How GMO Will Save Organic Agriculture

Posted by 6ff74e82 tiny Jonathan Soma on jul 1, 2011 under Blog Post

Holy shit guys, do you know what I learned the other night? I'm gonna tell you. I'm gonna tell you right now.

DNA class married a lot of stuff I knew about factory farming and natural vs. synthetic ingredient debates with the basic building blocks of genetically modified food. And y'know what? Organic farming is never going to be environmentally sustainable and a meaningful food source unless it embraces GMO technology. How's that for a goddamn thesis statement?

I'm a bit hopped up on Changing The World right now, you'll have to excuse my language.

What's The Story, Genetically Modified Morning Glory?

Maybe I can give you a little background about GMO before we get too deep into this. GMO stands for, of course, Genetically Modified Organisms, and is anything alive in which SCIENCE has reached in and fiddled with the genes. Genes make things happen inside of your body (duh), like making your eyes brown or your ear lobes connected or your hairline sneak back. They do the same thing in plants!

Out in nature, there's a fun little bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. If we wrote a book about him marketed to four-year-olds we could call him Aggy Tummy, but we'll call it A. tumefaciens so as not to make Science angry.

Out in the wild, A. tumefaciens swims up and into a plant's stem and makes itself at home in one of the plant's cells. It then snips apart some of the cell's DNA, inserts a little package of genes it's been carrying (called a plasmid), and suddenly the plant cell is doing something new! Nature's GMO, if you will.

In this case, it makes the cell make a bunch of new cells super fast, and they make new cells, and on and on, until you get a bump on the stem of the plant. It's like when you click on an attachment in Outlook and suddenly your computer is sending out a zillion spam emails to all of your friends. That's pretty boring, though, so luckily we can replace the little package it's carrying (the plasmid!) with something new -something a little more useful to agriculture.

A Bug's (Destructive) Life

There's an evil little insect called the European corn borer that likes to (you guessed it), bore holes in corn. It's the opposite of a little kid, in that it loves to eat corn plants, and eventually the plants fall over and die: bored to death. Not good for growing! 

Traditionally, farms would spray pesticides all over their fields 8 or 10 times a growing season to control the corn borer. Totally not cool for a thousand reasons, right? This is where the genetics come in.

We replace the plasmid that A. tumefaciens inserts into plants with a plasmid created by SCIENCE - this new plasmid (remember, it's a little package of genes) causes the cell to produce a substance that, when eaten by the corn borer, kills it! No pesticides necessary. Pretty cool, right? We can do this with all sorts of genes and do all sorts of things, whether its provide resistance to pests or help the plants compete against weeds or probably even glow in the dark, which is less useful but sounds kinda fun.

<3 Organics

So how is this helpful to organics? Let's talk about why we all love organic farming.

I'd rather not cherry-pick ideas, so I'm going to go with this random list of 10 things from the first google result from "why to eat organic." The list runs something like: avoid synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in people and the environment, protect soil erosion, promote biodiversity, and the idea that organic foods just plain taste better. I think that sounds pretty reasonable, yeah?

Fertilizers are a huge thing. Just go read this post on Sustainablog about the limitations of organic fertilizer, and why they might end up being worse for the environment than synthetic fertilizers. There's an obscene amount you can write about this, but a big issue is that crop yields aren't as good with organic fertilizers, which means you need to use more space, which means you end up taking over more of the environment with your not-as-good-as-being-nature farms. There's a really good piece in the Economist from 2006 about this, too. I don't really know if this has anything to do with GMO. It's mostly just something that's good to read about!

Synthetic pesticides and herbicides can be bad news, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say most any pesticide or herbicide can be harmful to the environment, whether synthetic or not. They're built to kill, and they're generally mobile and water-soluble, so they probably aren't going to just hang around the farm poking at local weeds and bugs.

We should just be using less of them in general, and the best way (in my opinion) to do that is to build these tolerances into the plant. No runoff, no damage to your waterways, no damage to your ecosystems.

Soil erosion is a good one, but unfortunately that has everything to do with how people farm and not what they farm with. Neither for nor against GMO, just all for sustainable planting schemes.

Before I get to my favorite two (biodiversity and organic foods) let's skip ahead and address the Evil Mutant Corn theory of GMO criticism.

Bucolic Frankensteins

For people who believe that GMO crops are unnatural and we don't know how they will affect the human body or the environment: to an extent, you're right. I can argue until I'm blue in the face that there has never ever ever ever ever been a study that has stood up to scrutiny and actually proven GMO crops to have done anything weird, but that probably isn't going to convince you. I can say this, though: avoiding GMO crops isn't going to help you avoid mutant corn.

Corn didn't start off that beautiful big ol' ear we run with these days. Ears started off tiny, with maybe a dozen kernels on an ear, and it's only through breeding together naturally mutated corn that we got to where we are today. That happens reasonably slowly, though, so maybe that's cool with you. Don't rest on your laurels, though, because scientists found a way to speed it up.

Take a bag of seeds. Pound them with x-rays, which scramble up the corn seed DNA a bit and cause mutations. Grow these plants, breed the ones you like. Take that bag of seeds, pound it with x-rays, etc, etc forever and ever amen. Eventually you'll (hopefully) get the traits you're looking for in the plant, all without snipping the DNA.

The downside of this compared to GMO crops is that with GMO you know exactly what genes you're inserting, while in the x-rays-and-bad-of-seeds case you're randomly mutating a whole bunch of them, with no idea how it's going to affect anything in the environment. And y'know what? Since you aren't poking around inside of the cells manually, this is considered absolutely organic.

Let's see how this could play out: potatoes are part of the nightshade family, which means they're rocking some poisonous alkaloids. Not enough to actually hurt you, though! But what if we bombarded them with x-rays, looking for a way to make them more an amazing color, but accidentally ended up also increasing the alkaloid levels to poisonous levels? Because we reached the end-product without snipping DNA, we could sell those poisonous potatoes without any testing at all.

Even if you're still anti-GMO, I hope we are on the same page that inserting a known batch of genes into a plant makes a little more sense than randomly changing everything and hoping it all works out for the best.

OK, Back To The Farm

Biodiversity and the pleasant taste of organic foods are really the things that drew me to the idea of marrying GMO and organic farming. Once upon a time we had hundreds of kinds of each crop, but now we're lucky if we have a dozen. I'll put on the table that it isn't organic produce that tastes better, it's that these farmers are more likely to make use of local and heirloom cultivars, and not be bound by the whims of the supermarket produce section.

Factory farms are stupid, and they'll do something like only produce one kind of tomato, and it'll only exist to look nice and plump for ages in the grocery store, while tasting like a cross between cardboard and wet sand. When a factory farm is going to do their science projects on tomatoes, they will do them on this tomato, so that they'll then have a sandy cardboard tomato that is super resistant to pests, and they can spend less money on pesticides.

Fuck that, though! What we need are the heirloom tomatoes, the weird ugly lumpy ones that taste like sunshine and rainbows. We need a hundred kinds of apples, some for pies and some for eating early and some for eating late and some for throwing at people who are too loud when it's too late at night. We need their varied genes to prevent monoculture-destroying diseases and their varied tastes to make people have a good time in the produce aisle. But what they need is GMO.

Why Organics Need GMO (Without the Bad Guys)

Right now, organic, heirloom varieties are tougher and more expensive to grow. You have more expensive fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. You have pests that prey on all of them, but you might need to treat each type of plant differently. Even though your product is better tasting, it's tough to get to market and even more difficult to get consumers to pay a markup for them.

Using GMO technology, you could protect all of your tomatoes against a specific pest, or make them immune to an (organic) weed killer that would otherwise do them in. You could get more tomatoes with less work, less money, and less damaging runoff. We as consumers could have more options at better prices, and people at lower income levels could eat organic food more reliably with less economic impact.

The big thing, I think, is this: we need to stop letting agribusiness rule the roost of GMO. We don't trust Monsanto's GMO corn because it's Monsanto, and they wear the stripes of an evil empire. Why can't organic farmers band together and do research on their own, research they can trust? Patents are expiring left and right on this stuff, and as this information moves into the public domain it's our responsibility to make use of it to make a bigger dent in all our food-based movements.

Use it to protect your locally-grown, regional crop varieties from foreign-borne illnesses and pests spread by international food market. Use it to reduce your dependency on damaging chemicals, whether natural or synthetic. Use it to help ensure that good-tasting heirlooms have a little more of an edge in the uphill battle against agribusiness.

Push for labeling, push for more studies, push to take it out of the hands of agribusiness. Just don't allow genetics and farming be reduced to the banner of "it's GMO or the environment," when really it should read "GMO for the environment."

Tagged with farming GMO

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