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Letter from the Editor

GMOs Are Green

Genetically modified crops will allow farming practices closer to the ideals of the organic movement.

  • This letter appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • December 17, 2013

I grew up on a farm on the North Coast of California in the 1970s. It had been a sort of commune, and after my parents bought the property, the hippies stayed on as farm workers and the place retained the style of the counterculture. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, with its tools and ideas for the back-to-the-land movement, was the farm’s almanac.

Jason Pontin

My father, who worked in San Francisco, had intended the farm to be a weekend retreat, like an English country home; but my mother wanted to live there and grow things. We raised free-range game birds for the restaurants of San Francisco. There were three vegetable gardens and an orchard. Everything was sternly organic.

This story is part of our January/February 2014 Issue
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Except of course it wasn’t. By even the mid-’70s what was called “organic” was conditional: if you met various standards set by an industry’s marketing association, then you were an organic farmer, although those standards were far from the natural methods the founders of organic farming had imagined. In the vegetable gardens, we tried using other insects for pest control, but nothing answered until we sprayed with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium commonly used as a pesticide in organic farming. We bought fertilizers with fish emulsions, which did better than the farm’s own manure and compost. Raising birds, we began by feeding them unadulterated cracked corn, but they didn’t grow large enough for sale, and soon we were driving to Santa Rosa Feed and Game every month to purchase organically certified bird feed, whose supplemental ingredients (including vitamins and a range of proteins and amino acids), when listed on the sides of the sacks, were longer than a small boy’s hand.

Outside the very poor world, all farming is like this: it is industrial. That’s because even organic farmers are frightened of the blights and diseases that can destroy a harvest or covey, and they think about nothing more than increasing the yield from their land.

As David Rotman, the editor of MIT Technology Review, argues in “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods,” the concerns of farmers are becoming more acute. The Green Revolution increased crop yields by introducing more productive crop varieties. “But for at least the past decade, increases … seem to have slowed. Yields of wheat, for example, are growing at roughly 1 percent annually; they need to increase nearly 2 percent annually to keep up with food demand over the long term. Agricultural experts warn that yields will have to improve for other crops as well if we are to feed a rapidly growing population—and yet rising temperatures and other effects of global climate change will make this tougher to achieve.”

Fortunately, Rotman explains, recent genomic breakthroughs, advances in molecular biology, and new genome engineering tools allow geneticists to edit plant DNA, making changes exactly where they want on chromosomes in order to create desirable traits. The new technologies are far more sophisticated than the transgenic techniques used in the first genetically modified crops, where genes from one species were transferred into another, as the Bt genes expressing a toxin poisonous to bugs were inserted into corn and soybeans. With luck, we may be able to increase yields sufficiently to feed the nine billion people who will be alive in 2050 and design crops that can tolerate heat, drought, and new patterns of plant disease.

But we’ll need to accept genetically modified foods. Today, most GM corn and soybeans feed animals or go into biofuels. No genetically modified varieties of rice, wheat, or potatoes are widely grown, although we will need these crops to feed the world. But while scientists now understand how to affect traits in plants, only large companies can afford the expense of developing GMOs, and such corporations have shied away from genetically modifying wheat, rice, potatoes, and vegetables because they fear that consumers will reject the results.

But perhaps the new order of GMOs, where plant geneticists accelerate the traditional work of plant breeders, will seem less freakish to consumers than transgenic crops do now. Perhaps, too, the new crops will seem greener: high-yield, disease-resistant, hardy GMOs will allow farmers to use pesticides and fertilizers less, which is truer to the organic ideal. Back in the 1970s, if my mother and I could have chosen not to bathe our vegetables with biochemicals, we would have done so.

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