Gordon Conway on Orgenics

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gordon-conwayMark Henderson at the Times Online has just published an article about Genetic Engineering and Organic Agriculture. Organic farmers must embrace GM crops if we are to feed the world, says scientist. The scientist is non other than Agricultural Ecologist Sir Gordon Conway, and he argues that Organic Ag should be open to GE crops, which we here like to call Orgenic agriculture.

Farmers, he said, should use the best aspects of organic methods and GM technology to maximise yields while limiting damage to ecosystems. He accepted that organic lobbyists would regard the idea as heresy, but said that genetic engineering could create better organic crops than those grown today with further environmental benefits.

“What frustrates me is there is a real potential for combining GM technology and organic approaches,” said Professor Conway, who stepped down last year as chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development. “To say that is probably heretical, but there would be real benefits if we got over this notion that GM is somehow not organic.”

He continues, explaining how the pure philosophical basis and underlying assumptions may work against the overall goal. And I’m glad to see that he pointed out how conventional breeding is just as artificial as genetic engineering. (It’s called artificial selection for a reason!)

While the processes used to create GM crops are unnatural, so too is the conventional breeding that has created today’s non-GM varieties. Both methods involve genes that are natural in origin, but genetic engineering can create crops with significant advantages.

The rigidity of organic certification rules can thus work against sustainability by blocking the use of helpful technologies, Professor Conway said.

Current Organic orthodoxy doesn’t currently allow for it, and organic customers aren’t too likely to go for it, yet Conway is optimistic about the future of such an approach.

“I think we are going to end up in a very interesting hybrid world in which we choose the technology because it is appropriate, not because of where it has come from. And 2050 will be like that: it will not be completely high-technology, and it will not be a completely back-tonature world.”

Can we do it in 40 years? I wonder what could be accomplished in 10.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.