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.
Many groups oppose genetically engineered crops on the grounds that they're unsafe. What exactly are they worried about, and is the concern justified?
Raoul: BT [Bacillus thuringiensis] protein is one example. The gene for BT comes from bacteria and is integrated into some genetically engineered crops. Some people are concerned about the idea of eating that protein over long periods of time, even though it is present only in trace amounts. As an organic farmer, I've applied BT protein, which is approved for use in organic farming, many times. The protein affects a relatively small range of butterflies and moths but is nontoxic to humans and other animals, which is one reason it is a favorite tool of organic farmers.
You mentioned that some genetically modified plants require less insecticide. That seems like something that organic farmers would embrace.
Pamela: Yes, I think the public is not aware that the use of genetically engineered seed has dramatically reduced insecticide use. In China, cotton farmers were able to eliminate 150 million pounds of insecticide in a single year by using genetically engineered varieties. For comparison, in California, we spray about that much every year.
Raoul: One interesting part of this story, however, is that those huge gains started to fall off after six or seven years. Those farmers in China have started to see a resurgence of "secondary" pests because they are no longer spraying insecticides. I'm betting that if those farmers had been using crop rotation and biological controls [releasing beneficial insects, for example, or interspersing crops in ways that make it harder for insects to get the upper hand]—the practices that organic farmers use—instead of growing monoculture [one crop in one place], they wouldn't have had such problems with secondary pests.
How common are genetically engineered crops around the world now?
Pamela: Every time a GE crop has been approved for use, farmers have embraced it and the GE acreage for each crop has quickly grown to 50 to 90 percent of the total acreage. According to a recent article in Science magazine, the top producer is currently the United States with 57 million hectares; the next is Argentina with 20 million hectares; and then Brazil with 15 million hectares. These three are followed by Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa.
Globally, are we using the breadth of what's scientifically possible or just focusing on modifying a few specific traits?
Pamela: There are essentially just two traits out there: herbicide resistance and insect resistance. Those two have been put mainly in soybeans, corn, and cotton. We are just at the tip of an enormous iceberg of possibility.
Raoul: Flood resistance, drought tolerance, frost tolerance, salt tolerance—all of these could potentially be put into crops to increase yields. I'm particularly interested in crops resistant to nematodes, a class of tiny, cylindrical worms commonly found in soil. There are researchers working at Davis who are working on nematode resistance for tomatoes. They say it would even be fairly easy to put nematode resistance into heirloom tomatoes, such as Brandywine.
Heirloom tomatoes and Brandywines have become such a staple—even a symbol—of organic farming. Would you grow genetically engineered Brandywines if they existed?
Raoul: Well, I couldn't grow it as an organic farmer. I'd have to grow it as a nonorganic crop, but I would. Heirlooms are extremely susceptible to nematodes. You basically can't grow them organically if you have nematodes.
What about the concern that corporations can own the patent rights to genetically engineered seeds, so farmers can't save them and have to buy from the same company year after year?
Raoul: Actually, it's the same for many hybrid varieties that are popular among organic growers.
Pamela: And many people don't realize that in less developed countries, the seed industry is very different. In the past, most of these countries have had national breeding programs that distribute the seed for free. It's a completely different model than what we have in the United States, where virtually all of the seed is privatized.
What's the take-home message of this book, especially for people who aren't particularly interested in agriculture?
Pamela: We haven't really talked about nutrition and land use, and that's often of interest to people who aren't interested in farming. If we hadn't genetically modified our crops by conventional methods over the last 50 years, we would be using twice as much of the Earth's surface to grow the same amount of food. In the future, if we don't increase yields, we'll need to use double the amount of land to produce the same amount of food. In terms of nutrition, vitamin A-enriched GE rice has the potential to save the lives of thousands of children who currently suffer from vitamin A deficiency.
Do you seem to be winning friends with the book?
Pamela: It's a little early to say, but we're getting some comments back. I think there have been a lot of people thinking about this but not publishing widely on this. This situation sort of reminds me of that children's story about the emperor's new clothes. Everybody was afraid to point out the obvious. Once you have a few people calling and saying the emperor has no clothes, I think it will help change things. I think more and more people are starting to speak out.