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Lobbing Brickbats: Baby Steps Toward Acceptance of Biotech In Organics

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- Hembree Brandon, Southeast Farm Press, August 3, 2009

Allowing organic crop producers to gain certification for biotech crops could encourage the development of a new type of environmentally sustainable agricultural production, with greater benefits for the consumer.


No, says Cyndi Barmore in a report prepared for the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, “The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production.”

Noting up front that the organic movement rejects biotech “as inherently contradictory to its fundamental goal of promoting environmental protection in agriculture,” she nonetheless says, “A governmental decision to change organic regulations to permit the use of biotechnology could have far-reaching policy implications for global agriculture.”

While most of the organic community has fought biotech tooth and nail, chinks have begun appearing in the opposition’s brick wall, as individuals and organizations in the organic camp say that biotech may not, after all, be The Monster from Hell that is going to destroy Agriculture As Nature Intended It To Be.

Even Stewart Brand, one of the poster children for the environmental movement and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, according to a New York Times article, now “sees genetic engineering as a tool for environmental protection: crops designed to grow on less land with less pesticide; new microbes that protect ecosystems against invasive species, produce new fuels and maybe sequester carbon.”

While the organic community has been lobbing brickbats, the scientific community, Barmore says, has responded that “biotechnology has not created new ills for humanity or the environment” and that “health and environmental concerns are unfounded worries based on unjustified fears.”

She notes that independent European Community food safety panels have unanimously reported that Bt corn “is equivalent in safety to conventional corn” and, after six years of scientific examination, a EU commission declared “there was no scientific basis for the EU’s ban on new biotechnology.”

The commission, she notes, “reported that the primary difference between conventional plant breeding and biotechnology is the higher precision inherent” in biotechnology. Further, the National Research Council says “the accuracy with which plant biotechnologists alter a plant’s genes makes the process even safer than conventional breeding.”

The policy implications of changing governmental organic regulations to permit the organic cultivation of biotech crops “would benefit consumers and the environment, while reducing the stigma currently attached to biotechnology,” Barmore says.

“The two systems have compatible nutritional and environmental goals, and together could create a new form of sustainable production agriculture. Large-scale organic/biotech production would give organic consumers a more affordable product that is better for their health and the environment, and introducing biotechnology into organic agriculture would increase organic yields and contribute positively to the global food supply.”

The current system of organic production “discourages attention to productivity,” Barmore notes. “Organic farmers … could use biotechnology to increase yields on existing farms, or to cultivate land that salinity previously rendered unsuitable for production.”

A global need for more food for burgeoning populations, the need to cope with climate change and the increasing impact of drought on crops, and the better pest control that biotech would allow for organic crops, are among the reasons to incorporate biotechnology into organic production, she says.

Governments “should change their regulations to allow producers to gain organic certification for biotech crops grown with organic methods,” Barmore says. “Such a system would better achieve the organic movement’s stated goals of environmental sustainability and the promotion of human health.”