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Re-assessing the sustainability of genetically engineered crops?

Posted by Chad Kruger | January 24, 2014
Historically, there has been passionate resistance from advocates of organic and sustainable agriculture systems to the introduction and use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.  The position, as most often stated, is that GE and sustainable agriculture (specifically organic agriculture) are mutually exclusive.  This position is codified in the National Organics Standards which have excluded the intentional use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in organic production and handling.  The high-profile ballot initiative (I-522) had this issue front and center in Washington State for most of last fall.

With this as context, I find it fascinating that there is an emerging public discussion, coming from the sustainable/organic community, questioning whether this historic consensus needs to be revisited. Perhaps the most notable advocate of re-thinking the perceived incongruity of organic and GE is Pamela Ronald, a Professor at UC Davis whose expertise is plant genetic responses to environmental stress and disease. Like many other scientists who are increasingly concerned about the “wicked problems” facing society like climate change, she questions whether we might be hurting ourselves in the long run by ignoring the potential of GE technology. Ronald co-authored the book “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food” and recently covered a Boston Review forum for Scientific American that provided critical scientific review of the sustainability of GE technology.  It’s a fascinating and insightful discussion and well worth the time for anyone who wants to more fully understand the nuances of these issues.

Perhaps the most interesting statement made during the Boston Review Forum, to me, was from Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that has conducted several critical reviews of GE technology:

“Nevertheless, GE approaches deserve to be fairly evaluated as solutions alongside conventional breeding and sophisticated cropping systems.” – Margaret Mellon, Boston Review Forum, September 6, 2013.

While I think Mellon’s comment is consistent with UCS’s historical position (“neutral” about GE technology, while prominently noting that GE technology has failed to live up to the hype), in the context of the public debate this strikes me as a fairly important point of departure from the “line in the sand” consensus within the sustainable/organic agriculture food community.

Past UCS reports have demonstrated that the substantial majority of historical and current commercial applications of GE technology have focused on herbicide and virus tolerance, and insect resistance – all applications with obvious potential for commercial exploitation. Ronald points out the counterfactual case that there are many potential applications of GE technology that could fit the paradigm of “appropriate technology” – that is, technology that is “low cost, low maintenance and promotes values such as health, beauty, and permanence”. Mellon and her colleagues at UCS have identified traits such as generalized resistance to biotic stress and improved nitrogen and water-use efficiency as the kinds of applications of GE technology that could be consistent with sustainability goals.

This same discussion highlighted in the Boston Review forum has been happening in our own backyard over the past 18 months. The WSU Seed Symposium at the 2012 Tilth Conference featured a presentation and discussion with WSU’s Crop Biotechnologist, Mike Neff, on whether GMO technology can help organic farmers if used appropriately. My colleague Chuck Benbrook has written a couple of posts in the past year for the Perspectives on Sustainability Blog that provide additional fodder for an ongoing discussion (Hard Lessons from GE crops, Independent Science to Regain Public Confidence). Leading up to the vote on I-522 this past November, The WSU Foley Institute hosted a panel discussion on the Science, Ethics and Politics of GMOs and Your Food.

I’m certainly aware that many people still (and will always) categorically reject the notion that there can be any congruence between organic/sustainable and GE technology*. However, as a public research institution, it’s not our responsibility to decide what is or is not appropriate, but rather to provide scientific research and education to inform the public regarding issues of concern – regardless of whether we like the results of that research.

As a scientist I’m intrigued by the way that Ronald and Mellon have framed the question, regardless of my personal opinion regarding GE technology. In both science and natural ecosystems we rarely see black and white categorical imperatives, but most often seen nuance and “shades of gray”. The position of categorically dismissing GE technology has always felt awkward to me and many of my colleagues precisely because it stifles scientific inquiry. Society certainly has the right to reject a technology (even if it rarely does) for reasons that are non-scientific, but robust and defensible scientific evidence that is specific to a given case makes such decisions much more palatable to most people.

So I’m left with Mellon’s comment that GE technology ought to be fairly evaluated alongside what are considered more conventional and sustainable pathways. With this in mind, I’ve asked some of my colleagues to consider what exactly that means and what it might look like. Please check back here in the coming days and weeks to read their perspectives and offer your own.


* CSANR’s long-standing GE policy has been that our grant program (BIOAg) funding may not be used to support the development of, or promote stakeholder use of, transgenic crops. Our justification for this policy has been to point to the current consensus of the sustainable ag community and I don’t see us changing this policy in the foreseeable future.


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