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Biotech and Organic Farming: Coexisting Peacefully

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 01 July 2011
Raoul Adamchak and Pamela Ronald standing in field (Courtesy of Pamela Ronald)

Raoul Adamchak and Pamela Ronald in the organic garden he manages

Washington — Agricultural biotechnology and organic farming can coexist — even thrive in the same food-supply chain — despite the fact that some proponents of organic farming have been at odds with the scientists who genetically engineer seeds.

So say Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, co-authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food, a new book that argues that organic farming and agricultural biotechnology combined can meet the world’s future food needs. Ronald, a plant pathologist at the University of California–Davis, and Adamchak, an organic farmer for 30 years, should know something about good combinations — they have been married for 15 years.

“We want readers to distinguish between fact and fiction,” Ronald said June 21 in Washington at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Polarizing debates on seed technologies versus farming practices” distract from the challenge of creating “a healthy and productive agricultural system.”

With the world’s population expected to increase to 9.2 billion people by 2050, farmers must “double or triple food production to meet demand,” Ronald said. “Agriculture needs our collective help and all appropriate tools if we are to feed the growing population in an ecological manner.”

THE CHALLENGE

Ronald described some of the challenges of feeding a growing population. The amount of arable land is limited, she said, and is being lost to urbanization and erosion. “As a result of erosion over the past 40 years, 30 percent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive,” she said. Making the problem worse, most eroded soil carries pesticides and fertilizers and ends up polluting lakes and rivers. The polluted waters kill fish.

Freshwater systems also are strained, according to Ronald. Many rivers have become nearly dry. About half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. Major groundwater aquifers are being mined for urban and industrial use. That means more food must be produced on the amount of land now available using less water.

Another part of the challenge stems from climate change. As glaciers melt, low-lying croplands will see more flooding that will cost the people living in those areas nutrition and livelihoods. Climate change can also cause increased temperatures and severe droughts in other areas, according to Ronald. In recent years, for instance, Australia has had two record-breaking droughts that crippled wheat production. Russia stopped wheat exports for nearly a year because of its drought in 2010.

Genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification, can work well along with organic farming, Ronald said, to meet the challenges of urbanization, erosion and climate change.

THE GENETICALLY ENGINEERED WAY

Genetically engineered seeds carry traits that make plants tolerate climate and soil stress, resist disease and pests, and provide essential micronutrients. In 2010, more than 15 million farmers in 29 countries grew biotech crops, reports the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an international research group. Those countries represent more than half of the world’s population.

Experts from the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French, British and U.S. science academies have concluded that the genetically altered crops now on the market are safe to eat, Ronald said.

THE ORGANIC WAY

Organic farming is good for the environment because it uses crop rotation to reduce the buildup of pests that attack a single crop. Organic farmers use leguminous cover crops, such as lentils and alfalfa, to increase soil fertility and organic matter to fertilize. However, for some staple crops, like rice, yields are often lower on organic farms. In addition, the higher prices of organic produce make it unaffordable to some consumers.

DESIRED RESULT

In the book, the authors write that either organic farming or genetic engineering should be used if the desired result is abundant, safe, nutritious and more-affordable food. Using both methods brings a desirable reduction of harmful inputs, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Ronald and Adamchak want farming practices to be safe for farm workers and want healthy rural economies. They want practices that keep soils fertile, enhance crop genetic diversity and protect native species. To do all that, “we need everyone at the table,” Ronald said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Pamela Ronald holding bowl of rice and chopsticks (Courtesy of Pamela Ronald)

Plant pathologist Pamela Ronald spends much of her lab time looking for ways to genetically improve rice.