Organic Transgenic Food

posted in: Science | 8

Even before Tomorrow’s Table graced the shelves of bookstores across America, I was intrigued by the idea of combining science with traditional farming methods. In this week’s Nature Genetics, Jonathan Gressel reviewed Tomorrow’s Table and may have coined a term to describe the combination of organic and transgenic methods – orgenic! What do you think of the term?

Dr. Gressel is interesting in his own right, a professor emeritus of plant sciences at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and author of ” Genetic Glass Ceilings: Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity”. I can’t wait to find a copy and let you know what he has to say. A preview is available at Google Books. He argues that we need to use biotechnology in order to break the glass ceiling – alluding to the decline in crop yield improvement over the past few years. According to the reviews, he also addresses problems with biotech and ways to overcome them.

At its heart, organic ag is based on biology – understanding biological processes in order to coax food out of the soil. Conventional ag has forgotten things, such as how soil-bacteria interactions can affect soil fertility, how polyculture (or at least rotation) can help prevent disease, or how natural predators can be used to keep pests away. In short, conventional ag is chemistry while organic is biology.

Even though the technology is new, biotech is biology, not chemistry. This is eloquently described by Raoul Adamchak in Tomorrow’s Table. For example, giving plants the means to protect themselves from disease with technologies like RNAi is very different from spraying potentially toxic chemicals, and doing so is fundamentally true to the idea behind organic farming.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people who are listening. For example, when I brought this up in a Sustainable Agriculture class at Iowa State, the response was:

Organic agriculture is defined by law (unlike other forms of agriculture) and as such, the rules prescribe that transgenic forms cannot be used in organic agriculture.

The rules about what is and is not organic may be defined by law, but they aren’t defined by science. Some of the additives allowed by the organic rules are quite dangerous and don’t follow from the idea of biologically concious agriculture – such as the use of sulfur and copper (see p133-137 of the Google Books preview of The Truth About Organic Gardening).

The line drawn to exclude biotechnology is arbitrary. Included are techniques like chemical and radioactive mutagenesis, forced hybridization across species, grafting to form physically chimeric plants. Excluded are techniques like cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology. There is one distinction I can see: techniques allowed in organic farming have been in use for decades and can generally be done with minimal equipment while techniques excluded from organic farming are new, patentable, require expensive equipment and trained technicians.

It has been suggested that the organic movement (specifically the anti-GM movement) is actually a reflection of anti-capitalism and in some cases anti-technology sentiment. The regulations support this theory, but I think at least some of that can be left in the past. I hope we can all look forward to redefining organic to stay true to its original meaning of biologically based agriculture. Without an integrated farming strategy – orgenic farming – I’m afraid we won’t have much left to eat. Jonathan Gressel (2009). Orgenic Food Nature Genetics, 41 (2), 137-137 DOI: 10.1038/ng0209-137

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!