Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why aren't we talking about organic GMOs? And, why can't we all get along?

You've heard the rants about Mitt Monsanto versus Organic Obama. You've read the arguments on both sides for "Yes" or "No" on labeling GMOs in California. You've read the research surrounding the wholesomeness of "organic" versus "conventional." There's the divisive talk, the reasoned talk, and the rat-shi# crazy talk.

What I want to ask is this: Why aren't there more people, beyond scientists and academics, talking about organically grown GMOs? These last few weeks have had me thinking a lot about how the terms used to describe our food -- "organic," "conventional," and genetically modified" -- which only serve to confuse and distract from greater issues at hand.

The greater issues (in a nutshell): Agricultural and food scientists are given a heavy task of feeding nine billion people by 2050. Most will agree that it will come with substantial costs. Soil quality will suffer, excess pesticide and herbicide use will destroy biodiversity, nutrient runoff will keep fueling the algal booms, or "dead zones," that suffocate life in our lakes and oceans. The world's phosphorus reserves will be depleted. If you add in climate change to the mix, you can count on destroyed crops and suffering farmers, especially in the developing world. Food production will be more expensive. Food will be more expensive. Small farmers and the poorest among us will suffer.

Organic is not the answer, but offers lessons

"Organic" farming defined as it is now is not the answer. Scientific American blogger Christie Wilcox (@nerdychristie) deserves high praise for shattering myths about organic foods and for challenging their use as being better for the environment. She also rightly challenges the notion that organic pesticides are healthier or that fewer pesticides overall in food are healthier for you. (I'll add that some pesticides are good for you including my favorite: caffeine!).

Huge limitations are that organic agriculture requires more land and more labor. Organic agriculture also excludes synthetic pesticides (natural ones are not as effective and not safer) and herbicides aren't permitted (despite that ones like glyphosate degrade rapidly in soil). Organic farming is, thus, more expensive and more devastating to the environment because of increased carbon emissions. And, although reports vary widely, yields of organic agriculture are also estimated to be only half in comparison to conventional agriculture.

Yet the ideals of organic agriculture are still good -- less use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers while protecting soil. There are also lessons to be learned from organic agriculture. For example, crop rotation can help prevent nutrient depletion in soil. And, the use of animal manure and decaying plants instead of commercial fertilizer helps improve water-holding capacity of soil. Better water-holding capacity diminishes runoff.

Bringing in biotech

Now, allow me to get back to my argument and questions -- What if we added biotechnology to the picture? Why not organically grown GMOs, legislation to support expanding "Certified Organic" to include GMOs, and investment and research into more sustainable GMOs? 

Finally, what if more of the public learned to appreciate the very scientists who are trying to make these developments possible? Too few people are familiar with (and too few companies have invested in) important research using recombinant DNA going on right now that could surely help reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. For example,  
  • There are the scientists researching varieties of wheat genetically engineered to emit a non-toxic pheromone, which could lead to less use of pesticide. 
  • There are the scientists who've engineered rice to have larger root systems that take up more nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil, which reduces nutrient runoff.  
  • There are the scientists whose research involves improving abilities of crops to capture more light (improving yields), withstand extreme weather changes, high salt concentrations, or have greater resistance to diseases.  
  • There are also the scientists whose research is in genetically engineered algae that can help displace use of corn ethanol and petroleum while sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
  • And, there are the scientists who actively promote this kind of research and thinking such as plant geneticists Pamela Ronald, of UC Davis, and Nina Fedoroff, of Penn State. 
Currently, public perception and debate hinders the discussion of organic GMOs. Most lay people that I talk to appear to be only familiar with stories of either poor behavior from GMO-corporations like Monsanto, or their Roundup Ready crops as a source of overuse of fertilizer and pesticide, the destruction of biodiversity through expanded use of monoculture crops, and the spread of pesticide-resistant weeds. (Unfortunately, they are also familiar with the bat-shit crazy Jeffrey Smith, Mercola, and Mike Adams). 

What about conventional ag and food technology?

Let's not leave out "conventional" agriculture. There are also solutions to gain from developments in conventional agriculture, too. Too few people know about the new developments because ideologies tend to trump the science and technology. Yet a couple of years ago, food scientists from a variety of disciplines produced a scientific review on behalf of the Institute of Food Technologists that offered these solutions: 

  • "No-till" agriculture - retains organic matter and stops soil erosion
  • Integrated pest management - using pesticide only where it's needed, decreasing amount
  • Precision agriculture - targeting fertilizer to seed, pesticide to plant
  • Drip irrigation - controlling water
  • New technologies for recovering nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater (like Bill Gates toilets) 
I'll also add in food technology. Despite the massive criticism received by food technologists ("Big Food") for fueling the obesity epidemic, it will be their task for providing additional food processing solutions to feed the world's nine billion.

For example, there are many improved technologies for preserving food and extending shelf life of these foods. The technologies we have now (besides cooking) are mechanical operations (extraction and separation of oils), thermal treatments (blanching, pasteurization, and canning), refrigeration, dehydration, fermentation, acidification, etc. New technologies like faster thermal methods (microwave and ohmic heating) and high-pressure processing could help feed people in the future.  

Controlled-environment agriculture looks promising, too; that is, the designing of high-tech greenhouses that can be produced almost anywhere, including Antarctica, and can produce up to 10 times more produce than conventional farms with only a tenth or less of the resources. Cost is the prohibitive factor there.

A Unified Approach

So, why the dividing lines? Excluding GMOs from the label of "Certified Organic" is based in ideology and not in science. Too many people have it in their minds that GMOs are "anti-organic." It doesn't have to be that way. Food labeling of GMOs does little to solve this problem, but only discourages investment into biotechnology and its commercialization. The "Certified Organic" labeling also distracts from focusing on the progress that biotechnology and other technologies offer for more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices.

Catastrophe has been avoided before. In the 1960s and '70s, population growth outpaced food production. Bringing science to agriculture turned the tables and improved plant breeding techniques, which increased yields of common crops like wheat. Thanks to scientists like Norman Borlaug (and Fritz Haber, for that matter), the Green Revolution saved millions, mainly in China and India.

It can happen again. The goals shared should be improving crop yields in harsh environments, reducing nutrient runoff, reducing use of pesticides and herbicides, and reducing food waste and pollution through a combination of the best that organic, GMOs, and conventional techniques have to offer. There simply needs to be a more unified approach to improving food production and reducing its impact on the environment.

Update 09-26-12: And, about that flawed rat study everyone's talking about, I believe plant scientist Peter Bickerton beautifully summarizes my own thoughts, over on the "Topical Poetry" blog, with this masterpiece. Enjoy!