Do GM foods become acceptable in the context of organic agriculture?

I am very distrustful of genetic foods, not because it’s necessarily inherently evil, but because I do not trust for-profit companies to have our best interest at heart, and in a Monsanto-dominated world, it will be used to destroy not just the farmers, but our health.

But what if GM foods can be combined with organic agriculture, and divorced from dangerous private interests, does it become acceptable then?

Here is a position on the issue, an excerpt from a editorial by Pamela Ronald in the Boston Globe.

It is followed by the counter-argument from Herve Le Crosnier. Please note Herve is a French-language speaker, and the text may be less than perfect in English, but still eminently readable and cogent.

Pamela Ronald:

“To meet the appetites of the world’s population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.

This idea is anathema to many people, especially the advocates who have helped build organic farming into a major industry in richer countries. As reflected by statements on their websites, it is clear that most organic farming trade organizations are deeply, viscerally opposed to genetically engineered crops and seeds. Virtually all endorse the National Organic Standards Board’s recommendation that genetic engineering be prohibited in organic production.

But ultimately, this resistance hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the beneficial effects of organic farming – a thoughtful, ecologically minded approach to growing food – will likely remain small.

Despite tremendous growth in the last 15 years, organic farms still produce just a tiny fraction of our food; they account for less than 3 percent of all US agriculture and even less worldwide. In contrast, in the same period, the use of genetically engineered crops has increased to the point where they represent 50 to 90 percent of the acreage where they are available.”

Hervé Le Crosnier:

I’m sorry, but I can’t follow the way suggested by Pamela Ronald.

First of all, we have to understand what really genetic food is. the way seed are industrially produced from the 30’s of the preceeding century is two fold:

– one to have the only yield in focus : no matter the taste, nutrition quality, social quality of plants… If so, nature and farmers, from milleniums are doing their best to get an equilibrium between yield and nature preservation

(in all senses : between plants and animals, and between men and women living on rural area, with their social environment).

– the other is hold up on reproduction. From hybrids to GMO, plants are everyday considered as “property” of the one who selected it. No matter if centuries or milleniums of peasants have pre-selected the vast majority of agricultural plants. This means a yearly toll for peasants (and their consequences, as massives suicides of indian farmers), and erosion of biodiversity (the “catalog” of authorised alimentary plants). With the call to intrants to replace nature biodiversity in each one field… and many other consequences, especially on the role of women in rural communities who for centuries uses this diversity for family food and healing… i have no enough place to write).

Next we have to look at the way ahead for the biotech. First they produce buggy GMO, especially those who are pest-resistants (more buggy again because they tend to use more and more pest in fields).

Then they say “we need to stop propagation of these buggy plants”. So it’s GURTs (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) the most known technic be the “Terminator”, thanks to “etc group” for naming this technology with a popular and understandable name. Every year at the CBD, there’s tentative to uphold the moratorium on theses technologies…

In laboratories now is the “biocontainment” : plant are genetically engineered to become dual systems : they need an adjuvant to realize their maturity, and then can change their own genetic trace to be as they were not GMO. European Union is pushing studies that way in the “transcontainer project”.

This technologies put the responsability into the hands of the farmer, who must add it’s chemically produced adjuvant at the very good time if they want their plants to be commercialisable. No matter what nature and climate variations is.

Then will come synthetic biology. Nature will be an industrial process, and not only a partner in nourrishing and clothing people. This will be the upstart of “sugar capitalism”.

Any scientist approach which don’t take in count the whole story is finally an agreement with the hold-up against nature and rural communities by a very few big concentrated monopolies, acting all along the agricultural chain. And emerging from the North biotech giants, these monopolies, with all their action on the intellectual property instances (WTO, WHO, WIPO,…), are a jiu-jitsu for introduce a new world domination, we can call bio-imperialism.

There is another very important problem with the buggy reasoning of Pamela Ronald : it’s the acceptation of the inacceptable. If politics, and collective decisions can’t help changing the way we produce food, so we have to accomodate.

This buggy reasoning is also the one of those who think that politics and collective decisions are not able to deal with the climate change, and reorient our world way of living.. so they will get to a B plan : geo-engineer the whole earth. Not only this is crazy world wide buggy experience, as the LOHAFEX shows on the first part of 2009, but it’s also a one that depossess people of their own power on their own individual and collective living. The exact contrary of the organic farming experience, which is a fruit of the new Communalism of the 70’s.

Sorry to desagree so radically with this approach, i think it will led the movement in such a wrong direction, as for the future of farming (always remember this is more than half of the world population) and the one of every other who have to eat every day, and accomodate global changes.

5 Comments Do GM foods become acceptable in the context of organic agriculture?

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Contribution from Roberto Verzola, agricultural activist from the Philippino Greens, via email:

    “There are several points I’d like to raise in response to the
    article. Developing these points fully will take a long article,
    so I will just be brief:

    1. Organic food has proven its healthful effect over centuries of
    use, and this has been confirmed by modern consumers of organic
    food. On the other hand, genetically-engineered food is so novel
    that we’ve had very little time to assess its health impact. The
    organic movement therefore rightly insists on strict standards
    that exclude any GM ingredient in organic foods. And those who
    market it have tried to make sure we cannot effectively assess
    the impact by opposing the mandatory labelling of GM food. But
    the few studies which have been done (the Russian feeding study
    on GM soya and the Austrian feeding study on Bt corn) already
    reveal the harm GM food can cause on smaller mammals. The few
    scientists who do independent studies like these are often
    persecuted by the chemical/GM industry, unfortunately. The Obama
    administration promised adopt the mandatory labelling of GMOs.
    Expect the GM industry to fight this to death, because that will
    be the end of their business.

    2. The article makes a big issue out of the cost of organic food.
    This cost is due to a regulatory system designed to make organic
    foods expensive and chemical/GM foods cheap, by forcing organic
    foods to shoulder all the costs of differentiating the organic
    category from the chemical/GM category. In fact, since organic
    practice is the natural default, and chemical/GM is the
    synthetic exception, a fair regulatory system would put the
    burden of identifying themselves on chemical/GM foods. This
    means that we should have a system of mandatory labelling of
    GM/chemically-sprayed foods: they should bear the burden of the
    cost of recording, testing, labelling, and ensuring they can be
    distinguished from the naturally, organically-grown, in
    accordance with the “polluter pays” principle. If this were the
    case, the cost structure of the food industry will shift in
    favor of organics.

    By the way, the Obama administration offers $50 million for
    organic farming. It is a good start, but that is less that $1
    million per state of the U.S., a pittance compared to the
    subsidies that the GM/chemical food industry has been getting.

    3. GM food cannot even feed the U.S., how can it feed the world?
    In 2006, around 10% of American adults and 17% of children
    suffered from occasional involuntary hunger, despite the
    aggressive introduction of GM crops in the U.S. (Food Research
    and Action Center, “Hunger and Food Insecurity in the United
    States,” “Feeding
    the world” is just an excuse.

    4. The real reason for GM, gene patents, and modern hybrids is
    control of the seed and food supply by a few giant monopolies.
    These developments are in effect a declaration of war against
    farmers in a global battle for the food supply of the world. The
    movement against GM is part of the movement to keep our seeds
    and our foods free from corporate monopolies. We must regain
    control of our food supply.”

  2. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    I would like to add a point of view in favor of the arguments of Hervé Le Crosnier and Roberto Verzola.

    1. Organic agriculture (the traditional, non-chemical, sustainable variety of food production) has shown over scores of centuries that it is quite capable of feeding mankind. The propaganda that we “need genetic modification” to feed the hungry is a recently developed strategy of large corporations to capture the lucrative food market.

    2. Genetic modification is a very sloppy process, a hit-and-miss approach, which leads to changes in the structure of organisms that are neither intended nor are they detected. The insertion of genes is literally a “shotgun” method, where genetic fragments are shot at DNA and are randomly incorporated at different sites of the target DNA. No exact prediction is possible of the outcome. Genetic modification carries great risk because of the unintended nature of many of the changes that are brought about by random insertion of genes.

    3. While the seeds used in traditional agriculture are a commons, GM varieties are property of the company that develops and patents the variation.

    4. GM varieties are majorly engineered to be resistant to commonly used herbicides, leading to a ‘circolo vizioso’ of ever more herbicide use, which in turn leads to the development of resistant weeds. So in the end, farmers are buying more herbicides, poisoning more of the environment, and producing less food than with traditional varieties. No GM variety has been engineered to produce more yield and none have proven to yield better harvests than their common ancestors.

    GM is the very antithesis to open source, commons-oriented and self-reliant food production. The only reason GM can survive at all is because the industries developing these varieties have convinced governments to support them by export subsidies and by special breaks on labeling and safety. There is no need for GM and there is no way consumers would buy them if they were not imposed without labeling and supported by government largesse. Much of the GM production ends up as “food aid”, subsidized by governments of developed countries, sent to developing countries. The result, in addition to unknown health effects, is a destruction of local agricultural capability as farmers cannot compete against subsidized products. (Not all subsidized agricultural production is GM, but a good part of it is).

    Do we really want to put our food security into the hands of corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont? I do not think so.

    There is no need for genetic modification. All we need is give people the tools and means to grow their own food (organic agriculture). Organic plots have been shown to yield more abundant harvests than those of chemical agriculture, including the genetically modified kind.

    Should we really run into a shortage in the future, it wont’ be because we have not adopted GM.

    Just as an example: All we need to look into is a new way of farming the seas. Plankton is the most nutritious and most ubiquitously available source of proteins (it’s the food of the whales, which are the largest and one of the most long lived mammalian species) and plankton can be developed into a sustainable source of food with little investment and little environmental impact, quite the contrary of genetic modification.

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    An update from Roberto Verzola:

    > My point is: would it be different, if GMO where part of an
    > open commons, not part of corporate profitmaking. So if we
    > assume open and participative science, not under the control
    > of privatizing companies, would that make GMO different?
    > Imagine for a moment Monsanto was not there, and GMO
    > investigations are practiced by farmer-scientists … does
    > that change anything?
    > Michel
    Hi Michel,

    I am less sure of my answer, as far as your question is
    concerned, but here it is anyway:

    There are three main issues against genetic engineering today:
    – the safety issue
    – the control/ownership of life issue
    – consumer choice issue

    I will cover these from the last to the first.

    Whether GE is done by corporate monopolists, a public institution
    (as part of a commons), or by individual working in the kitchen
    or backyard lab — they will be novel foods and therefore must
    be differentiated (through mandatory labelling, for instance)
    from natural foods that humans have coevolved with over the
    centuries. This is a consumer right issue. The burden and cost
    of this differentiation must be borne by those who introduce
    these novel foods, and not by traditional producers —
    the “polluter pays” principle.

    Control/ownership can be established in three major ways (often,
    they are used in combination): 1) through law, using the patent
    system in the case of most GE products; 2) through technology,
    using some form of technological locks like hybrid technology,
    or genetic-use restriction technologies (DRM in the
    life-sciences); and through financial restrictions, when the
    resources and investments required master the technology as so
    huge that only a few (corporations or governments) have the
    means to do so. Your hypothetical question may resolve one or
    two of these methods, perhaps all three, but the details remain
    to be worked out.

    Finally, the safety issue. Among our technology options, there
    are a few technologies that seem, at this time, to be BEYOND
    HUMAN SCALE. One example is nuclear power, which produces deadly
    radioactive wastes with half-lives in the order of thousands,
    tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of years.
    Clearly, given the human lifetime of less than a hundred years,
    the satisfactory management of such wastes is beyond human
    scale. This is why I am against nuclear power, unless it is at
    least a hundred million kilometers away from my own backyard.

    I will argue that GE may, at this time, belong to this class of
    technologies which are beyond human scale, because it is next to
    impossible to control the spread of a GE virus, bacterium or
    other microorganisms, or even macro-sized living material like
    pollen, especially since these modified organisms can reproduce
    themselves, mutate and evolve.

    I have also, at one time or another, imagined some positive uses
    of GE. My favorite is an inedible broad-leafed indoor plant
    engineered for photolumiscent leaves, which would give off just
    enough light at night so we don’t have to rely on light bulbs,
    lamps etc. Unfortunately, the potential for GE to create
    pathogens, intentionally or otherwise, is so great that I
    believe it should be seen, like nuclear technology, as beyond
    human scale, and therefore to be for the laboratory only and not
    for field release or commercial deployment. Bio-mimicry, which
    would utilize those amazing biological features (aside from
    reproduction), in non-living materials, might be a safer way to
    go (photoluminiscent wall-papers?).

    As a final argument, let me compare genetic engineering with
    software development. Genetic modification mimics hand-coded
    software modification, the equivalent of modifying a few lines
    of code in a million-line software system. If we can do it with
    software, we can also do it with DNA, right? But there’s a huge
    difference. Most software are well-understood, well-documented,
    well-structured for modification, and are NOT SELF-MODIFYING.
    Often, if a software is not well-understood, poorly-documented,
    poorly structured (spaghetti code), or is self-modifying, it is
    better to junk the system altogether and start from scratch. Or
    if you absolutely must modify such a system, you must assume
    that you will create various side-effects (“bugs”) from any
    modification. Genomes are very poorly understood at this time,
    the designer did not leave any documentation, genetic logic does
    not at all follow the usual tenets of programming for
    maintainability, and if course, they are self-modifying. Those
    of us who have actually done software maintenance can almost say
    with certainty that genetic modification will create bugs in the

    While genetic engineers imagine themselves to be mimicking
    software modification, software engineers have also mimicked
    natural evolution, with better results. Genetic algorithms have
    been used in software development, and the resulting products
    are also supposedly more robust and resilient than hand-coded
    software. However, evolved software via genetic algorithms do
    not produce “clean” code, the way it is defined in software
    engineering. The resulting code is also extremely difficult to
    understand, and its logic very often not at all apparent. This is
    very important: if you want to improve software generated
    using genetic algorithms, you do not modify individual lines of
    code. Instead, you rerun the genetic algorithm. This is the
    equivalent of conventional breeding. So the experience of
    software development through genetic algorithms teaches us that
    conventional breeding is better than genetic engineering! It
    will produce fewer bugs, and is therefore safer.

  4. AvatarArun Shrivastava

    In response to Michel Bauwens which I saw on Google alert. Sepp has covered some of the central issues. From our perspective [India, Asia] characterized by small farms, peasantry, huge biodiversity, and subsitence agriculture, GM technology poses a huge problem [even if we ignore the mass suicides, by latest count 200,000+ in Bt cotton region alone].

    While visiting Zaheerabad I found women save 57 types of Millets. If one type of crop fails, others provide food, and they practice mixed cropping, not mono. Biodiversity is key to our survival.

    Michel: we do not know how the natural biodiversity will be affected. The Green revolution has already caused a decline in availability of rice seed varieties from 100,000+ [some claim 200,000, others claim 500,000 seed varieties] IRRI claims they have released 4500. In India about 50 varieties are commercially grown. What happens to the seed varieties if heirloom seeds are contaminated with say Liberty Link [Bayers’ properietary] or any alien protein. Where do farmers get diverse seed to ensure food security? Would GURT not destroy nature’s biodiversity?

    Two, about 30-40% of foods we eat are raw or partially cooked. Especially veggies, sprouts, salads, etc. Animal trials show adverse health effects [Arpad Pusztai, Irina Ermakova, and others] including lesions and cancerous growth in vital organs. When [not if] our foods are contaminated, it will probably change the food culture everywhere.

    Today we depend upon 15-20 species for most of our foods; in the 19th C we had option to chose from over 150,000.

    The basic issue is this: the corporations are altering the natural genetic make up without any concern for the long term consequences but in the hope that their proprietary genes will eventually contaminate our food system and then they would claim the life form as their own.

    Kind regards

  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Thanks a lot Arun, your input is much appreciated. I can now more clearly see why GMO’s make no sense and are un-substantial in terms of any of the real issues concerning agriculture and food.


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