Sustainably Engineered Organic

There is a place for GMO. Check out this article from the “Wired Blog.” It makes a very lucid argument for the necessity of genetically engineered crops in sustainable agriculture. 

Sustainably Engineered Organic

  • By Bruce Sterling
  • July 30, 2009  

…checklist for truly sustainable agriculture in a global context. It must:

Provide abundant safe and nutritious food…. Reduce environmentally harmful inputs…. Reduce energy use and greenhouse gases…. Foster soil fertility…. Enhance crop genetic diversity…. Maintain the economic viability of farming communities…. Protect biodiversity…. and improve the lives of the poor and malnourished. (He pointed out that 24,000 a day die of malnutrition worldwide, and about 1 billion are undernourished.)

…But organic has limitations, he said. There are some pests, diseases, and stresses it can’t handle. Its yield ranges from 45% to 97% of conventional ag yield. It is often too expensive for low-income customers. At present it is a niche player in US agriculture, representing only 3.5%, with a slow growth rate suggesting it will always be a niche player.

Genetically engineered crops could carry organic farming much further toward fulfilling all the goals of sustainable agriculture, Raoul said, but it was prohibited as a technique for organic farmers in the standards and regulations set by the federal government in 2000.

At this point plant geneticist Pam took up the argument. What distinguishes genetic engineering (GE) and precision breeding from conventional breeding, she said, is that GE and precision breeding work with just one or a few well-characterized genes, versus the uncertain clumps of genes involved in conventional breeding. And genes from any species can be employed.

That transgenic capability is what makes some people nervous about GE causing unintended harm to human or ecological health. One billion acres have been planted so far with GE crops, with no adverse health effects, and numerous studies have showed that GE crops pose no greater risk of environmental damage than conventional crops.

Genetic engineering is extremely helpful in solving some agricultural problems, though only some. Pam gave three examples, starting with cotton. About 25% of all pesticide use in the world is used to defeat the cotton bollworm. Bt cotton is engineered to express in the plant the same caterpillar-killing toxin as the common soil bacteria used by organic farmers, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt cotton growers use half the pesticides of conventional growers. With Bt cotton in China, cases of pesticide poisoning went down by 75%. India’s cotton yield increased by 80%. Pam pointed out that any too-succesful technique used alone encourages pests to evolve around the technique, so the full panoply of “integrated pest management” needs always to be employed.

Her second example was papayas in Hawaii, where the entire industry faced extinction from ringspot virus. A local genetic engineer devised way to put a segment of the virus genome into papayas, thereby effectively inoculating the fruit against the disease. The industry was saved, and most of the papayas we eat in California are GE. …

Read the complete article here:
Sustainably Engineered Organic | Beyond The Beyond

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