August 26, 2013 — The debate around genetically engineered crops and organic farming usually begins well beyond a point of no return. Heels dug in, opposing sides accuse one another of being anti-environment or anti-science, evil or ignorant. From there, what takes place is something closer to a schoolyard shouting match than adult discourse.
This is not usually a good — or very successful — place to start honest discussions looking to move conversations forward.
And it’s not the starting point for Pamela Ronald, a University of California, Davis, plant geneticist, and Raoul Adamchak, a farmer who runs the student organic farm on campus. The two are co-authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. They are also married — a truly odd couple in a world divided by preconceived notions and decisions before discussions.
Debates pitting genetic engineering against organic agriculture, focus on, among other things, what each camp feels is necessary to feed a growing population. Both claim to have science on their side when it comes to producing the amount of food needed in a way that will do the least harm to the environment. But, where others see opposition, Ronald and Adamchak contend the two practices should be used in tandem toward the goal of sustainable agriculture.
“The common ground was obvious to us. It isn’t very difficult if you look at the overall goal of sustainable agriculture … and say, ‘What’s the best way to get there?’” —Raoul Adamchak
“We both came into our respective fields because we’re interested in ecologically based farming,” says Ronald, who has successfully genetically engineered rice to tolerate prolonged periods of flooding, a problem in many parts of the world where rice is a dietary staple. “We believe that it’s really a distraction to think about how the seed was developed. … The issue is really whether a particular seed or farming practice can advance the goals of sustainable agriculture.”
“The common ground was obvious to us,” Adamchak says. “It isn’t very difficult if you look at the overall goal of sustainable agriculture … and say, ‘What’s the best way to get there?’ It was relatively easy for us to say, ‘We should use the best technology and the best farming practices possible.’ That seems to us a perfectly reasonable way of achieving the most sustainable agriculture possible.”
Ronald and Adamchak met through mutual friends; both had already been active in their fields for many years. Ronald had worked on organic farms when she was younger, and Adamchak had studied entomology and agricultural development in graduate school — overlapping experiences that Ronald says allowed them to connect. In Tomorrow’s Table, the two argue that any technology or farming practice is appropriate as long as it produces abundant, safe and nutritious food; reduces harmful environmental inputs; provides healthful conditions for farm workers; protects the genetic make-up of native species; enhances crop genetic diversity; fosters soil fertility; improves the lives of the poor and malnourished; and maintains the economic viability of farmers and rural communities.
“You can’t generalize about genetic engineering, whether it’s good or bad. It’s really the issue of the trait, the environment, the crop, the farmer.” —Pamela Ronald
Trouble begins, Adamchak says, when people abuse any one tool at the disposal of growers. “If you use an herbicide-tolerant plant and you spray Roundup year after year after year, it’s not going to end well. You are going to get weeds resistant to Roundup.” Instead, he says, such a genetically engineered plant is just one tool that can be used, but it “needs to be part of an overall, integrated weed management system.” However, current guidelines defining organic farming do not allow organic farmers to use genetically engineered plants in their systems, so Adamchak is not able to use them on the UC Davis farm.
The discussion around genetically engineered crops has been hurt by oversimplification and generalization, according to Ronald. “People hear ‘GMO’ and they think, ‘I don’t want anything genetically modified,’ but of course everything we eat is genetically altered in some way through crop domestication,” she says. “You can’t generalize about genetic engineering, whether it’s good or bad. It’s really the issue of the trait, the environment, the crop, the farmer.”
Adamchak says the couples’ differing expertise allows them to fill gaps in one another’s knowledge. “We can give each other a reality check,” he says. “If she starts talking about farming or [says] something that doesn’t jibe with how I think farming happens, I can say, ‘But, Pam, growers don’t do that.’ And if I’m talking about genetically engineered crops and I don’t understand something or I misquote something, she can say, ‘That’s not done this way; it’s done this way.’”
So, what would the future of food look like in a world in which genetic engineering and organic farming are both seen as legitimate tools for achieving sustainable agriculture?
“I think we’d have an all-of-the-above strategy,” Ronald says. “You would develop [crop] varieties based on sustainable agriculture criteria rather than marketing criteria or an agenda pushed by somebody who has a conflict of interest.” Adamchak, for his part, sees good in extending the core value of sustainable agriculture beyond organic agriculture, which makes up only about 1 or 2 percent of the cropland worldwide. “[We] need to get the vast majority of conventional farmers focused on the goals of sustainability,” he says. “The ideal vision is for more ecologically based farming practices, [with] tools like genetic engineering to be used to impact those issues of sustainable agriculture, like soil erosion, pesticide use and fertilizer runoff.”