Why plant breeding is incompatible with Organic Agriculture

This is part I 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?

When I read the news a few weeks ago I was at first puzzled, and then inspired. Jim Riddle, Organic Outreach Coordinator for the University of Minnesota, wrote an article for the Rodale Institute outlining 10 reasons why genetic engineering is incompatible with organic agriculture. This is one of the issues that we tackle quite often here at Biofortified. So here are his ten reasons:

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Convinced? I considered that maybe he is right. Furthermore, as I continued to think about it, I could only conclude that plant breeding itself is incompatible with Organics as well. You know, rubbing two flowers together. I will now outline 10 good reasons why plant breeding is incompatible with Organic Agriculture. You might notice some similarities.

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. Bred crops and foods are comprised of novel mutations and combinations of genes which have never before been part of the human diet and may not be recognized by the intestinal system as digestible food.

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 genetics-based plant breeding, there has been a dramatic decline in the populations of Monarch butterflies, black swallowtails, lacewings, and caddisflies, and there may be a relationship between monocultures and colony collapse in honeybees. Crop residues have been shown to persist in soils and negatively impact soil ecosystems.

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. Plant breeding 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. Every time a breeder makes a cross between two plants he or she is creating an organism that has never before existed.

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, breeding of agricultural crops has been shown to have numerous unpredicted consequences, at the macro level, and at the genetic level. Potatoes and celery touched by the hands of plant breeders have caused documented skin and health problems in consumers and farm workers.

5. Transparency. Organic is based on full disclosure, traceability, information sharing, seed saving and public engagement. Commercial breeding is based on secrecy, absence of labeling, and proprietary breeders rights for corporate profits. The almost complete absence of a regulatory framework has allowed the breeding industry to move forward without the benefit of rigorous, transparent scientific inquiry. The absence of “artificial selection” 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.

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. When a plant breeder creates an organism that has not existed before and releases it into the environment, its genes know no boundaries and can contaminate organic crops. Novel or untested (and unknown) genes in wild relatives can infiltrate organic fields by “genetic trespass” and no one – absolutely no one is accountable for this genetic drift.

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, plant breeding 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 breeding, which foster moncropping are not compatible with organic systems, where soil-building crop rotations are required.

8. Genetic diversity. Organic farmers are required to maintain or improve the biological and genetic diversity of their operations. Plant breeding has the exact opposite effect by narrowing the gene pool and is focused on mono-cropping varieties. Although plant breeders may start with more diverse stock, the breeder purposefully selects only the genetics that they “want” to see in the field. By selecting beneficial traits they are reducing genetic diversity and thus plant breeding should not be allowed to happen in organic agriculture.

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 conventionally bred varieties has lowered the net profit per acre for conventional producers, forcing them to farm more land in order to stay in business.

10. No consumer demand. Consumers are not calling for organic foods to be subjected to breeding. In fact, there is a growing demand for “wild” foods that have not had their genetics altered by fallible human beings. By incorporating conventionally bred crops into organic agriculture, we would be further eliminating the consumer’s ability to choose these more “natural” foods. There is no public poll which indicates that consumers of organic (or conventional for that matter) foods desire to have the genetics of their crops altered by plant breeding.

It is entirely clear that “conventional breeding” is just that – breeding for conventional agriculture and not for Organic systems. There can be no compromise on this issue, and this is not a drill.

Okay this is a drill.

Evaluating Jim’s Riddle

If you’ve made it this far, you will no doubt notice that it is virtually identical to mine. Yep, a lot of cutting and pasting was involved. Actually, no, not a lot. I added some more information to some of them, some more depth and historical examples in one case. What is accomplished by rewriting his arguments in this fashion is that if they make sense, then the logic transfers over and you must either accept the new conclusion – or – reject the first one.  But banning plant breeding from organic agriculture is absurd, and I’m sure that Jim Riddle would agree. Therefore, his article presents a riddle: how can these characteristics apply to both breeding and genetic engineering while one is compatible and the other is not?

Discuss, and stay tuned for part II – wherein I take a hard look at Riddle’s arguments.

*Orgenic (Or-gene-ick) refers to the idea of combining Organic agriculture with Genetic Engineering.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

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.