The New GMO Debate: Genetically Engineered Organic Crops
photo: J. Novak
I have written on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) a number of times. Large monocultures, which are typical of GMO, can be riddled with pests. As a result, monocultures are often dressed with a toxic cocktail of pesticides so that they can survive the onslaught. But what about organic GMOs? Recently, Michael Olson's Food Chain Radio hosted Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak from UC Davis to discuss the topic of genetically modifying organic crops and you might be surprised what these small farm advocates had to say on the matter. Considered the "Romeo and Juliet of academic agriculture" Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, both said on a recent interview on Michael Olson's Food Chain Radio that the way for organic farming to feed the world was through genetic modification. This married couple is a match made in heaven. Ronald, the head of the UC Davis Plant Genetics Lab who teaches the art and science of genetic engineering, recently invented a seed that can survive flooding for 17 days. Currently, according to Ronald, in India and Bangladesh alone, 4 million tons of rice are lost to flooding every year because conventional plants die under water submersion within three days.
Her husband, Raoul Adamchak, who teaches the art and science of organic farming at the UC Davis Student Farm, believes that much can be done to make the current GMO system sustainable through seed modifications such as this, making organic farming a viable option to combat world hunger. But the fact of the matter is that the corporate farming industry in this country makes any sort of GMO, organic or not, a recipe for disaster. Currently, such modification of organic crops is illegal in this country, and with good reason.
Seed Modification Becomes An Antitrust Issue
Currently, the modified seeds that we are most familiar with are Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn crops and herbicide resistant soybean crops, which have wreaked havoc on the agricultural system causing soil erosion, nitrate leeching, and water contamination. Monsanto's quiet monopoly over the seed industry, and as a result the world's food supply, presents the most valid argument against any sort of genetic modification.
According to Yahoo News, "Monsanto's patented genes are being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products." They have systematically bought over 20 seed companies according to Food Chain Radio. The most obvious example of Monsanto's dominance can be found in the Roundup Ready corn crop that has spread like the chicken pox to Mexico, corrupting and in some cases, destroying native corn crops, according to the Organic Consumers Association.
So while the idea of organic virus resistant papayas and flood-proof rice may perk the ears of organic consumers, the reality is that in this country the corporate seed industry has systematic control over seed patents. According to Richard Merrill, a well known proponent of organic agriculture in California, portraying infected genomes as the same as traditional trial plant breeding is misleading at best because you can't save seeds. It's illegal to save seeds from GMO plants or to reproduce hybrid varieties with proprietary licenses. Genetically modified hybrid seeds cannot be saved in the same manner as heirloom seeds. You can't plant them the next year and expect the same variety. It's wholly unnatural. In fact, growers become completely dependant on buying the seeds from seed giants year after year.
So it all comes back to the same argument, organic or not, farmers are essentially giving up the wheel to corporate entities that research, develop, and mass produce seeds. Tracts of land planted with commercial seeds are pushing out local crop varieties and erasing the knowledge gained from 10,000 years of farming.
While it wouldn't be prudent to rule out such organic modifications for the future of farming, the present emergence of an unprecedented corporate farming industry weighed down by obvious monopolies, makes calculated and pinpointed modifications impossible.
More on GMOs:
Why GMO Foods Have Failed at Producing Healthy Food for More People
Arguments Against GMOs (and Industrial Agriculture)
Out, Monsanto! No GMOs in National Wildlife Refuge, Says Federal Judge