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].

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.