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?
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!”