The future of organic farming and gene editing

By Victor M. Shorrocks

March 27, 2018

It’s become popular in recent years for some to call for a shift away from conventional farming and wholly into organic. But is this even feasible? Not when you compare the yields of both farming methods. Organic yields are usually 20-30 percent below conventional yields, with the sometimes exception of fodder legumes. In the US, organic crop yields in 2008 and 2011 were at best 80 percent of conventional and for many crops only 30-65 percent.

In theory, if enough manure is applied to supply sufficient nitrogen, yields of organic crops should at least equal those of crops supplied with nitrogen through synthetic fertilizers. The problem of using manure, however, is one of scale. Not only would there not be enough agricultural or grazing land available for the cattle, there would also be the problem of disposing of the livestock products. One calculation indicated that in the US, an extra 44 million hectares (100.8 million acres) would be required to achieve the same production if all crops were organic.

Although organic farming will not be able to feed a growing global population and its increasing demand for livestock products, there is no doubt that the organic food market still has a bright future.

Organic food markets: the future

Organic farming will continue where consumers believe organic food is superior, where farmers can obtain premium prices from being certified organic and where it is not economically viable to use fertilizers and pesticides.

Organic farming can serve as a significant producer of food in food-secure developed countries and organic farming can also be a good fit in developing countries where fertilizers are too expensive, provided land is available for growing fertility-building crops.

Organic farming does not, however, fit where there is massive population pressure and little unused cultivatable land, such as in China, or where there is a huge demand for food, as in India.

In many African countries, soils have been degraded and organic matter has been broken down to supply nitrogen. Ideally, both fertilizers and organic matter are needed to achieve sustainable food production and to improve soil fertility.

Agricultural science

Conventional farming has benefited globally over the years by adopting the findings of agricultural science, particularly in breeding, crop nutrition and crop protection. This has facilitated massive population growth and all indications are that further advances by agricultural science in the pipeline will help sustain adequate food production.

It is curious that the organic movements have objected to the latest advances in plant breeding, namely genetic engineering and gene editing. Could it be that they are ignorant of previous advances, particularly mutagenesis? Perhaps they see that by objecting to genetic engineering they can attract more people to their cause through emotional — and incorrect — claims about  the dire consequences of consuming “Frankenfood.”

Historically, crop improvements have come from selecting plants that best suited the local environment. Changes in the traits with traditional breeding could only come about by the remixing of the existing gene pools in parent plants. If the genes were not there for a particular trait then success was impossible.

The finding that exposure to radiation and some chemicals could alter the DNA and so create mutants opened the door in the 1940s by effectively creating new genes. This process of mutagenesis has played a major part in the production of most of the crop varieties grown across the world.

Mutagenesis is a random, chancy and imprecise procedure that is unregulated and that has the capacity to generate unknown and detrimental effects. This contrasts markedly with the regulations that govern crops produced by the much more direct and precise method of genetic engineering, in which great detail is known about the activity and behavior of the inserted genes.

Opposition from the start

The organic movements, together with Greenpeace, quickly objected to GM crops in the 1990s before much was known about them. Their opposition was so vehement that they destroyed GM experiments designed to answer questions about their safety and environmental impact.

Opposition was initially based on the precautionary principle — that not enough was known, so the technology should be avoided — and also on the claim that the procedure was not natural. The fact that mutagenesis is also unnatural was either unappreciated or outright ignored.

Opposition by the organic movements is now beginning to focus on the way GM crops are employed. However, some objectors still believe that GM food poses health risks, despite there being no supportive evidence to back those claims.

Objectors also claim that by supplying both the seed and the associated herbicides, a few agrochemical companies will come to dominate world farming. Do the opponents not realize that that farmers do not have to buy the products of the agrochemical companies or that patents eventually expire? Farmers will only buy new products if benefits are forthcoming.

Enter gene editing

The latest procedure being used by the plant breeder is gene editing, in which gene sequences can be altered at precise locations with the effect of modifying their expression and turning existing genes on or off. The capability of gene editing to perform targeted, highly efficient alterations of the genome sequence and gene expression will undoubtedly impact crop breeding.

The fact that traditional breeding, even when assisted by mutagenesis, is a long process taking several years makes genetic engineering, whether by gene transfer or editing, very attractive.

There are even signs, though not universal, that gene editing may be accepted by parts of the organic movement.

Opinions generate fears

There is little doubt that supporters of organic farming have been successful in frightening people about the dangers of pesticide residues and of GM crops. Their promotion has reaped its rewards and farmers have been motivated by the greater profits to farm organically. Some conventional farmers have even resorted to illegally labelling their produce organic.

Attempts to develop a test that would allow organic crops to be identified have so far failed. This is not be surprising considering there are unlikely to be any fundamental differences between crops supplied with nutrients in manure and crops supplied with nutrients in fertilizers.

Customers and producers are entitled to their own opinions and perceptions, but they are not entitled to their own facts about organic food and farming.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that anti-GMO activists are on the wrong side of the debate and without evidence. If they continue to set up their beliefs against scientific evidence, they will find themselves harshly treated by history.

Victor M. Shorrocks is the author of “Conventional and Organic Farming – A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science,” from which this and a previous post are adapted.