Genetically Modified, Certified Organic, Real Food?

March 22, 2010

It seems counterintuitive to think that genetically modified plants could possibly be considered real food. After all, the whole point of eating and growing real food is to avoid organisms that have had their naturally nourishing qualities tampered with in the name of “progress” and profit motive. But a recent article in Forbes magazine suggests otherwise.

The article, “Green Genes” by Matthew Herper, published in this month’s edition of Forbes, begins by relating the story of how plant geneticist Pamela Ronald and organic farmer Raoul Adamchak met, fell in love, got married, and combined their passions to find ways to create GM crops that limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers while still being environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.

They are leading a chorus of young scientists and forward thinkers who see genetic modification not as a threat to sustainable farming but as a new way to make it better. They are not fans of corporate agriculture but think genetically modified organisms represent a missed opportunity to make things better.

And why not? After all, as the article points out, plants and animals have been selectively bred for certain traits for thousands of years. Hybridization is a form of controlled genetic modification that gives farmers the ability to control what traits their crops express. Unfortunately, this is where Herper loses credibility. He fails to distinguish between various forms of genetic modification and tries to sell Monsanto’s brand of lab-controlled gene splicing as just as harmless as grafting apple trees. He does make some interesting points, however, and the article forces us to ask where we draw the line when it comes to genetically modified, hybridized, or cross-bred crops.

Loopholes in the Organic Label

The struggles of Jose Baer, an organic walnut farmer, are cited as evidence for the value of GMOs in organic farming, if only the regulations would allow them. Baer wishes that someone would come up with a variety of walnut tree that could resist or poison the pests he must fend off without pesticides, and that this sort of genetic modification could be certified organic. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of organic, which is after all more than just a label used by farmers to charge more for their crops, right? If GMOs could be “certified organic,” won’t that completely undermine the value of the label? Turns out that some GMOs can be certified organic, right now.

According to the article, crops that are created through mutagenesis can be certified organic. This is a process by which a seed is exposed to a chemical or radioactive agent that randomly affects its genetic code. Herper points out that this process is much more volatile and uncontrolled than the insertion of a specific gene, though plants created by the latter process cannot generally be certified organic. Over the thousands of years of evolution, mutagenesis has certainly contributed to the development of many of the foods we now consider traditional and heritage, though the test of time has ensured their safety for consumption.

Pamela Ronald’s flood resistant rice crop, developed by inserting a single novel gene into rice, is also certified organic. The reason:  the gene was taken from an archaic strain of rice grown before the dawn of agriculture, rather than being taken from another kind of organism. Ronald’s motivations are not profit-oriented either, raising the question of whether or not the current problems with GMO crops could have been avoided with a bit more social concern and less focus on the bottom line. Originally, Ronald was using bacteria to insert the gene into rice, but now it is bred into modern rice. So if we can find ways to get novel genes into crops using traditional methods, does that circumvent the problems associated with GM crops? The easy way to answer that question is to ask whether the means by which Monsanto created its sterile seeds would make them any less harmless. Obviously, it isn’t the method of creation but rather the intent and ultimate usage that determines whether or not GM crops are a positive or a negative force in the food industry.

Taking a Wider View, or Lowering our Standards?

Admittedly, there is a wide gap between USDA Certified Organic food and the Profood concept of Real Food (never mind all the ambiguities inherent in both of those labels). Nevertheless, we must realize that many of the heritage breeds we cherish are in fact the result of old-school genetic modification: cross-breeding and hybridization. The intention behind the cross-breeding was more in line with sustainability however, which offers the possibility that more technical forms of modification might also lead to breeds that help, rather than hinder, the real food movement. So long as they are created with the right intent, and appropriate awareness of the social and environmental impact, it seem reasonable to expect that human ingenuity can be applied to fix the problems is created when used with the wrong intent.

Whether or not we agree with the stance that GM plants and animals can be beneficial elements in fixing America’s broken food system, it is an interesting possibility that they could hypothetically be part of the solution.

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