Part 2: Genetically modified … organics?

Joel Reiten, seed production manager at Seeds of Change, says DNA transfer, the basic process of genetic engineering (GE) whereby foreign genes are inserted into places on a DNA strand where they wouldn’t naturally exist, is problematic. Forcible insertion can disrupt the link between the main gene and its modifiers and helper genes, and when these links are broken, communications between genes function less efficiently.

Tom Stearns, founder and president of High Mowing Seeds and a self-described firm believer in agricultural progress and science, says some research done in the name of efficiency is counterproductive. He refers to GE as “a very crude Band-Aid.”

Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at UC-Davis, espouses using the most appropriate technologies and farming practices that encourage farmers to set aside toxic chemicals and adopt sustainable farming practices. In “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food,” the book she co-authored with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, she writes, “Food that is GE may be locally grown without pesticides, and someday, be more nutritious than crops grown from non-GE seed.”

Adamchak manages UC-Davis’ certified organic Market Garden and student farm. In “Tomorrow’s Table,” he writes, “To maximize the benefit of GE plants, they would best be integrated into an organic farming system … The organic practices protect the environment and the GE technology helps reduce crop losses to disease or environmental stress.”

Stearns argues that genetic engineering creates more problems than it solves, and Reiten concurs. Genetically modifying seeds creates additional problems because the scientific focus is too narrow. The process of engineering a trait in a plant is gene-specific. Reiten explains that in flexible farming systems, the ability of a plant to thrive is based on many multigenic traits. On holistic farms, a plant is exposed to a number of things. When engineering a trait to combat one specific stressor, the geneticist often unintentionally creates a reduction in the plant’s adaptability to other stressors.

Stearns, who started High Mowing Seeds to help rebuild healthy food systems across the United States, says GE creates s­­­eeds that work under a system of poor stewardship, which reinforces the poor stewardship. Using the example of the development of genetically engineered seeds to grow in very salty conditions, he says, “The reason there is very salty soil in a lot of places is because of total utter mismanagement for decades.” The result is a downward spiral. “There’s a lot to learn about soil health and how, as stewards of our land, we can create the healthiest soil for our crops,” he explains.

Stearns asserts that progress and science must create solutions that bring health in order to be considered progress. “When you create a technological solution to something and it makes soils less healthy, pollutes water … what the hell kind of a solution is that?”

Ronald argues it’s important to look at how seed developers and growers reach current goals of sustainability. “If there’s a new seed that reduces vast amounts of pesticide that kills people, we should be open to using that.”

In “Tomorrow’s Table,” Adamchak expresses concern that ecological farmers will cede what he believes is a useful technology to others. “The current focus on the process of how a new variety is created (manual pollen transfer, grafting, mutagenesis or genetic engineering) seems to be a distraction from the promotion of activities that would help growers farm more ecologically.”

Reiten disagrees. He says breeders search for one particular trait to make the plant better for the conventional commercial grower—higher yield or greater adaptability for the market. “Provided the resistance gene is known, disease resistance is relatively easy to create through known traditional breeding and repeated backcrossing of homozygous genes that confer resistance to disease. Viruses are a little bit more complicated, but you can do that through traditional breeding.”

Considering the needs of the ecological farmer, Reiten says a big toolbox is important in the field, as well as a plant that can adapt to whatever stressors occur. “The problem with GE is you are really trying to take genetic bits that have been identified as specific adapters to very specific situations, ,and you’re ramming it into a plant, you’re putting thousands of copies in with unnatural promoters, and OK, the plant will be able to respond to that particular situation. But, if I’m a farmer in North Dakota trying to grow wheat, I want a variety that’s gonna have a broad level of adaptability. I’m not interested in a variety that’s resistant to a particular environmental extreme.”

Reiten doesn’t dismiss GE seeds completely. “If we can figure out how to transfer major genes, and all the accessory genes that go along with it to make it express itself to adapt to any environment, that would be great; but that’s not possible right now.” Reiten, who engaged in genetic engineering studies before converting to organics, believes that scientifically, it may be possible to discover a gene for adaptability in all environments and at all times and that’s where GE could be useful in organic farming. “But, I don’t see any research. There is some work out there to identify those types of groupings, but it’s a long ways away.”

Professor Jim Luby of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science doesn’t criticize genetic engineering, but he also doesn’t use it to develop his fruit seeds. He says it doesn’t create the kind of global changes in the crop that are needed to take it to another level.

Still, Ronald worries about the risks inherent in current conventional farming methods. “We know that insecticides kill 300,000 people a year. The answer is to use less insecticide. That’s really where I want to focus people’s attention. Nothing is risk-free, but [the risks of GE] are so remote. There are real risks to the current farming practices.”

While seed developers like Reiten and Stearns share their concerns about the dangers of GE, Ronald believes the potential beneficial applications of GE are vast. “The question is not whether we should use GE, but more pressingly, how we should use it; to what responsible purpose,” she writes in “Tomorrow’s Table.”

Reiten concedes that there are prospective benefits. However, he stresses, “The fact is, we’re not there right now, and using traditional plant breeding, I can go just as far as anyone can with GE in developing seed with traits that are important to organic growers.”

As Reiten points out, the unintended consequences of genetically engineered seeds may not be overly harmful to consumers, but they have the potential to be devastating to growers. A field planted with seed with a DNA strand that isn’t fully expressed is a field that could lie fallow.

“The big problem with GE, even common breeding,” explains Reiten, “ … is if you insert chunks of DNA into the wrong spot, those stressor genes that allow a plant to live in an atypical environment are broken up and can’t communicate with one another because something has been forced in between them.”

In a stressful environment, such as excessive heat, drought, overexposure to aluminum in the soil resulting from low pH, high salinity or insect pests, the plant will not thrive. The genetic encodings that the plant had accumulated in order to live in those types of stressful environments have been broken, and with broken or missing genetic encodings, a plant can’t respond to those stresses. Reiten says organic growers would be most severely affected because they can’t use chemicals to help the plants interact or overcome stress.

For Professor Luby, the bottom line is that the commercial grower wants to produce food that people like to eat and will return repeatedly to buy. Luby strives to assist growers by coming up with a variety or product that can please their consumers. “In the end,” says Luby, “it’s about trying to produce strains of [crops] that provide a profit to the grower.”

Sources for GE Seeds:
Both Seminis, a division of Monsanto, and Rogers, a division of Syngenta, sell seeds via many distributors, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds. For a complete list of Seminis dealers, visit www.seminis.com/products/dealer.asp.

For a list of Rogers dealers, visit www.rogersadvantage.com/dealers/default.asp.

Sources for non-GE seeds:
High Mowing Seeds: www.highmowingseeds.com

Seeds of Change: www.seedsofchange.com

Fedco Seeds: www.fedcoseeds.com

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.