A Marriage of Two Agricultures

Pamela Ronald on the Need for GMOs and Organic Farming

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. "Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, 'Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what's in our food,'” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food sets forth a vision where farmers do not make choices based on the binary of GMO vs. organic, but instead based on the social, economic, and environmental impacts – the three pillars of a sustainable agriculture. A blended agriculture – which takes techniques from genetic engineering and organic farming – is key to feeding the world’s growing population while preserving nature.

Raoul Adamchak has been an organic farmer for the past 20 years and has served as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers. He currently works at the University of California, Davis, as the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on campus, where students can learn more about organic agriculture.

Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California at Davis. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, both of which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa. She serves as the director of Grass Genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute. She is also a cofounder of Biology Fortified Inc., an independent educational nonprofit foundation.

I chatted briefly with Ronald about the need for agriculture that embraces both biotechnology and organic methods.

When did your interest in organic farming begin?

I worked on an organic farm when I was an undergraduate student. And I wanted to be an organic farmer at one time. It really interested me.

Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.

How would this type of farming reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Many farmers, including organic farmers, have to till to control weeds and tilling released a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. Using an herbicide tolerant seed eliminates the need for extensive tilling.

James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia theory, has talked about the issue of the amount of land being used for agriculture that could be returned to forests for carbon sequestration. Does planting GE seed offer an opportunity to grow more food on less land and conserve more land for forest cover?

Genetic improvement, whether genetically engineered or another approach, enhances yields. Any time you increase your yields (or have less crop failure), you save land and water. And anytime you save land, and it’s good for the environment.

What’s your opinion of the controversy over labeling genetically modified foods?

There is no rational, scientific basis for rejecting modern seed technologies. The National Academy of Sciences and all of the other scientific groups that have examined the issue have concluded that the process of GE is no more risky that conventional methods of genetic improvement. There hasn’t been a single case of harm to human health of the environment after barely 20 years of planting GE crops.

Jason Sibert lives in the St. Louis Metro area. He's written for a number of publications such as New Geography, Patch.com, St. Louis Beacon, Suburban Journals, and Java Journal. He specializes in environmental journalism.