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The Hypocrisy of Organic Farmers

Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, UCLA
June 5, 2000
By Bob Goldberg

Organic farmers are an important part of farming. However, they are like the fundamentalists -- they ARE fundamentalists -- who think that agriculture must be done in a specific way. The amount of acreage devoted to organic farming is small in the total scheme of things.

Their opposition to genetic engineering is based on their "fundamentalist" approach to everything. The organic farmers have a "specific" way of doing things and anything that does not follow their "rules" is not organic, including conventional farming without genetic engineering.

Leaving their "fundamentalist" "ideology" aside, they are quite hypocritical.

First, their consumer market share has gone up significantly in England, where the anti-genetic engineering campaign is the strongest. High-end organic markets like Wild Oats and Whole Earth Foods DEPEND upon organic foods for their economic viability. If they can "label" genetic engineering as BAD, consumers will perceive that organic foods are "healthier", when, in fact, they are NOT. These high-end grocery stores cater to an affluent, upper middle-class consumer that can afford their $3/pound tomatoes. They are major contributors to Greenpeace, which has been running the anti-genetic engineering campaign. This is NOT about protecting the consumer or the health of the consumer, it's about market share and economics. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. The more the "organic" crowd can scare the consumer about the dangers of genetic engineering, the greater their market share and profit.

Second, there is not one piece of valid scientific data that can show that organic foods are healthier than foods made by conventional farming. As a BOTANIST I know that a plant, is a plant, is a plant. The structure, cell types, biochemistry, genetics, etc. of organically grown and conventionally grown crops are the SAME. There's a perception that organic foods are healthier -- the reality is that they are no more nutritious or healthier than foods produced by conventional farming. I wonder why organic foods are not labeled stating this FACT.

Third, organic foods MAY be less safe for consumption than foods grown by conventional means. Because organic farmers use MANURE which can contain deadly strains of E. coli, salmonella, etc. there is a higher chance of picking up a bacterial infection from organically grown crops than from conventionally grown crops. The chance may be slight, but it IS higher than from food produced the conventional way. I wonder why organic food sellers don't LABEL their foods to warn consumers of that fact that there may be a chance of getting a bacterial infection and to wash their organic food well. IF THEY ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HUMAN HEALTH, THIS SHOULD BE A NO-BRAINER.

Fourth, there are STRICT regulations on the amount of "pesticides" that can be on conventional plants as residues. In fact, ALL PLANTS contain natural chemicals (secondary metabolites) that are more harmful (in high doses) to humans than any of the residual pesticides present on conventional crops. Bruce Ames, a well-known UC Berkeley geneticist who developed the standard toxicity test used today (the Ames test) published this in a landmark paper in 1990 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- and Bruce Ames is a critical, careful scientist with impeccable credentials for objectivity -- he works with bacteria and has no hidden agenda in the plant world one way or the other. Conventional foods are safe...they have been eaten by BILLIONS of people. Organics, on the other hand, can pose a HIGHER risk.

Fifth, organic farming takes up much more LAND than conventional farming. It is naive to think that organic farming can feed the "world." Organic farming requires MANURE, which requires animals, which requires FORAGE LAND. Today there are 6.5 billion people on the face of the earth. By 2050, we may have 10 billion people. Because organic farming uses nitrogen in manure, they will have to produce significantly MORE manure to keep up with the demand to feed 3-4 billion more people. IT CANNOT BE DONE. In fact, all of the world's cultivatable land has already been taken up. In order to increase food production the key is to INCREASE YIELD --- grow more plants on the same or smaller space. Organic farming can use higher yielding varieties (developed by conventional breeding). However the demand for MANURE is too great. It has been estimated, that, at most, organic farming practices can feed 4 billion people. We have passed that already. Sixth, high-yielding farming cannot be done on a large scale using organic farming practices. There is no way that organic farmers can control pathogen infections (viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects) using natural biological controls. These require some utilization of chemicals. In addition, one of the reasons why agricultural productivity has increased 300% IN THE LAST CENTURY HAS BEEN FROM THE USE OF nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, greater-yielding varieties, agricultural practices and GENETIC ENGINEERING. This increase has been obtained on LESS LAND USAGE than a 100 years ago and with less people. For example, in 1875 ~50% of the labor in the US was devoted to farming. Today, less than 2% of labor is devoted to farming. Yet we produce 300% more crops on LESS land. That's more land for forests, parks, open space, etc. that would not be there if it weren't for modern agricultural practices.

Seventh, genetic engineering in plants has been carried out for almost TWENTY years. It took FIFTEEN years in order to get the first genetically engineered crops in the field that could be harvested and sold to consumers....FIFTEEN YEARS!!!!!! Many, many studies experiments, tests, etc. have been going on with genetically engineered plants in the field for FIFTEEN years. And regulatory agencies have been involved since the beginning. It takes at least FIVE years of testing in order to get a genetically engineered crop released -- and it must pass USDA, EPA, and FDA standards. It took "us" over SEVEN years of rigorous field testing to get our laboratory discoveries through the regulatory agencies in order to release genetically engineered oilseed hybrids that yield 30% MORE than conventional varieties. SEVEN YEARS! More tests than any drug used on the market today! The experiments were done, data collected, data analyzed, data scrutinized, and re- scrutinized. The regulations are NOT LAX. Quite the opposite. In fact, it was in our own interest to make sure that these plants were no different than conventionally grown plants because if they were they were useless to farmers. Who I might add adopted our genetically engineered hybrids because they are higher yielding...MORE FOOD, LESS SPACE. The regulations are STRICT. And just as it is not in the interest of the organic farmers to sell manure-contaminated food, it is not in the interest of conventional farmers/companies to sell food that is "harmful" to consumers.

Eighth, the organic farmers use a natural "pesticide" from Bacillus thuringensis bacteria (called Bt) to keep caterpillar insect damage to a minimum. Bt toxin has been used for almost a 100 years, has no harmful effects in humans, binds to specific receptors in the gut of specific insects, and is very effective in controlling specific classes of insects. Genetic engineering has been able to LEARN what the toxin protein is that controls the insects. The gene for this protein is probably one of the most studied genes on the face of this earth!!! This gene has been engineered to work in plants and is very effective in preventing insect damage WITHOUT PESTICIDE SPRAYS. IN FACT, USE OF Pesticides on CROPS SUCH AS SOYBEAN, CORN, AND COTTON HAS GONE DOWN SIGNIFICANTLY WITH THE INTRODUCTION OF THESE VARIETIES. This is the SAME Protein that the organic farmers use!!!! Using genetically engineered varieties makes farming easier, less costly, and MORE CHEMICAL FREE than conventional varieties. And this is the BEGINNING. Plants have genes that can fight off (albeit weakly) almost every pest. Now that we have learned the sequence of almost all plant genes we can begin to use these genes to protect crops from fungi, bacteria, insects, etc. and do this in a CHEMICAL FREE WAY! This is very important for us, but more important for the DEVELOPING world which devotes 75% of their income or more to food! Simply put, genetically engineered varieties use the SAME PROTEIN THAT THE ORGANIC FARMERS USE TO CONTROL SPECIFIC INSECTS!!!

Ninth, yes, there will be resistance. Do we stop using antibiotics because bacterial strains have become resistant? NO. The solution is with MANAGEMENT of the genetically-engineered varieties for insect resistance. How they are grown in the fields. There are now strict REGULATIONS that state that in every field of insect-resistant crops there must be refuges of non-genetically engineered crops in order for the insects to develop without selection to the insect resistant varieties. There are other management regimes that would take days to go into, but these have been/are being addressed continually by scientists all over the globe. The real issue is cost vs. benefit. I appreciate he worry of the organic farmers about insect resistance. The solution is in management of the genetically engineered plants for insect resistance, new discoveries, altering the type of genes used. There ARE scientific solutions to these problems just as there are for antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Tenth, yes it is true that pollen will be transported. However, there have been many, many studies that indicate that pollen movement is NOT a significant problem. The pollen only goes so far. Again, crop management solutions have been implemented using "borders" of non-genetically engineered crops. In addition, there are other solutions in the pipeline. For example, eliminating the engineered genes and/or making sure that they are SILENT in pollen. I HAVE BEEN DOING THAT KIND OF WORK FOR FIFTEEN YEARS!!! There are remedies that can prevent any engineered genes from getting into pollen. Although this is not a big problem, there are rationale solutions to manage it. Again, the gains far outweigh the risk.

Eleventh, there has been one study on the Monarch butterfly that was fed the SAME bt toxin the organic farmers use on pollen and they died! SURPRISE, SURPRISE. The study was the equivalent of giving a baby 16 coca colas an hour for 24 hours and seeing the effects! This was not a "natural" experiment. In fact, when real-field-type experiments were carried out by many different labs all over the world, the effects of genetically engineered pollen on the Monarch butterfly were MINIMAL. In fact, there is MUCH MORE DAMAGE WHEN PESTICIDES ARE USED TOO CONTROL INSECTS IN THE FIELD!!!!!! IN FACT, IN FIELDS WITH INSECT-RESISTANT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED PLANTS INSECTS WERE FOUND THAT HADN'T APPEARED IN FIELDS SPRAYED WITH CHEMICALS. In addition, DEVELOPMENT and elimination of natural breeding/migrations grounds for Monarchs have had infinitely more impact on their population than genetically engineered plants. These are issues that can been investigated and have been investigated by objective science. The data are clear and convincing to those with enough objectivity to see clearly. USING GENETICALLY ENGINEERED INSECT RESISTANT PLANTS CUTS RELEASE OF CEHMICALS INTO THE ENVIRONMENT SIGNIFICANTLY!!!!!! SAVING MANY MORE ANIMALS/INSECTS THAT ARE LOST BY THE RARE POLLEN THAT LEAVES THE FIELD...WHICH CAN BE PREVENTED FROM EXPRESSING THE INSECT-RESISTANCE GENE!

Twelfth, The statement that genetically engineered crops have been shown to be less nutritious is NONSENSE. I know of no studies that have shown that genetically engineered varieties are different or less nutritious than conventional or organic varieties. In fact, the opposite is true. Genetic engineering puts KNOWN GENES/PROTEINS into plants. This is much more powerful than conventional breeding which brings BLOCKS of unknown genes together into varieties that are then EMPIRICALLY tested for their superiority. The potential is there is make crops MORE NUTRITIOUS AND BETTER FOR HUMAN HEALTH than conventional varieties. PLANTS WERE NOT PUT ON THIS EARTH FOR PEOPLE....RATHER THEY WERE PUT HERE TO ENSURE THEIR OWN SURVIVAL. As such, they are optimized for the plant's life cycle and not for the human life cycle. MAN has engineered plants to be MORE optimally suited for our health and nutrition. But the perfect plant does not yet exist! However, genetic engineering CAN/WILL one day do that!! Case in point, the golden rice recently developed by my friend Ingo Potrykus in Switzerland. Many plants do not synthesize vitamin A which is needed for eye development. Many 10's of thousands of children in the developing world have serious and even fatal diseases because of Vitamin A deficiency. Ingo took genes from a plant that synthesizes Vitamin A and engineered rice (which does not) to be able synthesize Vitamin A. This rice can now be eaten by children in order to obtain an adequate amount of Vitamin A to prevent blindness and other diseases. THIS ENGINEERED RICE IS MORE NUTRITIOUS -- meaning has a molecule (Vitamin A) than helps human health and development. And this is only the beginning.

Thirteenth, the statement that farmers cannot plant back their seeds from year to year SHOWS A COMPLETE IGNORANCE OF GENETICS! Farmers can plant back seeds from conventional varieties. However, HYBRID SEEDS (genetically engineered or not) need to be produced each year. WHY? Hybrids are crosses between two parental lines. They are valuable because NEW GENES ARE COMBINED IN THE OFFSPRING. According to the experiments of Mendel 150 years ago, these gene combinations segregate and assort in the next generation! Any HIGH SCHOOL BIOLOGY STUDENT KNOWS THIS! Hybrids are much higher yielding than non-hybrid plants. You may know that we did a lot of pioneering work in this area to be able to produce hybrid crops that did not exist before -- like oilseed rape -- and get 30% increases in yield That means, 30% increase in numbers of plants on the SAME amount of space! Hybrids have to be made NEW every year..by anyone...genetic engineer, organic farmer, conventional breeder. THAT'S A FACT OF BIOLOGY!

However, recent work has the GOAL of using genetic engineering to produce hybrids WITHOUT conventional crosses -- that is, make seeds without fertilization. This is the "holy grail" of plant genetics these days and if successful it will mean that genetic engineering can produce HYBRID VARIETIES IN WHICH THE FARMERS WILL, I REPEAT WILL, BE ABLE TO KEEP THEIR SEEDS AND RE-PLANT YEAR AFTER YEAR HYBRID CROPS. This can only be done with genetic engineering because there are plants that naturally do this -- like dandelions -- and if we can transfer those genes from dandelions to soybeans, corn, wheat we can make the hybrids which are higher yielding and then allow the plant to produce seeds forever without ever making the genetic cross again!

Fourteenth, we live in a market system. FARMERS ARE THE ONES THAT HAVE ADOPTED GENETICALLY ENGINEERED VARIETIES. WHY, BECAUSE, THEY MAKE MORE MONEY. No corporation holds a monopoly on agriculture or any other segment of society in which technology is rapidly advancing. Besides, look at Microsoft...there ARE antitrust laws in this country! Are the organic farmers using PCs with Windows? I doubt whether Wild Oats or Whole Foods Markets would survive long without making a profit. FARMERS HAVE ADOPTED GENETICALLY ENGINEERED VARIETIES. BUT THEY HAVE ALWAYS ADOPTED NEW TECHNOLOGIES. AND SEED COMPANIES EXISTED THAT SOLD SUPERIOR VARIETIES OF SEEDS TO FARMERS BEFORE GENETIC ENGINEERING WAS INVENTED. It's a market system....farmers will buy the most superior forms of seeds and will be able to make a greater profit...and grow higher yielding crops...on less land! Everyone is a winner. In the past Land Grant Universities developed seeds and gave them to farmers...but that has been taken over by SEED COMPANIES. I think that's the "American way" and IT WORKS!

Fifteenth, more is known about genes/proteins that are engineered into plants than the proteins that are mobilized in by conventional methods -- which are unknown and not characterized. Allergens are proteins that are well-known and have certain properties. There are 50,000 proteins in in a plant....different ones..only a very, very, very small number are potential allergens. Clearly, there are foods that a small number of people are and will be allergic to -- shellfish, dairy products, wheat products, etc. Can we predict who will be allergic to these foods? NO. Are many people allergic to these foods? NO. Do we stop producing/using these foods because a small number of people are allergic to these foods? NO. Do people have allergies to foods produced conventionally and by ORGANIC techniques. YES. Is there a significant risk...NO.

Sixteenth, humans have a digestive system. We have been eating billions of plant GENES for 100s OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS! And the genes of other creatures! There is absolutely no evidence that we are taking up genes from plants into our chromosomes. And we are certainly not green. The DNA/genes are broken down by our digestive system that naturally breaks down DNA from broken cells in our bodies (and I might add, uses the nucleotides or break down products as raw materials to make new genes...and these raw materials/nucleotides are UNIVERSAL in all organisms!). Antibiotic resistance genes in plants are similarly broken down in our digestive system. And even if they are not, there is no evidence that these genes could be incorporated in to the trillion or so cells in the human body! However, let's assume...for the sake of DISCUSSION...that they were taken up by a few cells....what would the consequences be? NOTHING. The engineered genes work only in plants. They cannot be switched on in humans. In addition, the antibiotic resistant protein would only be in specific human cells NOT IN THE BACTERIA which would be the target of medical treatment with antibiotics! Simply put, if the genes escaped the digestive enzymes they would be taken up by human cells. And they would be inactive in these cells and would not be in the bacterial targets of the antibiotic. Finally, assuming the one in a ZILLION chance that an engineered antibiotic resistance gene got into a bacteria in the human gut what would happen? NOTHING -- the gene was engineered to be active in a PLANT and would not be able to be switched on in the bacteria. I could go on, but anyone who has taken a simple course in MOLECULAR BIOLOGY would know that the antibiotic resistance gene transfer scenario is not plausible....it's BIOLOGICALLY FLAWED AND INCORRECT.

FINALLY, I have no problem with organic farming, food, or people who want to eat organic foods. I think it is an important agricultural niche. However, organic farming cannot "feed the world." Genetic engineering represents an extension of what man has been doing for tens of thousands of years...CORN was genetically engineered by man from teosinte...a wild grass...WHEAT was genetically engineered by man....etc., etc. These crops DO NOT EXIST IN "NATURE." That is a FACT. The goal of agriculture has always been to DOMESTICATE plants and animals for the good of man. Genetic engineering IS THE FUTURE. It has the potential to increase yields and allow crops to be grown under conditions which are not possible today. It has the potential to make "foods for the future" -- which are MORE NUTRITIOUS AND BETTER FOR HUMAN HEALTH AND WELFARE than crops grown today. And it is our BEST HOPE for feeding the 10 billion people that will be on this earth fifty years from now.

The important point is that there needs to be many different forms of agriculture and agricultural practices. And there needs to be rationale solutions to our problems based on sound science, objective science, and an open mind to a variety of solutions to problems that WILL arise. I am disturbed by the "anti-science" tone of the anti-GMO crowd. And I am disturbed by the ideologically-driven zeal that drives them to fight genetic engineering. Most of us who have SPENT OUR LIVES DOING SCIENCE TO IMPROVE AGRICULTURE AND THE LIVES OF PEOPLE are not wedded to one technology or one approach. We want to ensure that there will be adequate food for all of humanity and be able to do that by whatever methods can best bring that about in a safe and productive way.

Also, I wonder if the organic farmers use genetically engineered DRUGS TO TREAT THEMSELVES AND THEIR CHILDREN? I wonder if the organic farmers advocate stopping the use of genetic engineering to produce better medicines (like human insulin)? THE SCIENCE AND PRINCIPLES ARE THE SAME -- WHETHER USING PLANTS, ANIMALS, BACTERIA, WHATEVER! And I wonder how many organic farmers realize how important genetic engineering is to the developing world. There is no other way to INCREASE the YIELD of plants sufficiently to feed 10 billion people in the future and to do it, eventually, without a high input from chemicals.

Anyone who doubts this is welcome to take a couple of my courses at UCLA. AFTER that I wonder how they will feel when they understand the SCIENCE. Ask them to talk to my non-science students who love organically grown tomatoes, but also know how important genetic engineering is to improving humanity. And one final comment...IF PROPONENTS OF ORGANIC FARMING HAVE SERIOUS CONCERNS ABOUT PLANT GENETIC ENGINEERING, ASK THEM TO FUND RESEARCH BY SERIOUS SCIENTISTS IN ORDER TO SOLVE/OBTAIN SOLUTIONS TO THEIR CONCERNS. TALK IS VERY, VERY CHEAP.