“Rewilding” would allow GMOs in Organic

June 4, 2015 - A recent Danish study on the concept of “Rewilding” advocates the inclusion of genetically-modified plant varieties in organic agriculture. “Rewilding,” or “Back-to-Nature Breeding” sound much more organic-friendly than “Genetically Modified and Licensed” – but are they essentially the same thing?

The study, Feasibility of new breeding techniques for organic farming,” builds an argument for allowing lab-based genetic modification techniques to be used to develop seeds for the organic market. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are currently banned from organic production by both U.S. and E. U. regulations.

But the Danish scientists, in collaboration with lawyers and economists, have identified a possible ambiguity in the U.S. National Organic Program standards. European organic standards forbid the process of lab-based genetic engineering, while U.S. and Canadian regulations focus on the result. The Danes’ solution? Use lab technology, but call the result something other than a GMO.

To quote the study “The most likely conclusion is that precision breeding would be considered to produce GMOs according to the process-based approach adopted in the EU, while it may not necessarily be considered to produce GMOs in the USA.”

Forcing a conflict between the regulations of the world’s two largest organic markets would disrupt trade, but the scientists have a solution for that, too. If the U.S. can be persuaded to allow GMOs in organic, the E.U. should simply change its tune.

Again, to quote the report, “increasing pressure from other trade partners within the World Trade Organization regime may prompt the EU to rethink its de facto process-based regulatory framework.”

The authors argue that precise genetic manipulation is needed to boost organic yields, and that the technology will be used to increase crops’ genetic diversity by ransacking the DNA of wild plants.

Could these goals be achieved by traditional selective breeding techniques? Well, yes. But gene splicing is faster. And traditionally-bred seed lines would less likely be owned and licensed by a multinational biotechnology corporation - a scenario conspicuously absent from the Danish study.

There is one line in the report noting that the “technology ownership” of precision breeding “requires attention.” Yes, it does.

The claim that precision breeding is needed to boost organic yields does not hold up. Organic yields, despite the shortage of non-GMO seed and breed varieties, are often equal to those of pesticide-reliant and GMO crops, and the disparity is shrinking with every year.

And a faster and more productive approach to increasing crop biodiversity would be to save the thousands of existing seeds and breeds now being pushed to oblivion by the GMO mono-cropping practices that have subsumed agriculture in the past 20 years. We are squandering a legacy of 10,000 years of human agriculture, and losing seed varieties already adapted to every region of the planet. It is a great irony, or willful blindness, that this proposed solution relies on the same techniques and approach that caused the problem in the first place.

In fact, all of agriculture relies upon the ongoing improvement of seed stock, participatory breeding, with incremental refinements responding to regional needs, overseen by farmers, taking place on millions of individual fields around the globe. The results of this crowd-sourced crop improvement are traditionally available to all, producing a shared benefit to humanity.

Who stands to benefit from this study’s version of “rewilding”? Not organic farmers, who benefit from a large, freely-available pool of open-pollinated and regionally- adapted crop varieties. Not the consumers, who increasingly demand organic and GMO-free food. Not the booming organic market, which would see a weakening of standards and public trust.

This paper raises technical questions that should be discussed by scientists, in collaboration with farmers. It appears that this particular effort is a conversation between scientists, lawyers and policymakers, to the exclusion of other important stakeholders.

Maria Gaura - OFRF

Image courtesy PLOS