Conflict between organic and transgenic crops

Genetically modified (GM) food has never been something that particularly worries me. They certainly have problems – pesticide use, mingling with wild plants – but industrial agriculture has these problems anyway. The large companies that make them take advantage of farmers in icky ways, like making the crops sterile so farmers have to buy new seeds every year, but that sort of behavior has a legislative fix. If industrial growers, say in California’s Imperial Valley, were using GMOs that saved water and didn’t need pesticides, I’d think it was a great idea (assuming proper environmental testing).

However, I also believe that people have a right to avoid GMOs if they wish. So it was troubling that a recent study in Spain found that GMO agriculture drives out organic agriculture. The study showed that a small amount of genetically modified pollen fertilized nearby organic plants, making them also “genetically modified.” There’s not a lot of mixing – 6% seems to be the high estimate – but that’s enough to put organic consumers off their feed. Since the organic produce was not GMO-free, it was unsellable in Europe. This drove organic farmers out of the organic business, and they started planting GMO crops.

The European Commission’s GMO policy is based on “coexistance” – assuming that GMOs and organic produce can be grown side-by-side. This is clearly not the case, if cross-contamination is an issue for organic consumers. So if genetically modified foods have a place in modern agriculture – and I think they do, particularly because of climate change – that place is far away from organic agriculture.

Via A Blog Around the Clock

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5 Responses to Conflict between organic and transgenic crops

  1. Greg says:

    Did the organic farmers have legal redress against the GMOs for screwing up their crops?

  2. Mike says:

    I think that a great deal of resistance to the idea of GMO comes from the idea that they were introduced into the marketplace by large corps like Monsanto, Archer-Daniels Midland. While there are valid concerns, these sources make GMO automatically “bad” in the minds of its detractors. I am not saying that GMO is automatically good, I am just saying that it is important to separate the research from the emotion when it comes to GMO. One of my bloggy friends is Anastasia Bodnar, who writes Genetic Maize.</a. She is a PhD candidate at Iowa State who studies GMO.

    She recently linked to an article in U.S. News and World Report. It’s a discussion of alliances between organic farmers and developers of GMO, who share the viewpoint that reducing fertilizer use is important not only because of the cost of fertilizer but the environmental damage that fertilizer/herbicide/pesticide does.

    Here’s a short quote on how organic farming and use of GMO’s could work together:

    You mentioned that some genetically modified plants require less insecticide. That seems like something that organic farmers would embrace.
    Pamela: Yes, I think the public is not aware that the use of genetically engineered seed has dramatically reduced insecticide use. In China, cotton farmers were able to eliminate 150 million pounds of insecticide in a single year by using genetically engineered varieties. For comparison, in California, we spray about that much every year.

    Raoul: One interesting part of this story, however, is that those huge gains started to fall off after six or seven years. Those farmers in China have started to see a resurgence of “secondary” pests because they are no longer spraying insecticides. I’m betting that if those farmers had been using crop rotation and biological controls [releasing beneficial insects, for example, or interspersing crops in ways that make it harder for insects to get the upper hand]—the practices that organic farmers use—instead of growing monoculture [one crop in one place], they wouldn’t have had such problems with secondary pests.

    There’s research to be done before farmers start jumping into lawsuits, and I do advocate food labeling so that people who are opposed to GMO can make informed choices. But the benefits of GMO are too promising to dismiss. As to sterility, Anastasia has examined that issue as well and has added some clarity to what is going on.

  3. [...] problem for organic farmers, because once produce is cross-contaminated it is unsellable in Europe. Miriam at Oyster’s Marter reviewed the case of this happening in Spain, and farmers were in essence forced to switch from organic farming to [...]

  4. frog says:

    When I first moved up here, I met a bunch of farmers from Vermont who were part of a group trying to get the entire state to ban GMOs because of the cross-contamination. I can’t remember if they were the same group that is always trying to make Vermont its own state…

  5. Mahmut says:

    The Bt is dilluted and speryad on organic crops well prior to harvesting, and is degraded by the sun and water on the surface of the plant by the time it is harvested, and then people should wash veggies at home. Very little is left on the surface of the veggie by the time you eat it. With GMO’s the Bt genes are in every cell of the plant and cannot be reduced by sunlight or washing; it is very concentrated throughout the plant which is why the EPA regulates it as a pesticide, in addition to the FDA. In 2011 a study was done in Quebec Canada examining blood from pregnant women. According to the companies selling GMO’s the Bt is destroyed by digestion and never enters the blood stream, but this study found that 93% of the women tested had Bt circulating in their blood, and the umbilical cord blood showed that the majority of unborn children had also been exposed. Spraying a diluted form of something on the surface is far less risky, and orders of magnitude different in concentration, from engineering it into every cell of a plant. Kevin is correct that not all gene insertions are done with gene guns; there are several methods. I also have been working with plants for 40 years and believe, along with many other plant people, that tampering with species barriers is really unnecessary. Selective breeding yields great results with far fewer risks to human and environmental health. All the high tech is really more about the patenting of life and ownership of food crops, and the people doing it never ask themselves if they think it would be OK for someone to alter their genetics without their consent for the motive of profit.

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