I would like to relay the story of two unlikely marriages. The first is a marriage of people, and the second is a marriage of concepts. Both marriages have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about agriculture.
Pamela C. Ronald is a geneticist who works on developing genetically engineered crops at UC Davis. She is married to an organic farmer, Raoul W. Adamchak, who is teaches UC Davis students about organic farming methods. If you think this marriage sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re not alone. However, Pamela and Raoul are happily married, and what’s more amazing is that they have been exploring unique and exciting ways in which their respective approaches to agriculture can be synergistic. Both Pamela and Raoul have exceptional pedigrees in their respective fields, and are members of one of the leading agricultural institutions in the world- UC Davis. One would be hard pressed to find two people coming together with better credentials to make positive changes in the way we think about agriculture for the betterment of health, farmer economics, and the environment. Their book, Tomorrow’s Table, outlines how organic farming and genetic engineering could be mutually beneficial. Personally, I get the impression that they are on to something big. However, for many people this combination sounds as unsavory as putting anchovies on their chocolate cake. Here is the problem…
Currently, there is a philosophical dichotomy in the way agriculture is approached in the United States. On the one hand there are people who are in favor of organic, small scale, local agricultural operations. On the other hand there are those who accept or actively promote large scale, traditional agriculture that incorporates GM crops as a viable means to produce food, fuel, and animal feed for an growing world population. Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks, but unfortunately, discussions that compare these approaches often become emotional and overly politicized. In the public eye, these two approaches seem fundamentally at odds with each other, and delving into the agronomic details of why remains secondary to the philosophical overtones. But there is hope…
In Tomorrow’s Table Raoul and Pamela find common ground in the form of an unlikely new application for GM technology. Raoul outlines the benefits of organic farming practices, but even more importantly, he brings to light what the main agronomic pain points are to organic farmers. Pamela clarifies and separates the myths from the facts about GM technology, and shows how GM technology could help relieve organic farmers’ major pain points without compromising their key organic agronomic practices. By implementing aspects of GM technology, organic growers could still practice ecologically beneficial methods such as using compost, intercropping, and harboring insect predators for pest control, without compromising the production costs and marketability of their products.
Of course, for this theory to make any sense to an organic farmer, he or she must buy into the idea that GM technology is not an inherently evil thing. The purpose of this blog is not to persuade skeptics of GM otherwise – that is material for its own blog. However, it is important to analyze the technology itself rather than the people or entities that have historically been publically associated with GM. An aggressive corporate strategy is separate from the technology itself.
Now, assuming that you buy into the idea that GM itself is not evil… Raoul provides one particularly tantalizing example of where GM technology could help organic growers: the case of corn earworm on sweet corn. Growers have not been able to find organic solution to mitigate corn earworm infestation on their sweet corn. Therefore, some growers have been forced to sell their product with “a little extra protein”- aka with corn earworms. In fact, some farmers’ market stands for organic sweet corn will have a knife ready for customers to cut off the ends of the ears where the earworm is. Of course, the sullied appearance of their product doesn’t get the grower full price. Without going into all the biological reasons why orgnanic methods have failed in this regard, the bottom line is that some problems are difficult to solve “the organic way”. Given that there are so many great things about organic agriculture (the reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, the emphasis on building soil quality over the long term, and the emphasis on crop biodiversity and agroecological robustness) it would be a shame to throw all that out the window, or continue to see it’s scalability inhibited by issues such as the corn earworm.
Now, draw your attention to the picture on the left. One can see that GE sweet corn (right) is resistant to corn earworm grown under the same organic conditions as the non-resistant variety (left). This is the result of one known change in the corn’s DNA (compared to millions of unknown changes that occur with traditional breeding). This change allows the corn to perform well without the use of chemicals sprays.
Pamela and Raoul are a living example of people coming together from opposite ends of the agricultural spectrum and finding synergy instead of discord. Of course, there would need to be a cumbersome legal and philosophical overhaul of what society defines as “organic”, or perhaps the creation of a whole new category of certification before organic growers will be able to add GM technology to their extensive tool box of an integrated pest management strategy. I believe that with continued efforts to educate consumers, the incorporation of new and old agricultural methods will be good for the environment, feasible for farmers, and more readily scalable than current organic techniques.
Plants breeders know that a wide cross of genotypes often results in hybrid vigor. Perhaps a wide cross of technological approaches will result in a new vigorous type of agriculture.
Still skeptical? Pick up a copy of Tomorrow’s Table and hear it from the experts.
Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at Terviva Inc.