What Breeding Techniques are Appropriate for Organic Agriculture?

Some months ago we published a blog post announcing a new paper we had written on whether organic agriculture should maintain its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This question is being asked now due of the development and use of a range of new biotechnological tools and plant breeding techniques that give scientists an increased ability to make more targetted changes in the genome. This includes new tools for genome editing, such as the much discussed (dare we say hyped) CRISPR-Cas9.

Some people believe that since the emergence of these new techniques gives scientists an enhanced ability to make smaller and more targetted changes to the genome, and that since these changes need not necessarily involve the insertion of material from a different species as has previously been the norm, that they may be considered ‘more natural’ and thereby more acceptable to both members of the public and the organic movement who have been sceptical about embracing GMOs.

While others have performed academic research to see whether cisgenic crops (i.e. those who have been modifed using genes from the same or closely related species) are indeed considered more natural than transgenic crops (i.e. genetically modified to express genes from a different species), our paper focused on how the international federation for organic agriculture movements (IFOAM) is approaching the issue.At the time when we were writing that paper, there was a position statement from IFOAM international on GMOs in general, and there was a particular position on new plant breeding techniques from IFOAM Europe that was open for public comment and consultation. Although the European position  has now been published, IFOAM international is also now working to develop a specific position statement on how the organic agriculture movement relates to a range of plant breeding techniques (including those available both now and in the near future). There is currently a draft position statement available on this from an expert working group of IFOAM international, which is open for comments and inputs until March 31st 2017.

It will be really important for the future of the organic movement to develop a clear set of guidelines and/or principles to help them navigate decisions around which breeding techniques are in line with their overarching values and agenda and therefore acceptable for use. Genetic technologies for plant breeding are emerging and evolving at a rapid rate. This means that the lines between genetic modification and conventional breeding (and particularly the products thereof) are becoming harder to distinguish. It is therefore very timely and relevant that the organic movement is working to establish its position on these developments.

If you would like to help inform and shape this discussion on the role of different plant breeding techniques in the organic movement, then now is the time! Read the draft position from IFOAM International and send your comments on it to David Gould (the Coordinator of the IFOAM Working Group on Breeding Techniques) [email protected].

New paper published! Should Organic Agriculture Maintain Its Opposition to GM? New Techniques Writing the Same Old Story

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This new open access paper from The Agri/Cultures Project reflects on whether organic farming should accept GM technologies as an additional tool to use, especially in light of new breeding plant technologies (NBPT). Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy!

Abstract: Biotechnology is diversifying rapidly through the development and application of new approaches to genome editing and ongoing research into synthetic biology. Proponents of biotechnology are enthusiastic about these new developments and have recently begun calling for environmental movements to abandon their campaigns against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and for organic agriculture to reconsider its exclusion of Genetic Modification (GM). In this article, we begin by describing the diversity of practices that cluster under both the terms GM and organic and show that although there is a clash of different cultures of agriculture at stake, there is also a spectrum of practices existing between these two poles. Having established the terms of the debate, we then go on to analyse whether the organic movement should reconsider its position on GM in light of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), using the criteria highlighted as important by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in their 2016 draft revised position on GMOs. Through this analysis, we suggest that given the in-context-trajectory of biotechnology development, the continued narrow framing of agricultural problems and the ongoing exclusion of important socio-economic, political and cultural dimensions, the organic movement is justified in maintaining its opposition to GM in the face of NPBTs.

Lack of organic maize statistics in Spain

In one of my last posts, I wrote about the confusing official statistics on the GM maize surface area in Spain. In that post, I also mentioned the difficulty of compiling statistics on organic maize, which is important if we are to get an accurate picture of how coexistence is playing out in Spain and how this has changed over time. In this post, I therefore want to outline the difficulties we have experienced getting accurate figures for organic maize in Spain in more detail.

Based on statistics from the Catalan Organic Certification Body and the Organic Certification Body in Aragon, it was shown that the surface area devoted to the cultivation of organic maize diminished very significantly in both Catalonia and Aragón – where most GM maize is growing in Spain – after the first analyses for GM detection were done. Until recently, these two bodies have been the only source of information on the organic maize surface area but such statistics were not systematically published by them. The situation now is even more complex, since in Aragón there are now also private certification bodies, compiling their own statistics.

In fact, official statistics on organic maize in Spain are a very recent phenomenon. It is only since 3 years ago that the statistics of the Annual Report on Organic Agriculture published by the Agriculture Ministry differentiated the surface area cultivated with maize on its own at all. Before then it was simply registered under the broader umbrella category of “grains”.

My beautiful picture

GM maize demonstration field

Seeing the potential difficulties to compile the organic maize statistics in Spain (and specifically in Catalonia and Aragón) since the introduction of GM maize in 1998, we therefore requested the available figures from all these different bodies. In the case of the Spanish Ministry, as explained before, only the numbers for the 3 last years were recorded and provided. In the case of the Catalan Organic Certification Body, the available information only dates back to 2007, and for the public certification body in Aragón, they only sent us information from 2009. In order to be able to see the bigger picture and changes over time with the introduction and spread of GM maize, we have had to compile information from public interventions or declarations made by technicians or representatives of these bodies, by farmers or representatives of farmers’ unions, and complement this with our own qualitative data, which introduces a very high level of uncertainty around the figures.

So one of our methodological challenges now is really the question of how can we assess the impact of coexistence on organic maize if basic data such as figures for the different types of maize cultivation (organic, conventional, GM) is lacking?