With a food crisis simmering around the globe, a new book, Tomorrow's Table, argues that the marriage of genetic engineering and organic farming is key to feeding the world's growing population. U.S. News spoke with coauthors Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology who experiments with genetically altered plants at the University of California-Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer at the University of California-Davis's certified organic farm and former partner at Full Belly Farm, a 150-acre organic vegetable farm in California, about the unlikely alliance.
What spurred you to consider integrating such seemingly opposed approaches?
Raoul: Well, part of it is that we're married. We've had a lot of time to talk these issues through.
You say that organic agriculture seeks to maximize the health of the environment, the farmer, and the consumer. What role might genetic engineering play in achieving such goals?
Raoul: Organic farming came about as a response to the environmental and health problems associated with overuse of chemicals on conventional farms. Genetic engineering could contribute by reducing pesticide use by creating pest-resistant strains. There's also strong evidence that there are certain environmental or disease problems with no solution, regardless of whether you're farming with a conventional or organic approach. There's nothing to make plants resistant to certain viruses, for example.
Is there a way that genetically engineered crops in combination with organic techniques could help address the global food crisis?
Pamela: Yes, especially in less developed countries where farmers, in many cases, can't afford conventional fertilizers and pesticides. Also, flooding is a major problem in certain developing countries, and flood-tolerant crops could be critical. For about 50 years, people have been trying to develop flood-resistant rice using conventional breeding. They've failed. Today about 75 million farmers live on less than a dollar a day in major flood zones in places like Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India.
Raoul: Think about Myanmar. Already a hundred thousand people have died there since the cyclone. There hasn't been much talk about the fact that much of that delta there was planted in rice and that already the area has been flooded for a couple of weeks. Chances are that all that rice is going to die. Another hundred thousand more people may well die, too, of starvation before this is over.
Pamela: I have been involved in a project for the last 10 years that's developing a variety of flood-tolerant rice. My laboratory has recently isolated a gene that makes rice tolerate flooding. In collaboration with colleagues at the International Rice Research Institute, we have developed a rice variety for Bangladesh that yields 1 to 2 tons per hectare more under flooded conditions than the conventional variety in recent on-farm trials.
How do organic farmers respond when you talk to them about this idea? Are they receptive or alarmed by it?
Pamela: What I've found is that when we talk to the organic farmers themselves, they are pretty intrigued by the possibilities. I think that's because they're experimentalists and understand the difficult hurdles all farmers face. I think they feel that there's been a lot of hype against genetic engineering. It's the people from the political organizations—and the urban dwellers—that tend to be the most actively against the idea.
Raoul: Some people are cynical. Unfortunately, perhaps, genetically engineered plants were first developed by large corporations such as Monsanto and designed to fit into conventional—not organic—farming systems. Genes were even taken from bacteria and put into plants, and that made people nervous, despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences and national scientific agencies in other nations have agreed that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat. Imagine if genetic engineering had started off with gene transfer between closely related plants or with a new variety that could save the lives of thousands of children. The rift probably would have seemed much smaller than it does today.
How would the public's perception of genetically engineered crops be different if nonprofit agencies or governmental organizations had taken the lead instead?
Pamela: Look at papaya, for example. In the 1990s, there was an infestation of papaya in Hawaii with something called ring spot virus. It completely obliterated papaya production on the island of Oahu, so growers moved production to the island of Hawaii. Plant pathologists predicted that eventually the virus would arrive on Hawaii, too, and eventually it did. But before it had, Dennis Gonsalves, a former plant virologist at Cornell who is now with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed a genetically engineered papaya variety that was completely resistant. He was working with a small USDA grant, and the genetically engineered papaya was distributed freely to growers. His GE papaya, it turned out, yielded 20 times more than the previous variety, and the industry completely rebounded. It's a great example of genetic engineering benefiting local farmers.