Food Fight: Finding the Crossroad Where Organic Farming Meets Biotech

Part four of a six-part series

Monsanto employees Dawn Bicoy, left, and Helena Miguel look over the new, modern seed sorting facility which was completed last year.

By David Lichtenstein

It was a couple of years ago that Brenda Kaneshiro learned from the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA) that her apiary business, Molokai Meli, may be at risk of losing its organic certification because of Monsanto’s Molokai corn seed operation.

Kaneshiro had managed to protect her beehives from the varroa mites that had damaged apiaries on Oahu. Small red dots on the hive signified the presence of the parasite. But the possible threat of contamination from genetically engineered corn pollen was completely different since it is difficult to measure the influence in the honey.

The HOFA requires a two-mile buffer between the hive and any genetically engineered crops. This was a problem since Monsanto had fields of GMO corn near two of Kaneshiro’s beehives.

As a result, Kaneshiro was forced to moved her beehives east to a Kapa’akea site that offers a buffer of more than four miles from Monsanto’s fields.

“Monsanto listened and they have been compassionate,” said Kaneshiro. She said Monsanto Site Manager Ray Foster empathized with her but was unable to help.

Kaneshiro expressed a distrust of GMO technology. “The bottom line is it has had a negative impact to us … It (GMO) just hasn’t been around long enough to test what will happen.”

Organic versus conventional farming

This lack of trust from the organic community with GMO crops is what led the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic standards to prohibit GMO seeds or GMO input. The organic farming movement took off in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which documents the environmental damage caused by pesticide use.

Organic farmers will often tell you the goal is to improve the health of the farmer, the consumer and the environment. Conventional farming has often been described as being about producing high yields and inexpensive food through the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Because Monsanto’s GMO corn seed is mostly sold to large, commercial farms, genetically engineered crops are closely associated with conventional agriculture. However, the goal of most GMO seed users is to create a consistent product that is resistant to pests and diseases, which is why Monsanto’s most popular GMO products are Roundup resistant and pest resistant (Bt) corn seed. According to Monsanto, the use of GMO crops has reduced the use of chemical pesticides by 46 million pounds per year.

The use of the Bt toxin is an example of how organic farming crosses paths with genetic engineering. Currently, organic farmers will spray this toxin made from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) on crops to protect from earworm infestation. Because it is an organic toxin it is allowed under the rules of organic certification. However, it does not work very well on corn. When the Bt toxin is inserted into corn with genetic engineering, as Monsanto does, it effectively repels pests.

The concern for organic farmers and consumers is the possibility of unintended consequences from the use of GMOs. Although GMO foods have never produced an allergic reaction in humans,
some people will experience a “dread fear” that  “inspires great anxiety” when considering the effects of genetic engineering on food, according to a University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service article about the use of biotechnology in agriculture. The U.S. National Academy of Science (NAS) has even stated that the process of adding genes by genetic engineering is no more risky than adding genes by conventional breeding.

According to the NAS, what does pose a greater risk of unintended consequences is the use of mutation breeding. This involves the chemical dousing of seeds and then selecting those plants that display desired characteristics. Under organic rules, crops developed using chemical mutagenesis are acceptable and are not even regulated.

Finding a middle ground

Organic food producers, such as Kaneshiro, generally agree that GMO food has not been properly tested. GMO seeds are organic in structure but not process. In other words, they originate in a lab and not the ground and therefore do not fit the definition of organic, according to U.S.D.A. and other organic food regulators.

Then is the organic food industry missing an opportunity? Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, authors of the 2008 Oxford University Press book, “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food,”  think so. Ronald is a University of California geneticist while Adamchack is a California organic farmer. In their book they write, “A marriage of farming with biological science has always been an important strand of the organic approach … crops which are resistant to diseases, insects, or nematodes, fit in well with organic production, and it seems to me that there is a role for the right GE crops as well.”

The book is critical of conventional farming and its reliance on pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. They believe that GMO plants can be best used if integrated into organic farming systems.

(Next week the series will look at politics, law and the business of biotechnology.)

David Lichtenstein is the News Director for KMKK radio. Listen to KMKK, 102.3 FM, Molokai’s only radio station, for Molokai news reports every weekday morning at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. He can be reached at news@kmkk1023.com.

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