Dwelling on Definitions and Drawing Lines of Distinction

At the end of June, the European members of the project met for a writing retreat in London. While we were there, we participated in the annual meeting of the Science and Democracy Network and as mentioned in an earlier post, took a Guardian Masterclass on science journalism. The main purpose for our meeting though was to focus on writing an article we were invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Sustainability. The upcoming issue is on Organic Farming and Gene Manipulation, with the papers asked to “evaluate the potential of genetic engineering for improvement of organic farming”.

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To work on this article, we again had to face the challenge of how to define and understand both ‘organic farming’ and ‘genetic modification’. This is challenging because in fact there are many subtle yet significant differences that can be placed together under these terms and if we are not careful, the significance of these differences can be lost. For example, large-scale monocultural farming operations certified as organic and producing products for the global market are not the same as small-scale diversely intercropped agroecological farms oriented towards sustaining local communities and achieving food sovereignty. Furthermore, neither of these are the same as those subsistence farmers producing food without synthetic chemical inputs because they cannot afford to do otherwise or the practices of farmers hundreds of years ago before manufactured chemical inputs were available. Organic farming can be interpreted to mean several different things by different people and each interpretation will give weight to somewhat different practices and values. For example, organic farming may be used to refer to operations that largely follow a conventional agribusiness model, those that fall completely outside that model, or those directly and specifically opposed to this approach.

grain-664740_960_720Similarly, the term genetic modification can also be used to refer to several different things. Manipulating genes through traditional plant breeding practices is, however, not the same as genetic modification done through recombinant DNA technology, which can combine material from several species not normally able to exchange DNA. Such transgenic genetic modification is also not the same as cisgenic transformation (using only genes from the same or related species). Furthermore, recombinant DNA technology is different from the new wave of genome editing techniques (such as the much discussed CRISPR-Cas9 system) or techniques to interfere with the messaging services of RNA. Each of these fields has different possibilities, requirements and implications. Therefore, if we are to discuss a topic like whether genetic manipulation has anything to offer organic farming, we need to be very careful to clarify the terms of the debate first and be sensitive to the potential for different understandings. There are always shades of grey between the black and white ends of a spectrum.

While we were in London, we also found this issue arising again when we tried to work on our second main task there, which was to try and finalise our visual cartographies of different agri/cultural systems. Although there is a common distinction made between GM, Conventional and Organic farming systems, in practice there are overlapping areas and shades of grey between them. For example, GM and chemically-intensive conventional agriculture are very much aligned in terms of their overarching goals, values and orientations, they typically just use different crop varieties. There is also, however, a surprising degree of overlap in the orientation and organisation of large-scale commercial organic farms with conventional agriculture, the key difference being in the inputs they use. There is also an affinity in the environmental values shared between certified organic and agroecological models, however, there can be a significant difference in questions of social organisation and structure between them. This meant that once again we had to dwell on and discuss the lines of distinction between various cultures of agriculture and how best we might visually represent their similarities and differences in practice.

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That said, during our retreat we made significant progress on both the paper evaluating the potential for the use of GM within organic farming and on how to approach the presentation of our cartographies. Hopefully in a future blog post we can present published versions of both of these things that the project has been working on lately!

Are GE and organic agriculture compatible?

Public consultation on the position of IFOAM – Organics International on genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms

‘Conventional’ agriculture is increasingly adopting techniques associated with both genetic engineering (GE) and also, selectively, with agroecological practices, in what has been called the “sustainable intensification” agenda. At the same time, it has also been suggested in some scientific arenas that organic agriculture would benefit from incorporating GMOs into its practices, despite the robust opposition the use of these organisms has traditionally received from the organic sector.

This debate strongly intersects with the current public consultation that IFOAM-Organics International (the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement) has launched about its position on GE and GMOs. The consultation is open now to any individual or organization willing to participate. The objective of the consultation is to review the organisation’s original position (launched in 2002) in order to consider and include new developments in GE technology, as well as to adapt their position to a context involving a higher presence of GM crops and growing evidence of the impacts of GE. IFOAM has produced a new position draft, which is open for comment and proposed amendments.

In my opinion, the new draft represents a very substantial improvement on the previous document because it includes many new nuanced and comprehensive arguments for the rejection of GM crops within organic production, while it also widens the scope and the techniques included within a definition of GE (in line with the discussion on the regulation of new breeding techniques). Also, the connections between the IFOAM position on GMOs and its four principles for organic agriculture (the principles of health, fairness, ecology and care) are explicit and articulated. At the same time, the draft adopts a much needed food systems approach, discussing not only the impacts of GM crops for organic farmers and consumers, but also tackling R&D aspects (e.g. discussing responsible innovation and patents on life), and agri-food governance (i.e calling for a more democratic decision-making concerning GMOs and for including socio-economic impacts in the assessment of GMOs). It also calls both for deliberating on the need for GE crops, and for seeking alternative options before their introduction (in line with the principles described in the Norwegian Gene Technology Act). Finally, it is also positive that the position is explicitly trying to build bridges with additional stakeholders from conventional agriculture who are also increasingly interested in preserving their production as GM-free. This offers the possibility of generating new alliances and defining common strategies to face common problems.

I think this process of reflecting on the organic position on GMOs, and revisiting the supporting arguments for it, is an excellent opportunity to engage in the debate about merging GM and organic agricultures and, especially, to refine and improve the arguments surrounding “sustainable intensification” proposals.
PS. Feedback to IFOAM can be sent until 31st of March 2016.