the scientific publications that belie the premise of Mr. Riddle. However, just pointing out a few pubs does not give justice to the many publications now overwhelmingly showing why Point 2 is without any justifiable premise. Part of the problem is accessibility of information, although GOOGLE Scholar is a good place to start to get into the vetted journal literature using simple English sentence inquiries. Abstracts are accessible to every one, and increasingly authors are making their full published articles downloadable. Thus, blindly spewing false premises not supported by an abundance of scientific journal literature is no longer going to fly. And certainly, being professionally associated with a university campus, Mr. Riddle ought to take advantage of the wonderful resources that he has available. Of course, academic freedom does not preclude setting up false premises, but I find it easier to dissect an argument by first addressing the validity of the premise rather than responding as if the false premise was a reasonable attribution of facts needing refutation.
    Which brings me to the definition of a biological process. Of course, once the law is brought in as the definitive definition, we realize that the discourse has moved from scientific inquiry to social rules. Just for philosophical amusement, lets remember the one commenter’s realization that human beings are “natural”. Thus, everything we do is “natural”, even if it’s profoundly stupid. Thus, however we manipulate our systems, the process is natural. Some may recoil at how one can argue that human behavior is natural given the foolishness of how our environment is often managed. I attribute this foolishness to a natural avoidance by business managers of all they learned (or should have learned and remembered) in their high school science classes. But the lapse is natural, although sometimes with profound consequences as we see in the ongoing BP management-induced oil leak. Where is that high school physics text, now? (Sorry to use an analogy off the point.)
    One final item, which I think addresses the transparency issue but is related to law. Our regulatory system is quite precautionary as it has evolved. Three agencies independently but also in collusion regulate genetically engineered crop technologies–USDA APHIS, FDA, and EPA. One can read from the Internet gobs of decisions that each agency has made about the commercial GE crops or the ones under review. I highly recommend accessing the documents on the APHIS website. In the information package that companies are required to submit for consideration of non-regulated status of a GE crop , there are very nice histories of a crop, its ancestors, and wild type relatives living nearby. Also, precautionary is appropriate to describe the regulatory system because it is dynamic in response to new information. Thus, after the Monarch butterfly story broke in 1999, incorporation of nontarget Lepidoptera studies in risk assessment became de rigueur and expected to be conducted.
    By the way, Karl, your original post in Part I was really funny and informative in the same way that John Stewart is informative with tongue in cheek on the Daily Show. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate that spunky attitude in university classes.

  • Katie

    I realize that I am really late to this discussion, but I am only now catching up on the GM debate. You said, “Charles Benbrook from the Organic Center has told me (in a recorded interview, not yet posted) that he accepts that it has. He also penned that Bt corn and Bt cotton have reduced insecticide applications considerably.” When I click on the link, I got a page with his book reporting on pesticide use in the first 13 years of GE crops. The summary on that page indicated that pesticide use has increased significantly with GE crops. What am I missing? Are you limiting your observation specifically to Bt corn and Bt. cotton, as opposed to pesticide use in general?

    • Hi Katie,

      It’s been a couple years since this discussion happened, but I’m happy to re-read my comment and answer your question. Opponents of GE, such as Benbrook, tend to lump all traits together and treat them as the same, and for that matter, treat different pesticides as the same. The report that I linked to claimed an overall increase in pounds of pesticides (herbicides + insecticides together) due to GE traits in soybeans, corn, and cotton. But a pound of one herbicide does not equal a pound of another herbicide in its impact on the environment, nor do they equal the impact of a pound of insecticide. In my comment, I was addressing the claims about soil erosion which appear to be false, and as an aside mentioned how even some anti-GE people such as Benbrook will admit the benefit or usefulness of a GE trait such as insect resistance. Jim Riddle was claiming that there was no need (or benefit) to genetic engineering, which is false.
      Evaluating traits such as herbicide resistance are more complicated because it requires comparing Roundup and the herbicides it replaced and their relative application rates, along with the positive impact on soil erosion and quality from reduced tillage. But I think that you can make a clear positive case for the use of the technology in some cases like Bt corn and cotton, which has reduced insecticide use, which therefore makes Riddle’s blanket statements seem rather uninformed.
      I hope this helps!

  • Katie

    Yes, that helps. Thank you. On another topic, I noticed above there was some discussion about GE papaya and how non-GE is grown within a protective circle of GE papaya. I, too, am trying to get to the source of that statement. I found it first in “Tomorrow’s Table,” where the author says, “Also, growers can continue to harvest fruit from non-GE varieties by planting non-GE papaya in the center of a large circle of GE papaya.” The citation is to Gonsalves, Control of papaya ringspot virus in papaya; a case study. Annual Review Phytopathology, 36:415-437 (1998). Unfortunately, the statement (“growers can harvest”) is ambiguous as to whether that is in fact their practice. I cannot access the article itself to find out what exactly Gonsalves said about that. Maybe you can. When I was looking for other sources on-line, I noticed that GE papaya has now become a hot topic, with claims of contamination of non-GE plants. If indeed the non-GE growers have been using GE papaya to form a cordon sanitaire around their plants, it would be a bit ironic for them to claim to be shocked that there is some contamination.

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